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From Suffering Strokes to Summiting Kili
For many, summiting Mount Kilimanjaro represents a milestone: a physical accomplishment, and a reminder of the power of the human mind and body to accomplish remarkable feats of strength.
This year, climbing to the summit will mean so much more for a group of women led by Professor Thuli Madonsela. Their climb – the Thuli Madonsela Executive Climb, sponsored by LexisNexis South Africa – is representative of the battle that young girls face every day in South Africa, and the obstacles that they must overcome for a fighting chance of a dignified womanhood.
Scheduled to summit on Women’s Day, 9 August, it is the second of two summit groups in this year’s annual Trek4Mandela initiative, which aims to raise enough funds for the Caring4Girls menstrual hygiene programme, with an ultimate goal of reaching two million disadvantaged girls by 2020. The programme provides monthly menstrual support and effective hygiene and health education to help ensure that these girl children will not miss a day of school during their period.
One of the women who will stand by Professor Madonsela’s side throughout this journey is Aurora, Durbanville resident Mari van Wyk.
“These young girls have many mountains to climb on a daily basis, the circumstances they live in, many don’t have regular meals each day, clothing, transport etc. and to be without such a basic necessity as a sanitary pad, when they enter womanhood is unthinkable,” said van Wyk.
“I want to climb this mountain for them, removing one more obstacle from their daily battles, which will make it possible for them to attend school and be educated. Education is the one thing in life, no one can take away from you,” she added.
Van Wyk has climbed mountains of her own in her journey through life. Blessed with the ability to get by on very little sleep, she has used her waking hours to climb the corporate ladder, promote a healthy lifestyle and support causes for the disempowered.
The Executive Manager of Strategic Alliances and Partnerships at LexisNexis South Africa is also a director of POWA, supporter, member and promotor of Woodrock Animal Rescue, CANSA, The Down Syndrome Association of SA, Alta du Toit Day Care Centre and Schnauzer Friends of South Africa – proving that there is no limit to the accomplishments of a determined mind.
“I enjoy helping and supporting people. I’m also hoping to inspire someone else, to get out of their comfort zone, go out there and to make a difference. If I can do this, really, anyone can do this,” she said.
Moving her own mountains
Two challenges have determined van Wyk’s direction in life: having a son with Down Syndrome and having herself experienced a series of migrainous strokes.
“Having a child with special needs brings its own set of challenges. We live a normal family life as far as possible but there are constraints,” she said.
It’s van Wyk’s attitude towards life that serves as inspiration for her two sons, who say she’s inspired the family to take on challenges that they might think are impossible to achieve.
The climb up Kilimanjaro may once have seemed impossible for Mari, who one night in November 2011 suffered a series of strokes which impacted her speech, memory and physical abilities.
She recovered well enough to resume her duties at work, but it took until 2018 for change to really take effect. A renewed focus on living a healthier lifestyle has seen her progress from walking, to jogging, to running – and a deeper understanding of eating behaviour has led Mari to a much healthier diet. In finding healthy coping mechanisms for work stress, she had the added benefit of losing 35kgs.
Now, she has set her sights to improving life for a million schoolgirls – with an initiative that honours Madiba’s Centenary Year in a way that truly represents Mandela’s views on the importance of education.
“I want to break down taboos. I want to see our girls attending school and getting educated. That is the only way they stand a chance to qualify for higher education or to be employed. I also have a personal reason. If I can conquer Kilimanjaro, I will conquer all the insecurities I have about my physical abilities, especially after the strokes I had,” said van Wyk.
Her preparation has been arduous and meticulous.
She wakes up at four in the morning and begins her day with a four to eight kilometre jog, followed by Pilates. She ends her day with a two-hour training session that is dedicated to weight training and stretching. Throughout the day she is on the lookout for opportunities to be active, from taking the stairs instead of the elevator to parking as far as possible from a building’s entrance and walking.
For a woman in her 50s this is impressive commitment and she is now toying with the idea of tackling the highest peaks per continent and following in the footsteps of her new idol, mountaineer, motivational speaker and author, Brian Dickinson.
“Over weekends, we do different hiking trails in Jonkershoek or Table Mountain. We’re also doing mandatory hikes in the Drakensberg. It is so much easier to enjoy all the extra hiking when you have already reached a certain level of fitness. Some mornings I have aches in places I didn’t know I can ache, but I’d rather feel the pain now, than later!” she says.
This, coupled with the power of positive affirmation and spiritual guidance, gives Mari confidence in her ability to summit Africa’s tallest peak.
“I’m reading as much as possible about Kilimanjaro, the environment, what to expect, other people’s experiences and more. I am testing my physical abilities constantly now. I have to know what my body is capable of,” she says.
She is honoured to be tackling this challenge alongside Professor Madonsela.
“Professor Madonsela inspires, is a woman with moral values, backbone and integrity. She has the most contagious laugh, excellent sense of humour and can still appreciate small things. To see her in awe about the wonders of nature when we do our hiking in Stellenbosch is heart-warming. I see it as a blessing. She is such a humble person. It still surprises her if people recognise her when we are out in the mountains,” says van Wyk.
Cause close to heart
She has also learned a lot about the cause she’s climbing for.
“I have learned a lot through information made available by Imbumba and by speaking to its Chief Executive Officer, Richard Mabaso. I have a better understanding of their partnership with Lil-Lets and how they plan on making this project a success. Dischem also runs a project with Imbumba and I have always supported this.”
“Boys are also included in the hygiene education and Imbumba puts in a real effort to break down the taboos around speaking about something that is so natural and part of every young girl and woman’s life,” she said.
If there’s any quote that showcases Mari’s belief in the power of improvement, it’s her favourite:
“Be like a Lotus flower. With roots in the mud, the flower rises above the dirty mud, blooms out of the darkness and radiates into the world. Live a lotus-like life. Be in the world but unaffected by the negativity”.
As she climbs Mount Kilimanjaro with a team of likeminded individuals focused on improving the lives of young South African women, we are all reminded to be in the world but unaffected by its negativity.
Individuals can make a pledge of R30 by sending an SMS with the name “GIRLCHILD” to 42513 or specifically support Mari’s fundraising by SMSing the name “MARI” to the same number.
Follow #trek4mandela @trek4mandela and LexisNexis South Africa on social media.