When you hit rock bottom the only thing to do is bounce.

Angela Barnett zanzibar 2003
‘I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.’ Chimamanda_Ngozi_Adichie

 Jamling Norgay wanted to know what I did.

Not sure myself I said, “I’ve just come back from Africa.”

“And now, do you make videos about rock climbing?” he asked as I clung onto a rail half way up the Via Ferrata.

“No! I’m not sure what I do.”

He looked at me with such great understanding I felt I could tell him anything. He was like a tranquil monk you might expect to meet half way up a remote mountain with Bond on your tail.

Jamling’s father, Tenzing Norgay, climbed Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Jamling had also ticked off Everest himself forty-three years after his father. I had never climbed the Via Ferrata in Queenstown—or any hunk of rock—and I couldn’t believe my job was to climb alongside one of the best climbers in the world. I was dying to text my brother, who is actually a climber, and tell him but it was not the time to be a shallow, selfie-taking phone user. Jamling was the kind of person who would leave nuggets of wisdom in his wake. If only I didn’t lose my balance trying to catch them.

And there he was waiting to find out what my mountain was and I couldn’t even figure out my next sentence.

“I went to Zambia to help out but then I left without doing what I thought I would do,” I confessed.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I fell for the wrong guy and messed some things up.”

Coming from Nepal, a country reliant on aid for many decades, he threw me a look that shot right into my heart.

“Why don’t you go back and finish what you wanted to do then?”

He asked it so simply, with genuine curiosity in his eyes, and I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t tell him that was even more ludicrous than me becoming a professional rock climber. I had just got back from Africa. I had failed. My heart was broken. And I was broke. There was no way I was returning.

I was only working on the corporate video for a week because I needed the work. I had $300 in my bank account.

On the fourth night, Sir Edmund Hillary was the guest speaker. My job was to assist the camera and lighting crew as they filmed him. Once Sir Ed started to speak, the cameras and equipment were rolling and there was not much assisting for me to do so I hid by the back curtain, hoping to listen in for 30 seconds. After five minutes I was lost in Ed’s humble greatness. I hid further in the curtain so I could stay for the hour. From an armchair, centre stage, he talked of dreams, drive, achieving the impossible, unwanted attention, and giving back. I learned of his deep affection for the country, Nepal, as well as Everest, the mountain.

“You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things—to compete,” he said. “You can be an ordinary bloke sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals.”

And then, his closing line. I felt as if it was meant just for me: “It is not the mountains that we conquer but ourselves.”

The following morning I assisted a camerawoman on a biking activity. And as I rode round and round a track in Arrowtown, Sir Ed’s line kept dive-bombing my mind like a mosquito in the bedroom. Then Jamling’s suggestion joined in.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I could return to Zambia. I had left, never to return. The idea seemed more impossible than the first trip. Then, at least, I had money and naiveté. Then, I thought I could change attitudes toward women in a whole town, even an entire province, in six months. Then, I didn’t know how little I knew.

The mosquito dived again. Why was Africa still defining my whole being?

Because once I was done being the world’s laziest camera assistant, I had no focus and no purpose. I was a homeless, jobless and hopeless. And I was scared. How had I ended up like that at 33? That wasn’t my plan.


angela barnett new zealand summer 2004
Me being the world’s laziest camera assistant

Sir Ed’s other lines would not go away no matter how fast I peddled. If he had never returned to Nepal after his first climb up Everest, it would have been a country he took from. Not gave too.

Frustrated, I debated with myself about who gave to whom.

I gave up my job, house, dog and life to go to Zambia!

Bullshit. You always wanted to go to Africa and happily gave up those things to escape your unhappy life!

I totally failed helping women there. I’m a failure!

Living in Zambia taught you to listen! What would Ed have done?

I’m not a mountain climber!

He wasn’t until he did it. He said ordinary people make change!

I’m not ordinary. I’m special!

Well go be special then!

As I pedaled a tiny ripple of excitement crept over me and it took me a while to realise what it was: freedom. Yes, I had no home or car but I had no ties. No mortgage. No marriage. No dog. Hell, I’d even cut ties to the demanding eating disorder! I was experiencing the freedom I had wanted for over a decade. I hadn’t felt that alive in a long time and it wasn’t just the rock climbing and mountain bike riding, every part of me felt life surging through me. While I had no idea what I wanted to do, I also had the best idea I could possibly have when there was nothing to lose. Do something that keeps this very-much-alive feeling going for as long as possible. Because what’s the worse that can happen? You end up homeless and jobless again.

When you hit rock bottom, the only thing to do is bounce.

Sir Edmund Hillary didn’t charge into Nepal and suggest to Sherpas they focus a little more on calculus instead of wind signals. He built a school.

At breakfast the next morning I tested out my new line. “I’m raising money to send in solar-powered, wind up radios into Zambia.”

It took me eight months and I raised enough cash, USD50k, to take in 848 solar-powered, wind up radios. It’s the only time in my life I achieved something bigger than I expected to. The radios helped women tune into important shows about their rights, and children to tap into education programmes run over national radio and get around the never-ending issue of no batteries. Just wind and go.

I’m not telling you this because I want you to think I’m amazing (you’re welcome to of course). Or because I’m a self-help guru (please don’t do what I do, especially the broke and messed up bit). I’m telling you because we’ve got it all wrong about helping others.

We think we do things for others, to help them, but most of the time we’re honestly helping ourselves. We’re searching for some kind of meaning in our existence. We’re hoping that life is not just about getting up early enough to squeeze in a jog with the dog and washing our hair before going to work. We hope to live a life where we’re involved with something bigger. It looks like compassion, and sometimes it is compassion, but mostly it is a way to feel more alive, more connected, more special and not just another cog.

It’s the very best kind of selfish.



Zambian kids radio school

The radios I took in were Lifeline energy radios. Robust, transformative and genuinely helpful, they are being used in Zambia, Rwanda, Tanzania and a few other sub saharan African countries. Donate to Lifeline Energy here.



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