Saray Khumalo’s life, as documented in her memoir My Journey to the Top of the World, “starts much like the typical life of most African children being raised by their grandparents in a village, sharing a home with many cousins, aunts and uncles.” What makes Saray’s story different is that she consistently chooses to take the road less travelled, no matter how challenging that path may be. This is evident when in 2019 she becomes the first black African woman to successfully summit Mount Everest.
Saray was born Sarah, but when her mother, a resilient businesswoman, sent her to live with her grandparents in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, her grandfather changed her name to Saray. Mobutu Sese Seko, the President of Zaire, had signed a decree stating that African children should have African names. Saray’s grandfather chose a ‘y’ at the end of her name to leave the pronunciation the same. After her school years it was in Zimbabwe that Saray met her South African husband and made South Africa her home.
Saray’s mountaineering journey was motivated by meeting an American who had summited Kilimanjaro. She thought to herself: Why is a foreigner telling me as an African about my own land. Several years later Saray was indeed on her way to Uhuru. Saray’s journey to the top of the world, however, was fraught with so many obstacles that they would have discouraged most of us ordinary mortals. She only successfully summited Everest on her fourth attempt. The previous three attempts were filled with the horror of avalanches, Sherpas who tragically lost their lives, Saray losing consciousness just hours away from the summit and even falling prey to frostbite on her third attempt. Describing Saray as resilient would be a most ridiculous understatement.
There are many life lessons and takeaways for everyone in Saray’s memoir. Most prominent is the underlying theme of representation and inclusion. And it is easy to understand why Saray now spends her life advocating the pursuit of ideals and inspiring others who come from the same background as her. For young African girls and women, Saray Khumalo personifies an example of what is achievable. Her book is a story of persistence, and Saray insists that when we attempt anything in life and fail, it is important to take stock, assess what went wrong and then go back to try again.
This book will have you analysing the Everest in your own life. Saray says this is true for all of us, no matter the race, gender or our level of ability. Her book is a reminder of the dreams we may have given up on because we consider them too challenging, or perhaps people in our lives have told us that they are impossible to attain. Maybe we have made attempts and like Saray lost consciousness 99 metres from the summit. But be like Saray, and in her words, “Go back and make it happen.”