‘Best two weeks of my life’ Science teacher recounts visit to Africa
Ridgefield Academy science teacher Mac Rand has run marathons, completed back-to-back Ironmans, and logged 101 miles in one 24-hour period.
None of it compares to climbing Kilimanjaro and then getting to visit students from the village of Mungere in Tanzania.
“It was everything I hoped for and more,” said Rand, “it exceeded all my expectations ... it was the best two weeks of my life.”
Rand said the most emotional moment of the dual vacations was reaching Kilimanjaro’s summit.
“Your appetite goes with the altitude so you’re not eating as well and you’re going for eight days straight carrying a 25-pound pack with less oxygen,” he said. “I’ve done endurance events before but nothing that long. On summit day, we woke up at 11 at night and got to the top of the mountain around 9 in the morning. We didn’t get back to our camp until six that night so it ended up being about a 17 or 18 hour day which was a real challenge...
“It was pretty emotional getting to the top, I definitely shed a few tears.”
Rand’s favorite moment of the trip came the following week when he hiked to a local waterfall with the Mungere School students.
“It was great to see them unstructured and out of the classroom,” he said. “We were on their turf, and they were happy and having fun splashing around in the water. It was a nice reminder that even though they’re 5,000 miles away from where we live that they’re still just kids being kids.”
The hike served as an icebreaker of sorts, Rand said.
“They were wondering who I was the first couple of days I was there,” he said. “Going on the hike, they got to be themselves. They were very comfortable and having a lot of laughs. They were no longer shy or intimidated. That was the first time where I felt I was developing a real relationship — a real connection — with them.”
Rand brought dozens of handwritten letters from Ridgefield Academy students with him to the Mungere School.
The Ridgefield resident said watching the Tanzanian students open the cards was one of the biggest highlights of the trip.
“I don’t think they’d ever received a letter before, at least not from America,” he said.
Rand brought pictures of his students to show the Mungere children their American counterparts.
“They were infatuated with who these kids are and where they were from — where I’m from,” Rand said. “They immediately started writing back.”
The letter writing process was the first brick in the foundation of a partnership between the Red Sweater Project, which runs the Mungere School, and Ridgefield Academy.
“We want it to be more than just a simple exchange of letters,” he said. “We want to trade ideas with them and help open up the world for our kids but most important we want it to be a two-way experience where there’s meaningful learning going on on both sides...
“We don’t know the exact shape of it or the direction but we know it’s something,” he added. “The letter writing was a fun way to break the ice but we want to build up a calendar throughout the school year that touches on different themes that both schools can participate in.”
Rand said he got a big envelope of letters last week from the Mungere School. He distributed them to his students on Monday, April 8.
“I did not think it would be this quick of a turnaround,” he said. “It’s amazing to get a response for them in such a short amount of time. We’re only talking about eight days since I left the country.”
The temperatures were in the mid 90s every day of Rand’s two-week trip.
“I ended up using a lot of suntan lotion, and somehow walked away without a burn,” he laughed.
He said that most of the Mungere students walked to school while a few biked.
“Climbing the mountain was a great personal accomplishment but being with those kids day in and day out and how they came to accept me was quite special and not something I will ever forget,” he said.
“I didn’t really teach, I listened to what they had to say,” he added.
While on the trip, Rand was able to go on a safari through Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the Crater Highlands of Tanzania.
“We were in this crater where a volcano had collapsed onto itself,” he said. “We went up the rim and then down to the floor where we saw all of it.”
By “all of it”, he means rhinos, antelopes, ostriches, water buffaloes., wildebeests, lions, elephants, and zebras.
And 10,000 flamingos — in his estimation.
“And they’re all coexisting together,” Rand said.
“I felt like I was living life in a National Geographic magazine.”
A moment for Greg
Endurance events have been a part of Rand’s life for the past 28 years.
He started with a 24-hour marathon race in September 1991, when his brother Greg was near the losing end of his personal battle with leukemia.
Since then, Rand has raised more than $100,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS)’s Team in Training — the same organization he fund-raised for through his Kilimanjaro climb.
“It’s not a very technical climb,” he said, “but it’s very long, and that’s the biggest challenge. We’re talking six to seven hours each day at a very slow pace. You have to be very patient up there.”
What stood out to him on the climb — and one of the many things he intends to incorporate in a presentation of the trip to his Ridgefield Academy students this month— was the change in environment.
“We started off in the jungle and as we got higher hit this Arctic desert landscape,” he said. “The trees were suddenly gone, and it became so dry.
The science teacher couldn’t help but notice there was very little plant life as he got higher.
“The only plants we saw grew close to the ground,” he said. “Throughout the different zones, there were noticeable changes in life forms and how plants found ways to survive. By the time we got to the very top, there was nothing alive — it was just ash, rock and soot.”
Rand said he pushed himself on summit day, overcoming the fatigue from the altitude and bitter cold temperatures.
“When you’re climbing up the summit in the middle of the night, you lose sense of time,” he said. “You’re just looking at the feet in front of you.”
When he reached the summit, he made sure to spend a few minutes to reflect on his lost brother.
“You only get 20 minutes at the top because the oxygen level will beat you up if you stay longer,” he said. “I was fortunate that they gave me a few extra minutes so I could be alone with Greg ... I wasn’t ready to go.”
Before his descent, Rand scooped up a few pebbles from the top of Kilimanjaro. He’s given them to his family members and his students. He also plans to give them to Greg’s widow.
“She’s always been so supportive of everything I’ve done with Team in Training,” he said. “I started this journey 28 years ago to keep Greg’s memory alive and he has been in my mind every step of the journey.”