Photo © Stephanie Vermillion

Video: Football, The Universal Language

A little red football turns a Mount Kilimanjaro climb into something much greater.

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By Stephanie Vermillion

Filmmaker

20 Sep 2019 - 6 Minute Read

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Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was a goal that first consumed me at age 10, when my Dad uncovered a rickety old projector to show me the slides from his own climb. He summited in 1978; at the time, snow still covered the majority of his Marangu route to the top. Twenty years of Kili stories and “do as I say, not as I did” training advice later, I followed his footsteps to the roof of Africa.

I went into the trek expecting cold nights; Dad’s advice to sleep in my clothes saved me on those biting, frigid mornings. I anticipated those altitude-induced headaches that had me convinced cymbal-banging monkey toys had lodged themselves in my skull. What I couldn’t have prepared for on this Kili climb, though, was the need for football cleats.

My fiancé, his brother, and I stopped at a gas station en route to the Rongai trail gate to pick up snacks and water for the trek. Sticking to a shopping list has never been our strong suit, which is one of the many reasons a tiny Manchester United football was the first item on our receipt.

Within minutes, this silly little impulse buy changed the entire dynamic of our trip. Our porters went from standoffish to smiling as we juggled alongside the fuel tanks. A full game of keep-away commenced as we hit the Rongai Trail’s first camp. We went from climbing clients to fast friends – and then family – with the nicknames to prove it. Shemeji, Swahili for sister-in-law, became my climbing name (I was “in-law” because the porters saw the boys as brothers).


When I first boarded the flight to Kilimanjaro, I was laser-focused on reaching the summit. I’m a longtime marathon runner who struggles with a “finish line first” approach to endurance challenges. The journey hardly crosses my mind. But this tiny little football – and the relationships it fostered – quickly changed that. We were no longer a team trying to reach the summit; we were a group of slide-tackling, goal-gloating family members that still text on WhatsApp regularly.

As this film shows, our journey up Kilimanjaro was unlike any climbing experience I’d ever imagined. It’s also one I know my football-loving Dad – who passed away three months before our climb – would have been proud of.

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Filmmaker

Stephanie Vermillion is a travel journalist and filmmaker with work published in outlets like CNN, Fodor’s, OZY, and Roads & Kingdoms.

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