25: The Greatest Risk Is Not Taking a Risk

25: The Greatest Risk Is Not Taking a Risk

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

The Greatest Risk Is Not Taking a Risk

Women hold up half the sky.

~Mao Zedong

As I stood at the crossroads where the isolated African village kissed the base of the imposing mountain range, the male villagers all asked the same question for a third time: Was I certain I wanted to climb the mountain?

Sure it had been climbed by local and foreign men, and local women, but a Western female, who arrived unaccompanied and wanted to climb the mountain, was not the norm.

I explained that I had been preparing for some time — in research and in physical strength — and showed them the permit I had from their government authorizing my climb. I stressed that I would be very pleased to keep their local traditions and hire one of their villagers as a guide, but it seemed to do little to ease their concerns.

The male villagers told me of the “quick mud” I would encounter. They reported that it would grab hold of my legs and could swallow me whole, emphasizing this would certainly be my fate given my small size. While they couldn’t recall anyone this had actually happened to, they seemed convinced it was a real possibility.

The village women, on the other hand, clicked their tongues at the men in what I could only assume was the equivalent of shaking one’s head in disagreement. They smiled affectionately at me, and a few women simultaneously raised their arms with fists in the air and made joyful, loud sounds at the back of their throat, which I took to indicate their support for my cause.

The men then went on to relay stories of unpredictable miniature elephants that they claimed were a fierce cousin of the calmer species we all knew of, which could endanger me on the climb. The longer I stood speaking to them, the wilder the stories of danger became, and the bigger my smile.


My mind went back to being a ten-year-old girl waiting in line with my great-aunt Helena for a table at our local restaurant. As she spoke about her upcoming trip to China, the others in line listened with great interest.

While at the time she had come to know a young Chinese woman from Hong Kong, whom she would meet up with in China, she was also to travel on her own to remote areas where foreigners generally did not have the opportunity to explore.

While I enthusiastically probed her with an onslaught of questions, so too did the other customers in line. Even as a child, it was easy to sense their disapproval of her solo adventure.

They asked how she would deal with the impending danger they assumed awaited her in a foreign land, and how she would be able to move around the country not knowing the language. One man even drilled her about her sanity for thinking that traveling as a solo female to an isolated area was an option.

In keeping with her usual character, my aunt calmly responded to all their questions with wit and humor, and took it all in stride. As a former teacher, she was always pleased whenever she was afforded an opportunity to share knowledge with others, whether it be historic facts or interesting cultural differences. She always did so in a humble way, making everyone feel they were her intellectual equal — and that day was no different.

When we were finally seated, I asked her why complete strangers seemed angry about her travels. As for me, I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting. Travel to China seemed so exotic at the time, and I couldn’t wait to tell all my friends about it.

She calmly explained that a woman traveling alone, especially off the grid, was a new idea for some people. Perhaps people were just fearful of the unknown and that which is considered new. She reminded me that the greatest risk is not taking a risk, and we should always follow our dreams.


After witnessing the overwhelming support and active voices of the local village women, the men agreed to an arrangement that seemed to put them at ease with my climb. In addition to the local guide I would hire, they also wished me to enlist the support of at least one porter and three guards with guns, for protection.

The women added their own request to the list — that my guide be a local woman to ensure I would be afforded protection by a “sister” while on a climb with all men — a dynamic I had not given much thought to.

It seemed all parties were winners in the agreement. I could contribute a little to their village’s income, while finally being allowed to begin my journey with support and well wishes from the locals — men and women alike.

As I bid farewell and made my way down the dirt path toward the mountain, I was joined not only by my new mountain support team, but also by every village woman. While two women walked hand-in-hand with me, the others danced in circles around us as if we were on parade, singing triumphant-sounding songs.

I knew I wasn’t the first Western female to make the climb, and I certainly wouldn’t be the last. But with the women villagers proudly accompanying me, I felt an overwhelming sense of collective accomplishment. And looking at their victorious smiles, I suspected my “sisters” felt the same.

~Melissa Valks

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