85-year-old Scot to plant flag on Mount Kenya

Denis Rutovitz will also be visiting Kenyan projects founded by his Scots charity EDA. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Denis Rutovitz will also be visiting Kenyan projects founded by his Scots charity EDA. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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A VETERAN international aid worker flies to Kenya today to re-enact the dramatic mountain-top midnight ceremony he performed 50 years ago to celebrate the country’s independence from British rule.

Denis Rutovitz, 85, scaled 17,057-ft Mount Kenya, the country’s highest mountain, with two companions in 1963 and planted the nation’s new black, red, green and white flag at the exact moment independence became a reality at midnight on 11 December.

Denis Rutovitz during his first climb of Mount Kenya

Denis Rutovitz during his first climb of Mount Kenya

One of his companions, Kisoi Munyao, immediately sent a radio message to Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s new Prime Minister, in Nairobi, saying: “Hello all citizens and our visitors. I am Kisoi Munyao, speaking to you from the peak of Mount Kenya. Kenya, Kenyatta, the flag is flying. All over Kenya, the light is shining.”

The trio fired flares and rockets. Rutovitz then produced from his backpack a large bottle of Cointreau he had lugged up the mountain. “I felt completely euphoric and hopeful then about Kenya’s future,” said Rutovitz, ahead of this week’s trip.

Kisoi, who died six years ago, descended the mountain quickly to board a helicopter that took him to join Kenyatta and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Nairobi independence ceremony.

This week Mr Rutovitz, who in the 1960s was a university mathematics lecturer in Nairobi, will again carry the flag up the mountain in an eight-day expedition accompanied by an African climbing party as well as one of his original companions, Robert Chalmers, and his stepsons Alastair and Neelam.

Mr Rutovitz, still an energetic hill walker, will stop at 16,000 feet and allow the younger Africans to make the final roped summit assault over ice-covered rock faces to plant the flag at midnight on Wednesday, 11 December. The African climbers will then abseil down the mountain and, in a repeat of Kisoi’s descent, be picked up by helicopter to join the 50th anniversary celebrations in Nairobi on 12 December led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, Jomo Kenyatta’s son.

Recalling the original climb, Mr Rutovitz said the party had in fact halted 36 feet short of the summit. A dip called the Gate of Mist, leading to the mountain top, was so dangerously icy that they realised they could not traverse it in time for Kisoi to get back to the independence ceremony. They returned later in the month to haul the flag the last few feet to the summit.

Before his return to the mountain, Mr Rutovitz will visit a Kenyan project funded by his organisation, Edinburgh Direct Aid [EDA], at Kisumu on the shores of 27,000-square-mile Lake Victoria. Rutovitz and his wife, Edinburgh University professor of pathology Jeanne Bell, founded EDA in 1992 in response to the crisis in Bosnia.

EDA now supports development projects in Pakistan, Gaza, Lebanon and Kenya. In Kenya EDA works with Aids orphans, abandoned Kisumu street kids and HIV-positive mothers in collaboration with a local care worker, Nancy Onyango, and a French charity. The partners have built a dormitory where 20 children and mothers live.

“I want to see for myself how things are going,” said Mr Rutovitz. “We’ve put in electricity and dug a borehole. The aim is to make the project, called the Arise and Shine Centre, self-sufficient. The mothers make soap and school uniforms for local markets. Now I want to get the building of self-catering lodges under way. We see a market in the considerable number of international aid workers in the area who seek reasonably priced but good accommodation.”

Mr Rutovitz spent the days before departure to Kenya supervising the loading of a 40-foot container at EDA’s Granton warehouse with winter clothing, bedding, and building materials for an EDA camp on Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley border with Syria for refugees.