Saray Khumalo, the first black African woman to reach the top of the world, discusses the importance of mental resilience in forging a purpose and changing the world.
Many of us have grown up hearing that age-old saying that the sky is the limit. Few of us, apart from flying through the clouds, have put that statement to the test. As the first black African woman to summit Mount Everest, Saray Khumalo is one such individual. But would you believe that accomplishing that achievement brought her to tears? Having endured several failed attempts prior, Saray recalls looking out across our worldly home overwhelmed by the realisation that even the highest summit – high above the clouds – is not the limit.
It’s this message of hope that Saray brought down with her for young women. “I want young girls (particularly in Africa) to know that anything is possible. It is not about where you are from, what you look like, or what the next person says or thinks about you. Despite it all, you have the superpower to get to the top of your world. We are all here for each other and need to enable each other’s success.”
Having achieved so much and having dealt with failures along her unique journey to success, Saray has picked up a thing or two on the importance of being mentally resilient in uncomfortable situations. “As women, we are more mentally resilient than we think. Resilience is defined as our ability to suffer through setbacks and stand right back up again. It is not a trait you are born with. It is a response that you choose through your thoughts, behaviours, and actions. Our failures can only make us more resilient and that is the mantra we should all embrace,” says Saray.
Saray has a realistic view of success, only seeing failure as experiences that she doesn’t learn from. She adds, “Living limitlessly doesn’t mean there will be no curveballs. Trust me, they will come. But you can conquer them if you persevere.” She explains that visualising her climbs – and life – going wrong, not only going right, enables her to persevere despite those curveballs. That realistic foresight empowers Saray to, as she says: “not get stuck in the valley. Mourn, then move on.”
There’s no such thing as ‘I can’t’
Perseverance is a recurring theme for this avid achiever. Mental resilience is an obvious requirement of her sport. Here, Saray’s stubbornness comes in handy. “It is difficult for me to say, ‘I can’t’,” she notes. When pressed about her failed summit attempts (resulting from bad weather or deaths on the mountain), Saray explains she follows the philosophy of failing forward. “Understanding my ‘why’, knowing my purpose,” is crucial to what has kept her coming back and what keeps her taking on new challenges. That ‘why’ is wholly centered on the impact she can have on the lives of others as a partner on their journey to success.
“Knowing your purpose is more about mental toughness than resilience,” says Saray. “If you are mentally tough, you have some degree of resilience but not every resilient person is mentally tough. Mental resilience is the mountain, mental toughness is the strategies we use to climb that mountain.” It is Saray’s upbringing and a formative journey that allowed her to understand what it meant to be mentally tough.
Every hero has an origin story
This life’s purpose is rooted in Saray’s upbringing. Raised by missionary grandparents in the DRC until the age of 13, she is fuelled by the unshakeable force that if you are not serving others, then there is no point to what you’re doing. As a family, their motto was to take only what they need, always sharing with others. Her grandfather’s words ring in her ears, to this day: “We live on borrowed time.” Since childhood, Saray has been determined to make that borrowed time count, to leave a legacy that is inspiring and impactful. As a teen, she was moved to live with her mother and younger sisters in Lusaka, Zambia. A self-proclaimed tomboy, it was this shift – from the youngest to the eldest – that sparked her activism. “Whenever my sisters would have problems in the neighborhood, I would go and stand up for them – and they didn’t have problems any longer,” she recounts.
It was the death of a sister, in 2009, that made Saray look in the mirror and question the kind of legacy she was leaving behind. She left a high paying job at a financial institution after 10 years and went to work at the Post Office for just under a year, joining an effort to help bank the unbanked, she eventually moved on, unsatisfied. It was in her next role in the Financial Services industry that she made the decision to tick off a bucket-list item: to summit Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro.
A mountain deserves a purpose
Informed by her life view and her grandparent’s lasting impact on her own life, Saray’s first summit became as much about fundraising – for an outdoor gym and library for children in need – as it was about the climb itself. This dual focus has continued, seeing fundraising and charity become the primary driver of Saray’s climbs since. Saray recalls a young girl, after her Kilimanjaro success in 2013, asking her in disbelief: “Do you come from the township?” Realising the potential to ‘change the narrative’, she counts this as a pivotal moment and “a huge shift in my thinking.” Since then, each of her endeavours, have been married to fundraising missions (largely centered around disadvantaged youth).
Taking African women to the top of the world and beyond
Nearly 7 decades after the first Everest summit, Saray became the first black African woman to reach the highest of all mountain tops. It’s an unjust delay that doesn’t sit well with this conscious climber. “I want to leave an Africa where the youth see a sea of opportunities,” she explains. “We are stronger because of the people around us.” Her innate sense of ubuntu continues to fuel her fire.
Perhaps it is only by living limitlessly while putting others first, that true success. A new kind of success – can be achieved. If Saray’s adventure is anything to go by, maybe it’s this balance that is the mountain we each need to summit. “Whatever enables and empowers your journey to success, it will take mental resilience and toughness to get there. Find out what balance means to you. What legacy you want to leave, and then determine what it is going to take to get there, both mentally, and in my case, physically as well,” concludes Saray.