A grieving mother’s love and her trek to Everest Base Camp: Riky Rick and Louisa Zondo
Shortly after rapper Riky Rick’s death, his mother embarked on a 14-day trek to Everest Base Camp. It was a journey full of questioning and reflecting, grieving and gratitude.
Zondo is an experienced hiker, having climbed Kilimanjaro in Kenya and the Mafadi peak on the border of South Africa and Lesotho. The trek to Everest Base Camp had been on her list for a while, and in 2019 she began planning to join a group of women on the expedition. Then Covid-19 struck and everything was put on hold. As the world began to normalise two years later, her plans were back on for 20 March 2022.
“On 23 February, when Rikhado passed, the preparations were already underway… But when life was interrupted in significant ways by Rikhado passing, the question remained open whether this was something I would continue with or not,” Zondo explains.
“It became clear to me that this is an important thing to do. I needed to make sense of the 34 years of Rikhado’s life. What do they mean for me, what do they mean for life now going forward? What does it mean to be a mother who is walking with the fact that my son died at an early age, in circumstances that I could never have imagined?”
And as Zondo embarked on the expedition in Nepal, she found herself on an emotional journey too, reflecting on her son’s life and death and reliving her memories with every step.
Her messages to the world were scattered – cell phone reception faded in and out along the route – but when she could, she updated her Instagram feed. Some messages were about the trek, others were about what she had been thinking along the way – all were addressed to Riky Rick.
At times, scrolling through the messages felt a bit intrusive, like a fly on the wall listening in on an achingly intimate conversation between mother and son. Yet these personal writings were also a glimpse into real life and the realities of the people who get left behind.
Dearest MaRiky. It’s the early hours of the morning on 23 March 2022 – 01H03, Nepali time, to be exact. 23 February 2022 is the day on which your spirit and body separated. Since your death last month, I’ve been starkly aware of the need in me to make sense of where I am and how I am called to be. I decided to proceed with this trek to Mount Everest Base Camp not only because I knew you would want me to do so, but also because I imagined it would present the perfect opportunity, over 14 days, for me to wrestle with the questions – (i) What is the moment; and (ii) How does this moment call me to be? – Day 1
The trek thus became a way for Zondo to process her own emotions; it was also a way for her to grieve as she walked. Out in the mountains, away from distraction, there was a feeling of connectedness to both her son and the earth she travelled over.
“Looking back, I probably went through the whole cycle of Rikhado’s life and my participation in it in the days of the trek. I did a lot of engaging with just the fact that he was born. The teachings that I gained from him, even from childhood, were playing through my mind,” Zondo recalls.
“The joys, the struggles with, in particular, addiction, the determination he had to come out the other side of it. His life with his children. Bianca, his wife, and how she truly was a pillar of love and meaningfulness of life. And the gratitude for all of it was key for me.
“I went through many periods where I needed to walk alone. Walking alone meant I was completely lost in whatever my body, heart and mind were grappling with. The group that I was walking with made room for that, and I was very grateful for it.”
Dear MaRiky, [today] was a 9 hour trek filled with laughter, cameradie, silence, and physical anguish of the body. As I took in the unspeakable wonders of the mountain, the sense of you being part of it all was so real MaRiky…I laughed out loud and shouted out your name. – Day 2
And while this was a time of reflection and gratitude, the trip to Base Camp was by no means a small feat. From Lukla, which lies at around 9,200 feet, the trek is 62km one way, and takes the hiker up to 17,500 feet. The walk is slow, not only because of the physical challenge, but also to allow for the body to adjust to the altitude.
“It’s a long period of daily drudgery. You are focusing on the hardship of getting over the targeted distance that you have to cover. The terrain is challenging. Every day is a real, concentrated challenge,” she says.
Dear MaRiky, today we were able to get a glimpse of the top of Mount Everest. MaRiky, the breathtaking beauty of this mountain is laced by stark contrasts and contradictions of deeply-rooted hardship, toil and exploitation. Experiencing these reminds me of how your life continuously taught me to hold in awe both the great joys of life and the devastating harms of our existence. You remain immense beauty, MaRiky. I joyfully confirm that, to me, you can never die. I love you to infinity. – Day 4
It also takes months of preparation, and in the time leading up to the trek, Zondo was walking 16 kilometres a day to ensure her body could withstand the constant movement.
“I’m not an excessively fit person, I only started jogging – in order to be able to cover six kilometres without stopping – in 2018 in preparation for the Kilimanjaro trek. I no longer jog, but I walk distances to make sure the body can take it without suffering.”
But preparing the body wasn’t all; Zondo also had to prepare mentally for what lay ahead.
“When I was leaving for the trek, I was aware that things were not in a space of clarity or stability for me. One moment, I could even use the words ‘I’m fine’, but the next moment I would be crumbling.
“I had to answer the questions, ‘Now what? What do I do? What does it mean? What does it look like to move forward?’ Having come back, it became clear that I am on a journey, one that I will continue to be on.”
Today we headed for Dingboche at an altitude of 4400m above sea level. For most of today’s trek, we walked in silence giving full attention to the effort of placing one foot in front of the other. In this solitude, the contemplation of yesterday’s reflections on mental health continued and delved on the question of healing. – Day 6
“The mornings were filled with a sense of confusion, so I developed a pattern of waking up in the morning and tuning into some aspect of Rikhado’s life, be it a video from an interview, music – engaging with something of Rikhado’s each morning,” she adds.
Dear MaRiky, we finally reached Mount Everest Base Camp on our Day 10 of the trek. Aunt Xoli and I were exhilarated! In this expansive state, MaRiky, I laid out something of a memorial for you at the Base Camp rock. At Base Camp, everything came together in that amazing “contraction-and-expansion” pattern of the universe. All I could do at this point was to keep bowing in gratitude, joy, peace and hope. I could never find the words to clearly set out the depth of awakening that coming to Base Camp and communicating with you through ritual was to me. – Day 11
When Zondo and the group reached Base Camp, she made a small memorial for her son. Up there on the hard ground, below the towering peaks of Everest, are photographs and a “Riky Rick… We Multiply” T-shirt. Alongside them is a chain with three medallions – one of St Michael, another of St Christopher and a third with a “MaRiky” engraving made by friends of her son.
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“That memorial for Rikhado gave me peace… I really felt a deep sense of peace, but when I came back home and tried to reintegrate, I found it was like quicksand. I’m spiralling. But that does not mean that the peace I experienced and allowed myself to be changed by is nothing. It doesn’t mean that peace does not exist. It only means that in my walk I will be experiencing everything.
“But I hold onto who I am in all of this. I have been knocked in so many ways by my son’s death, but I am readying myself for the transformation that his death will be for me.
“You can either take a path of going back and being ‘normal’, or you can take the path of being transformed by the trauma. And I am on the path of transformation.”
Riky Rick’s death ignited an important and necessary conversation about mental health and suicide in South Africa, and it is not a discussion society can afford to let fade away as time passes.
“Mental health is a topic that must be tackled with openness to different people’s realities, it is so big and serious and so all-pervasive. It needs dialogue. It needs engagement,” Zondo says.
In Sapien Labs’ most recent Annual Mental State of the World Report, South Africa logged a dismal last place with a mental health quotient of 46. The study measured mental wellbeing across 34 countries on a spectrum from “distressed” to “thriving”, and in South Africa, the “distressed or struggling” percentage has increased by 8% from 28.5% of participants in 2020 to 36% in 2021.
As a society, how do we intentionally attend to and strengthen mental health? How do we become a society that provides all – young people in particular – with access to means of transcending and therefore transforming trauma? – Day 5
This is put into distressing perspective when examining South Africa’s suicide rates, which are among the highest in the world. It is estimated there are 23 suicides in the country every day, and for every suicide, there are 20 attempts. Men are four times more likely to kill themselves than women.
There are resources available online and in person for people to find help or support. One such resource is Panda, a South African app that provides its users with mental health support and education. Users can customise their experience on the app based on their own needs and interests, such as anger management, intrusive thoughts, difficulty sleeping, poor self-esteem, depression and more.
From there, users have access to articles on various mental health topics, live sessions with experts, life skills training, tracked assessments and live support through linking to a professional or in the chat function.
The app was launched in 2021 by Alon Lits, former Uber director in the Sub-Saharan Africa region and Allan Sweidan, the founder of Akeso Hospital Group of psychiatric facilities in South Africa.
“We’re really trying to make mental healthcare and support more accessible,” Lits told Forbes.
Looking forward, Zondo feels that these conversations about mental health and support are only the beginning.
“For me, it’s a journey that continues, and a lot of it is engaging with the question of, what does this legacy of Rikhado require of us? This is the beginning of the path.” DM/ML
If you’re struggling with severe anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group has a 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789.