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To the high peak of Kilimanjaro for the helpless of sub-Saharan Africa

U2 fan says, 'I felt that this was one small thing I can do.'
On July 22, 2007, Vijay Devarajan will lace up his hiking boots, take a deep breath of the Tanzanian morning air, set his sights on the 19,340-foot peak of Mount Kilimanjaro and press play on his iPod.

U2's "Elevation," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Beautiful Day," and "Vertigo" will help get him to the summit, step by step, beat by beat.

Those are some of the apt U2 songs related to mountain climbing, the 25-year-old Arlington, Va., native figures. The apocalyptically tinged "Last Night on Earth" might not be a bad choice either, he adds.

Bono's message about Africa helped convince Devarajan to take the Kilimanjaro Challenge, so it is only fitting he'll bring U2's music along when he climbs Earth's tallest free-standing mountain to help some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable: children orphaned in Kenya after their parents died of HIV/AIDS.

"At this time in the world, no one is more helpless than a child in a gut-wrenchingly poor country such as Kenya whose parents have perished due to AIDS. I feel it is our duty as residents of more prosperous countries to help them as best we can," Devarajan said.

The Kilimanjaro Challenge seeks to raise about $500,000 for an AIDS clinic in Nairobi, Kenya, called Leo Toto, which in Swahili means "to raise a child." Leo Toto provides care for children living with HIV/AIDS, and is run by Voluntary Service Overseas. Only 10% of the estimated 2 million children in sub-Saharan Africa infected with HIV receive treatment, according to United Nations figures.

The climb up Africa's famed volcanic peak is co-sponsored by VSO and Accenture, the global management consulting and technology services company Devarajan works for. Accenture will send a group of employees to join about 30 others from around the world for the six-day ascent, which Devarajan calls more a hike than a climb.

Each climber pledged to raise $6,000 toward the half-million-dollar goal before July. Devarajan is paying his own way to Nairobi and will give all the money he raises to the clinic. All donations exceeding his pledged amount will also go straight to Leo Toto.

Devarajan said his family has participated in philanthropic and charitable work since he was a child. "I have been raised to believe that our greatest calling is to help those who cannot help themselves."

But Bono gets just a little credit for inspiring him to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, too. The rock star raised his awareness of humanitarian needs in Africa and has been an example to Devarajan of putting a plan into action.

"I think there are many bleeding-heart celebrities who support various causes, but Bono has taken a much more practical approach to solving this one. He realized that he needs the governments of the G8 countries to act, as opposed to just collecting money from individual donors and giving it to corrupt African governments," Devarajan said.

Devarajan grew up playing instruments and sang in college groups at the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the ONE campaign, participated in a Darfur Awareness Week on the school's campus, and sang at different charity events during his college years.

He also sang in a rock band for a time. "I think what drew me to U2 initially was Bono, as a singer and a front man. His stage-presence and incredible vocal range are things I held in high regard. Even now, I can see myself trying to imitate him a bit when I'm on stage. No front man I've ever seen since has held the crowd's attention quite like Bono."

He went to his first U2 concert in 2000, at the urging of a friend, and said that about ten seconds into "Elevation," the show's opening song, he was hooked. "That experience is simply ingrained in my memory as a turning point in my musical tastes," Devarajan said.

His impressions of U2 and its front man may sound like the stories from a hundred-thousand other fans, but he has something a little more tangible from the band, too. He watched his younger brother, Sunjay, play with the band and get what most U2 fans only dream of: a pair of Bono's shades.

At the Dallas show on the Vertigo tour in 2005, Sunjay held up a sign that said "Angel of Harlem" with the guitar chords on it and the explanatory message: "In case you forgot." Devarajan said that within moments, "Bono whisked my little brother onto the stage for a joint rendition of 'Angel of Harlem' with U2. At the end of the song, Bono gave my brother his rose-tinted sunglasses, which we still have in a glass case in our house."

Devarajan attended two concerts on the Vertigo tour and came away thinking he should do something to help Africans.

"Bono has a way with words, and he shows this skill in more ways than just songwriting....His message during the Vertigo tour was that if everyone does a small thing to benefit the poor and the helpless, it can add up to something much larger. So, when the opportunity to climb Kilimanjaro in the name of fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa was presented to me, I felt that this was one small thing I can do."

Devarajan said he would love to have Bono "climb the highest mountain" with him, but his iPod may be the closest he gets to hearing Bono's voice on the mountain's top. And as far as Devarajan knows, Bono has not been going through the six-month strength and endurance training program like he has to prepare for the climb. The music, however, has been with him all along.

"U2 is always on heavy rotation on my iPod," Devarajan said. "I've used 'Bullet the Blue Sky' and 'Love and Peace or Else' as motivators for working out that much longer and that much harder," the fan and future mountain climber said. "It's amazing how your mind and body can respond to something as simple as a song."

(For more on Devarajan's journey or to make an on-line donation for camp Leo Toto, visit his fundraising web site.)

© @U2/Calhoun, 2007.