The company Stone & Cloth makes a backpack called the Benson. It is named for the guy who changed the company owner's life. "That's Benson," says Matthew Clough, pulling up a photo on his laptop of a tall man with a round face, kind eyes, a full, radiant smile and skin the color of espresso.
The summer before Clough graduated from design school at Arizona State University, he went to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. His only goal was to make it to the top. Benson was his porter. "Benson was the one who was waking me up every morning, who was carrying my rucksack, and if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have made the summit," he says.
On his way down, Clough learned that the local porters earn less than a dollar a day — even as they do the heavy lifting. In his small daypack, Clough carried a water bottle, a camera and a journal. Benson carried everything else — food, water, pots, pans, cooking utensils, sleeping bags, toiletries and all the clothes.
Admittedly, the higher you get up the mountain, the less there is to carry. Climbing Kilimanjaro is like walking from the equator to the North Pole in four days. You start out in a hot, muggy jungle — shorts-and–T-shirt weather. By the time you hit the summit, if you're Clough, you're wearing two pairs of wool socks, heavy boots, long underwear, waterproof snow pants, four layers of waterproof jackets, beanies and gloves. "It is absolutely freezing," he recalls. People turned around and quit because they had frostbite in their hands and feet.
Clough kept climbing. At 14,500 feet, they made camp and slept in rickety, A-frame huts. Each day, before sunrise, Benson would wake Clough with a knock on the door to ask if he wanted coffee or tea. He'd return with the steaming hot tea, which Clough would sip while still in his sleeping bag. Then he and the other porters would cook a massive, American-style breakfast of eggs and oatmeal with brown sugar. "We were taken care of," Clough says.
Each day they climbed for eight hours. Clough got terrible headaches. On the last night, close to the summit, while other people were vomiting politely into the snow, he hallucinated that dogs were running around his feet — his two black labs, Tupac and Biggie. They scampered by on either side of him, then gamboled up the mountain and disappeared.
Depending on the route, ascent takes either four or seven days. Porters do it a little faster. "Those guys have climbed the mountain so many times," Clough says. Of the three porters with whom he spent the most time — Benson, Lucas and a cheerful guy named God Bless — God Bless had the fastest time. He's ascended the mountain in nine hours.
Now 27, Clough believes he would not have been able to finish on his own without the porters' help. "Because they're giving you so much guidance and moral support," he says. "It's just like their energy. They're so confident you're gonna get to the top. When you get up to 15,000 feet, there's a lot of altitude sickness. A lot of people were puking and exhausted," he says. "I was delusional."
Of his group of 15, Clough was one of four who made it to the summit.
It wasn't just physical but moral support. "As I was coming down the mountain, Benson was literally, like, the first person I saw. He started, like, running toward me and congratulated me," he says. They embraced and walked back down to camp holding hands, a sign of friendship in Tanzania.
Returning home, Clough was stunned by America's bounty. The night he got back, trying to get dressed after a shower, he stared at his closet for a long time, overwhelmed by his options. "You know when you wake up in the morning and you're, like, I have nothing to wear? That was running through my head in the complete opposite way."
At a bar with his buddies, he couldn't buy a beer. "That $6 Bud Light could feed a family in Tanzania for a week," he'd think.
That type of thinking eventually wore off. But the spirit of it stuck. Ask any of his friends and they'll agree: Something happened to Matt in Africa. "I've lived my whole life having everything I need and more," Clough says.
Tanzania was the first time he'd stepped out of his comfortable, middle-class life. Coming home "was kind of a reverse culture-shock experience."
He wanted to help. He applied to the Peace Corps, hoping to be posted in Tanzania, but you don't get to choose where you go. And with student loans to repay, he couldn't afford to fly back on his own dime.
Instead, Clough taught himself to sew. He bought a used sewing machine from Craigslist and sold 30 backpacks he'd sewn himself. Toms — the L.A.-based company that gives away a pair of shoes for every pair it sells — had just come on the scene, and after Clough interned there, some of his Tom's mentors helped him iron out a business model. That was a year and a half ago.
Now, when someone buys a Stone & Cloth rucksack or iPad case, their purchase helps put a kid through school for a week.
Primary school in Tanzania costs $25 to $35 a year, a manageable sum. Secondary education, at $200 a year, is the problem. Parents usually can't afford it. To put that amount in perspective, a porter's annual income is $75 to $100.
So far, Clough has sold more than 1,000 bags. He named other products after the porters he was closest to. For instance, there is a Lucas backpack. There is not, however, a God Bless backpack. "I didn't know if that would be pretentious, or what."
The Benson, in any case, is by far the best-seller. It's not a technical climbing pack but more a lifestyle bag for school or work. It is clean and simple, with a jaunty, diagonal zipper reminiscent of the tilted wooden sign marking Tanzania's highest peak.
Now living and running his company out of a loft in downtown L.A., Clough hasn't seen or spoken to Benson since the climb but is trying to track him down — something he suspects he'll have to fly back to Tanzania to do.
He doesn't actually know a whole lot about Benson. Does he have a wife? How many children does he have? He didn't speak much English but had a certain, joyful charisma. Like everyone Clough met in Tanzania, he was warm and "very present." "They make you feel like you are the most important thing in their life," he remembers.
For now, there's a porter on Mount Kilimanjaro who has no clue that hundreds of people in America are carrying around a backpack named after him. "He will," Clough vows, then pauses to imagine how the meeting with Benson will go. "It's going to be a magical moment. We're gonna get it all on video. That's how I'm picturing it, anyway."
He doesn't know how Benson will take it. His eyes flick over to Africa on the giant map hanging over his sofa, to Kilimanjaro on the border of Tanzania and Kenya.
"Someone asked me, what if he's upset? What if he tries to sue you?" Clough says. "Then he can sue me, and I'll give him whatever he wants. I would love do whatever I can to help him. All I have is a first name. It's like an unfinished story."
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