The Unsung Heroes Of The Kilimanjaro

Being the highest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro is a very popular destination for climbers and adventurers. Standing at 5895 metres, the climb to the top takes around 7 days, with climbers going from thick forests to dry gravel paths and finally arriving at the snow-covered peak. The climb, however, is as beautiful as it is challenging.

For a 7 day trip, over 100 pounds (45 kg) of equipment and food needs to be carried per person. Considering the difficult terrain and the altitude of the mountain, the climb is especially tough. 

However, when we look at websites, they tend to advertise the trip as being ‘suitable for fit beginners’. How can this be? The truth is, climbers almost never climb Mount Kilimanjaro alone. For every climber, there are around 2 to 3 helpers, known as porters, who help carry the load. Aside from this, porters are also tasked with responding to medical emergencies, cooking food, guiding the climbers and setting up camp. In many ways, porters are the backbone for every climb to the top of Kilimanjaro. Despite their importance, porters have often been overlooked and treated cruelly.

To offer the lowest possible price, companies that organize these climbs often look for ways to cut costs. However, they  could not sacrifice the quality of  food or services for climbers as they need to be able to compete with other companies. Instead, they look to the porter’s wages and working conditions to cut costs, often leaving the porters with the bare minimum.

David Mtui, a porter based in Africa, explains how he often found himself in cheap tents, served inadequate food and had to rely on tips to make a living. Additionally, despite these harsh conditions, porters were also expected to carry around 40kg on their back. Consequently, there was a high risk of injury or even death for porters. In many ways, porters are treated as replaceable tools despite being the most important members of any climb.

Fortunately, this is all beginning to change. The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), is working to support the ethical (meaning fair and humane) treatment of Kilimanjaro’s porters. It works with companies to ensure 4 things: (1) porters receive three meals per day; (2) loads carried by porters for the company cannot be heavier than 20kg; (3) that porters have the right equipment and clothing for the climb; and (4) porters receive a minimum of 20,000 Tanzanian Shillings per day (around $8.60).

Anna tells how KPAP guidelines have helped her make ‘huge steps in [her] life”. She is now able to send her children to school and rent land with the wages she earns as a porter. KPAP is making a significant impact to the wellbeing of porters.

Behind the pictures of smiling climbers at the top of Kilimanjaro are groups of tireless porters that helped carry their load. After all, what makes climbing the Kilimanjaro ‘easy’ is teamwork. And just as teamwork requires equal contribution, it also deserves equal reward. Before climbers pack their bags to climb the tallest mountain in Africa, they should make sure they are working with a responsible and ethical company. It is time for these unsung heroes of the Kilimanjaro to be recognized and treated properly.

Zilun Lin


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