The Porters of Kilimanjaro
I remember being at Nalemuru, the park entrance for the Rongai Route, and one year later at Machame Gate, watching the porters without whom this journey for many of us would not be possible, preparing for work. Knowing that their work consists of carrying all gear and food items needed for our team’s survival on the mountain for the next 7days, I was equally fascinated and overwhelmed both times.
There were piles of stuff, plastic wraps, buckets, strings, food bags, baskets and on and on.
Before I could blink it was all neatly wrapped up in colossal packages sitting on their heads, with some of them still having additional items dangling off to their sides. Weight restrictions as to how much a porter is allowed to carry on the mountain are in place, but to my eyes they looked overloaded. As they charged ahead on the path I would follow shortly thereafter, I couldn’t help but notice that some of them had worn out shoes and clothes. Hopefully they had better boots and cold weather gear stashed away somewhere in those gigantic loads they carried on their heads.
They quickly got out of sight and by the time I reached my first camp for the night, all packages carried by porters had turned into a well organized campsite. Tents were up; hot water was boiling and dinner almost ready, all an indication of how fast they had walked to reach camp.
The following morning I learned that each porter had two jobs decided upon the day prior. The cook, who ranks above the porters, but slightly below the guides in the mountain hierarchy, was responsible for preparing the food that would sustain the lives of everybody in our group for the duration of our hike. Besides cooking he also carried. One of the porters, in addition to carrying would be in charge of serving my food, while another had decided to carry communal stuff along with my personal gear not needed between camps. Others would carry and set up tents.
Second Day “Porter Alert”
The following morning I left camp shortly after breakfast carrying my backpack containing a three liter camelbak bladder filled with water, as well as anything I might need throughout the day. One last look back revealed the crew busy breaking down camp.
Sometime later, while I was absorbing all the beauty and strangeness the mountain has to offer, we had, what we would affectionately start calling, a “Porter Alert”.
It meant get out of the way, because the first porter was approaching, signaling the camp had been broken down and everyone and everything was moving toward the second campsite.
To me “Porter Alert”, wasn’t just about getting out of the way. In each and every one of them I saw confidence and determination. Despite or because of the load they carried, they looked straight ahead, as if sensing what kind of obstacle their foot would encounter. They seemed to have developed a special gait, hesitating somewhat before putting a foot down, pacing them ever so slightly as they were moving upward to the second campsite. I felt clumsy in comparison and admired the way they seemingly owned the mountain. They became my inspiration and whenever I got tired my thoughts were with the porters, who had already passed by carrying a great burden. Who was I to complain?
As much as porters seemed strong, confident and invulnerable, the mountain is fierce and claims lives. High unemployment and lack of job opportunities in the foothills of Kilimanjaro makes young men and women eagerly accept work as a porter, often underpaid, overworked and ill equipped, lacking proper gear, as well as life saving knowledge concerning altitude sickness. Knowing that some of the gear I purchased to conquer the mountain is worth many multiples of a daily/weekly porter’s salary made me aware of the disparity.
The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) raises public awareness regarding the proper treatment of porters on Kilimanjaro and assists climbing companies with implementing procedures that ensure fair and ethical treatment of porters. It helped to know the climbing company I had chosen was a socially responsible climbing company and a member of KPAP.
As we were reaching higher altitude and freezing temperatures, the porter’s preferred hang out was in the cooking tent near the fire. Every evening there were lively conversations and laughter sounding until late into the night. I always wondered what they were talking about, but never managed to find out. Porters’ privilege, I suppose. And so it went.
My guide with me at all times, the cook and porters passing while moving upward, me the inexperienced hiker making it to Uhuru Peak twice; an unforgettable life changing experience, thanks to all.
At the end the team sang “Kumbaya” to congratulate my reaching Uhuru Peak. However, I felt I should be singing “Kumbaya” to them for having gotten me there cared for and safely.