As you climb Kilimanjaro spare a thought for the humble porter. His life is one of extreme hardship of trekking up and down the mountain carrying your supplies. No one notices him, no one cares for him, he goes unseen and unappreciated.
I see many items on the internet about the ‘Kilimanjaro song’ – many climbers wanting the words for the song as it brings back memories for them. Good memories of the hard slog to the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. There is another side to this song; the porters who sing this song have their own story. What follows is the porter’s song, in this case Marco’s song. These are his own words...
Sometimes; to get the job as a porter with a group I would have to pay for the privilege. Porters are poor and life is hard. This payment to get a job I always would hope to pay out of my tip – that is if I got a tip this time – I would always pray I would get a tip. The guide would share the tip the tourists gave at the end of the climb; but we the porters rarely received a share. Don’t be fooled by the fair trade tourism; fair trade tourism may have good intentions but usually they are far away in comfortable offices and are sadly unaware of what is really happening.
We the porters are kept at a distance from the tourist. We are not encouraged to talk or interact in anyway with the guests. I was once beaten for talking to a guest. Imagine that, beaten for talking to a tourist whose bag I was carrying up Kilimanjaro; it was just not allowed; they [the guides] feared we would take their tip. After I was beaten I didn't’t get another job for a long time; the guide told all the other guides I was a trouble maker. So no one would give me a job, and I was unable to pay for my school for almost one year. I climbed the mountain to pay for my education.
When I was 16 my family said my education was over. I didn't want to die here climbing Kilimanjaro so I begged my family to allow me to carry on with my schooling. They agreed but said that I must pay for it myself; I did this by carrying supplies up the mountain for the tourists. In the early days we had to carry 40kg’s – imagine that 40kg’s - it made me very tired and sometimes very sick.
The food we eat is very basic and usually not cooked properly. Kerosene [paraffin] used for the cooking is for the guests it is not for us. The maze flour is cooked into a stiff porridge [called ugali] it might be hot but it is not cooked through; sometimes the flour is not even mixed well with the water. Most times a hot slice of ugali is put directly into our hands; there are no bowels or plates for the porters. Sometimes we would get mchicha [local spinach] with the ugali but mostly it was just ugali.
Most porters are poorly clothed and we are inadequately fed so we get ill, if we get ill on the climb we will not get another job again and we won’t get paid for this job. So if we fall ill we must carry on. I remember a long long time ago my friend, Lumuli, he died, he was sick before we started to climb but he needed the money for is family. It was at a hill we call breakfast; it was here at this place where he died. The tourists were not told, I don’t think anyone even noticed he was missing. I returned with his body, I didn't get paid for this climb nor did Lumuli’s widow receive any payment toward the funeral.
Many times when I got home after a climb I might be sick for one week. Sometimes coughing up blood. My brother would beg me to stop climbing Kilimanjaro when I got sick but I knew it was my only hope, my only escape. If you are unlucky enough to be born into Marangu village you climb Kilimanjaro or you can starve to death slowly whilst growing coffee.
Once I remember a porter lost his shoe. There was ice on the ground and the porter’s foot was numb. He did not notice he had lost his shoe until a tourist noticed the blood and stopped the trek and put a bandage on the foot and gave him a pair of boots! This tourist was very angry with the guide, we were pleased the guide was in trouble; but of course we were punished for upsetting the tourists – we were all punished. This was in the days when a porter carried up to 40 kg. Now the weight carried is a lot less but too little clothing and low wages are still a problem for the porters.
When the climb is finished we are very tired, exhausted even, but we are forced to stand in a line singing the ‘Kilimanjaro song’. We clap and look happy for the tourists… well for the guides to get their tips. When we sing they [the guides] say ‘sing louder, sing louder’ and they say ‘look happy’. All the guide books tell the tourists what tips to pay and to pay it all to the guide. Why? Why do they say that? Do tourists not care for the porters? I am sure there is a very good reason for paying all the tips to the guides but I am still waiting for someone to tell me what that reason is. We never got much from the tips usually in most cases we received next to nothing at all – except of course for our wages less the tip we must pay to the mountain-guide.
The porters have no voice, they have no rights. They die for a few dollars. I ask your tourists from Europe from America, from China and Australia to spare a thought for the porter. When you book through a fair trade operator, make certain they really are doing what they say they are doing. And I would ask if you tip the porter please give it to the porter. I am now living in Arusha and life is not so bad as it was in Marangu. I help my family and don’t allow any of my relatives to be a porter.
Kilimanjaro is beautiful I am told, but for me, when I look at that mountain… well all I see is poverty, death, hardship; for me Kilimanjaro holds no beauty at all. Of course we pretend, yes indeed we pretend to the tourist that we appreciate the majesty of this mountain; but to be truthful it is very hard for me to see anything but cruelty and poverty.