Kilimanjaro Central, not far from Machame Gate

A tall local woman, dressed in the colorful blue shirts that the Stella Maris Hotel likes its employees to sport, is silently mopping the floor as I sit here in the big open dining room. There’s nobody around at 6 am. A group came down off the mountain last night and they are sleeping in, exhausted. More will head out today, all excitement and bright-eyed, sure of success.

I came back here yesterday after spending three days with the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, or KPAP, which is a non-profit initiative that ensures porter welfare and safety on the mountain. This morning, at Machame Gate (the most popular route up the mountain) perhaps a hundred men and women will again bring their kits (personally-owned climbing gear) in the hopes of getting porter work.

Some of them may earn the US equivalent of $5.00 a day for the immensely tough labor of hauling 55 lbs up this mountain for up to nine days. That’s about 44 lbs of gear that is used by the climbers and porters, and about 11 lbs or thereabout of their own personal effects. If they are fortunate, and that’s if, they might make a few dollars in tips for their trouble.

KPAP is the organisation which, by inviting climbing companies to become Partner Companies, best ensures that those porters not only earn the minimum salary for climbing the mountain as agreed upon by the Kilimanjaro stakeholders in 2015(20K Tanzanian shillings, or about US 8.65 per day) but that they also enjoy the same kinds of safe conditions that you and I as climbers take for granted. That would include tents that don’t leak, a good ground sheet, enough room to sleep at night without feeling like sardines and having various body parts hanging out the tent door in the cold, and adequate, healthy food three times a day to fuel the grueling climb and descent.

To say nothing of good shoes, a warm down jacket, good gloves, rain gear, a hat, sunglasses, underwear. You and I might say, that goes without saying. But But porters can go without. KPAP Partner companies agree to ensure that their porters are properly kitted out just as we are (and they have a solid gear lending programme for beginner porters). KPAP hopes to make Kilimanjaro the premier mountain region for fair and ethical treatment of all porters.

Of the some twenty thousand porters who work on Kilimanjaro, so far slightly more than a third, or about 7,500, are protected under KPAP Partner Company conditions. That’s an excellent start. The reason they know is that each climb on Kili done via those Partner Companies has a KPAP-trained investigative porter along. That porter takes copious notes either on paper or on their phone, and then reports the entire trip back in full to KPAP.

I spent much of the last two days watching and listening to those comprehensive reports being taken. They range from validating how many people were on the trip (the ratio of guides to people is also dictated by the Park Authority) and the number of porters, which is driven by the total weight being hauled up the mountain. Then the report goes into deep detail about the conditions: how were you paid, how much, did you get paid through the guide or a company rep or through the bank, how soon after the descent, how much were the tips, was the tipping transparent (in other words, did all the porters know precisely how much the climbers gave, and was that amount announced in both Swahili and English?), the tent conditions, sleeping conditions, and the food. Whether the company checked porter gear, how much everyone had to carry, whether the bags were weighed before or at the gate (another Park requirement), and even comments on porter behavior. If people are verbally abused, or a porter tries to cheat, or a guide hides the financial transactions: the list is very detailed.

Each KPAP Partner Company subjects itself to this kind of scrutiny for several reasons. They get very detailed information which could indicate a staff or gear issue, or a potential behavioral problem. Those companies recognise that when porters are well-paid, their health is protected and the conditions on the mountain are good, then climbers are far better ensured a safe trip, and the crew is happy and healthy. That’s not all. The companies are rated on a point system that they themselves designed as to the importance of everything from tips to tents. Twice a year, after every climbing season, they receive an overall score and need to attain at least an 85% performance level in order to continue as a Partner company. (There are two climbing seasons in this area: from mid-December to the end of March, then June through October). That score is a point of pride for Partner Companies committed to proper treatment, and it becomes a fine selling point for climbers committed to ethical adventuring on Kilimanjaro.

This kind of inside insight and measurement is critical to the success not only of the Partner Companies but also to Tanzania tourism to Kilimanjaro. For more and more savvy climbers want to know not only that their support team gets fair wages and good treatment but also, that those who take them up this challenging climb are in the best shape and state of mind possible. It isn’t just an issue of fairness. It’s a huge safety concern.

Yet many porters may not have these working conditions.

The first, shorter season of the year begins around mid-December and ends in late March, the season that is in its final month now. I stood at the Machame Gate yesterday morning speaking with porters who, in many cases, had come from miles away to get work on the mountain. Some sleep on a shop floor. In one case, a man is staying near the gate until he finds work, and in his case, he’s lucky to have a brother who lives nearby who can provide both food and a place to sleep. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Their stories were often heartbreaking. Some had climbed perhaps twice or three times last season, and often received $3–7.00 per day. Their tips were minimal. These are people- men and women porters- who have families to support. There is no other work than farming in the area and there is no government unemployment assistance program.

One man had come to the gate ten times this season and still had done no climbing work. He’d stored his bag at the gate to avoid hauling it back and forth every time, but now it was settled on his back. He’d go back to farming, he said, deeply disappointed. The pressure to provide was etched in his tired face.

Over the past few days I have spoken to porters whose tents leaked on them at night during rains or who got one meal a day. Not only just one meal, but a very low salary, and limited tips. Yet the desperate nature of their employment can force a porter to accept such terrible standards.

Others who were waiting for work explained the nature of their climbs with non-KPAP Partner companies. The culture of how porters have traditionally been treated is changing, albeit slowly. The notion, which we might take for granted in the West, of workers’ rights, is still a new concept here. For example, each porter is supposed to be tipped fairly depending on how many climbers on the trip as well as how many porters.

Two porters, waiting for work in the heat of the Tanzanian sun, explained that their tips had been limited. Tipping plays an important part in the compensation for the climb in providing an appropriate living wage to complement the salary amount. Many people give the tip money to the guide with the assumption that s/he will distribute it fairly which may not be the case.

This is why tipping transparency, a key aspect of KPAP Partner company performance, is heavily weighted in their scoring. Even if you come from a country where tipping isn’t part of the culture (such as the Dutch gentleman I met today who said with some force that he “hates the whole process of tipping)” it’s essential to understand that tips are part of the cost of the overall climb. You and I need to plan for them, and know that what we set aside as tips is a very important part of their overall payment, and an essential statistic in KPAP reporting. Even that Dutch gentleman remarked at how pleased his porters were when he and his fellow climbers each gave them an additional $10 US. You can understand why.

This morning I spoke with two young Londoners here finishing their breakfast. They’re going up the mountain today with a KPAP Partner company, which is their best guarantee for a safe trip as well as fun along the way. They are in good hands, for the company, a KPAP Partner, has not only agreed to the standards but also to having a KPAP investigative porter along. The girls were agog with excitement, and I have no doubt they’ll do just fine.

Last year, according to KPAP records, the organisation ensured a safe climb for some 55,000 individual porters.

That’s an astounding number of lives protected by proper procedures. Those porters also supported and helped ensure the safety of thousands of climbers.

Photo by Tom Cleary on Unsplash

If you’re a climber, or thinking about coming to Tanzania to climb this magnificent mountain, I strongly advise that you do several things:

  1. Stay at Stella Maris (that’s a whole story unto itself, but be advised that the profits here support an entire school of orphaned and impoverished kids, so another great story, stay tuned). You’ll love it here: the food and rooms are terrific, and exactly the place you want to rest your head after a hard climb.
  2. Always require that your climbing outfit be a KPAP Partner Company.