We Came, We Climbed, We Sang: Asante Sana to the Humble Heroes of Kilimanjaro

By Annie Dube

This past March, I was fortunate enough to travel to Tanzania to climb the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro is a bucket list item shared by avid mountaineers looking to accomplish the Seven Summits as well as amateur hikers and adventurists all around the world, as there are virtually no technical skills required to climb the majority of routes to the top. And while I generally seek out climbing adventures that offer solitude and serenity, like thousands of others I was drawn to the iconic peak.

It’s been nearly two months since I left Africa and yet, I still constantly find myself humming or singing in Swahili...”Jambo! jambo bwana. Habari gani? Mzuri sana...” I smile and laugh thinking about Belfast, one of our 11 porters, as he’d beatbox along while we sang the catchy tune.

As I go about my day, surrounded by all the modern comforts of being back in the states, I think about how many more times our superhuman group of porters have trudged back up and down that mountain with heavy loads strapped to their backs or perched on top of their heads. I think about the bitter cold nights at the higher camps and imagine them huddled around the stove with fists full of Ugali, a sticky cornmeal porridge, fueling up for another brutal day of climbing.

When I think about the highlights of my Kilimanjaro trek, quite a few moments come to mind. Frolicking through a mythical forest of giant senecios and lobelias in the Great Barranco valley at 13,000 feet, feeling like a cartoon on the page of a Dr. Seuss picture book. Watching the sky transform into a vibrant rainbow spectacle while perched atop a rock at Barafu camp, nothing but a sea of clouds below me and Kibo’s towering peak above. The stinging pain of my my frozen fingers and toes beginning to drift away as I caught my first glimpse of the magnificent glacial towers atop the crater rim.

But the moments that keep lingering, the ones that I hold on to the tightest as time passes by, are the afternoon song and dance parties that the porters would initiate after getting us settled at camp. Laughing at each other and ourselves as my buddies and I butchered the Swahili words. Busting out our best moves on the side of the mountain while bystanders gathered around to watch.

I certainly will never forget the moment when I spotted my Tanzanian brothers below me as I ran/skied down the steep scree on my way back to high camp after a successful summit. They had hiked quite a way up from camp to greet us with proud grins, high fives, and big hugs.

This incredible group of young men left a big impact on me. They are tough as nails and strong beyond belief. More so than that, their lighthearted spirits, positive demeanor, and generosity are almost baffling when I think about just how difficult their jobs (and lives) are. Porters on Kilimanjaro earn less than $10 USD on average per day. Relative to the general population in Tanzania, that is a very decent income, but these young men are still struggling to feed and clothe their families. The job is seasonal, highly competitive, and of course dangerous. Most of them lack proper mountain clothing and footwear, primarily relying on donations from clients at the end of a trek. On top of this, many porters are overworked and unfortunately many companies fail to implement proper safety measures for them.

More so than ever, I understand how important it is for me as a climber to do my part in helping to raise awareness about issues such as this on the mountains I climb. By educating ourselves and refusing to accept unethical treatment of porters, we can help implement the necessary changes and protect these hardworking men (and women).

If you’re interested in this issue or are considering climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in the future, I encourage you to learn more about KPAP (Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project) and the important work they are doing: https://kiliporters.org

Another resource to check out is Tourism Concern. The organization is working hard to eliminate unethical treatment of porters across the globe: https://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/porters/