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Kilimanjaro Porters: What You Need to Know Before Your Climb

When you successfully climb Kilimanjaro, you are in a very real sense, on top of the world. Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest peak and is often described as the Rooftop of Africa. It is also the world’s highest free-standing mountain. The views are simply breathtaking and that is one of many reasons why this powerful mountain has made it on so many bucket lists of tourists all over the world.

Many local people see Kilimanjaro as a sacred place and its summit is believed to represent the seat of God. It is little wonder that climbers who have successfully conquered Kilimanjaro view it as a spiritual and life-changing experience.

The highest point on the mountain is Uhuru Peak, which means ‘freedom’. However while climbing Kilimanjaro represents freedom to some, others are exploited by some of the travel companies that offer tours to Kilimanjaro.

Many of the budget tour operators are guilty of ignoring the human rights of Kilimanjaro porters and other local workers who are subjected to poor or dangerous working conditions and low pay. In extreme cases, porters have been found dead and left behind by their guides when they fell sick or had accidents.

Who are the Kilimanjaro Porters?

The Kilimanjaro porters are the dedicated men and women whose job it is to help tourists carry their gear to the summit. Most of the porters are local men between the ages of 18 and 40. They are hired alongside a team of trained professionals. These make it possible for tourists to navigate their way up the mountain.

Women are a smaller number of porters. They face the same challenges as the men, but with the added problem of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this is still a reality for female porters.

Without the dedication and strength of these crew members, climbing Kilimanjaro would be a mere dream for many.

How are porters exploited?

Kilimanjaro porters, Kilimanjaro Porters: What You Need to Know Before Your Climb

At Fair Voyage, we strive to create a safer working environment for tourism workers across the globe. With Kilimanjaro being one of our most popular destinations, we have a particular focus on ending the exploitation of porters in Tanzania, who often suffer the tragic consequences of unsafe working environments and low pay.

To understand the situation that many of these Kilimanjaro porters face, it is important to be aware of the hierarchy that exists. Unfortunately, as the situation currently stands, porters are at the bottom of the pecking order.

With so many tourism companies competing to offer the lowest prices, budget operators often try to take shortcuts to save money and this impacts porters the most, who get low wages as a result.

Most porters work on a freelance basis and are often forced to walk for many miles per day to get to Kilimanjaro National Park in the search for jobs. Unfortunately, however, they may even have to bribe one of the tour guides and pay an upfront ‘fee’ to get a job in the first place.

However, even those who do get a job are only slightly better off. Budget operators take advantage of the desperation of these workers and pay them the bare minimum they can get away with.

Do Kilimanjaro porters get a minimum wage?

Although there is a minimum wage for porters, TZS 20,000 (ca. US $9), operators usually pay much less than that. Some porters do not get paid at all for their work.

As a result, porters rely on tourists to get a tip to feed their family. With budget operators, tourists may find that they are hassled to give a bigger tip than they ordinarily would. Many tourists pay these tips in the belief that it will help the porters.

However, what they may not realise is that all too often, porters may then be cheated out of any tips they earn by guides who instead of distributing the tips to the porters, will sometimes keep it for himself.

Why inadequate equipment and preparation endangers lives

Kilimanjaro porters, Kilimanjaro Porters: What You Need to Know Before Your Climb

Many budget companies do not equip their porters with adequate equipment. As a consequence, porters are forced to sleep in poor quality tents and blankets instead of sleeping bags.

They are also not given the footwear they need to navigate their way up the terrain. This becomes increasingly problematic when temperatures start to drop.

At night time, the temperatures usually drop below zero. Without adequate shelter and clothing, it is not unheard of for some porters to die as a result of being exposed to these extreme temperatures. When this happens, they are simply replaced by other porters who are subjected to the same conditions.

All of this is compounded by the fact that some porters may get just one or two meals per day, which does not sustain them adequately for the journey ahead.

Weight limits for Kilimanjaro porters

Kilimanjaro porters, Kilimanjaro Porters: What You Need to Know Before Your Climb

Climbing Kilimanjaro would be impractical if you had to drag all of your heavy luggage and camping equipment up the mountain. Thankfully, every tour includes a team of porters that will literally take the weight off your shoulders.

However, many budget operators have exploited this and in some cases, porters have been required to lug up to 40 kilograms of luggage and equipment up the mountain. Even though the official Kilimanjaro park limit states that porters should not carry more than 20kg and climbers can observe luggage being weighed at park entrance gates, the reality might still look quite different for the porters. When guides and park wardens all struggle to make a better living, the temptation for bribery is high.

Furthermore, when porters who are not adequately prepared for the harsh mountain conditions fall sick on the mountain, their guides may not arrange for a replacement porter, so other porters have to take on the extra weight.

It is worth noting that even if you are allowed to bring 20kg, this is not ideal, especially at the higher altitudes. The total weight of all gear and supplies decreases as food supplies are getting used up, and responsible tour operators will also make sure to re-distribute the weight fairly among their porters every morning.

However, the personal climber bag weight generally stays almost the same throughout the climb. To be fair to the porter carrying your bag, the most responsible tour operators will restrict your personal bag limit to 15kg.

Fair Voyage: Creating a safer climb for everyone

Kilimanjaro porters, Kilimanjaro Porters: What You Need to Know Before Your Climb

The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) is a legally registered Tanzanian organization that is dedicated to supporting the fair and ethical treatment of Kilimanjaro porters.

They help porters by lending them free clothing and offering educational classes, such as training in first aid. KPAP also provides industry guidelines for proper porter treatment, educates the public on porter working conditions and encourages climbers to use companies that treat their porters fairly.

To know which companies treat porters fairly, KPAP offers a voluntary porter treatment monitoring program which is open to all licensed Kilimanjaro companies to participate with. The only acceptance criteria is that companies need to prove their adherence to the regulatory minimum porter treatment standards by agreeing for their climbs to be independently monitored by KPAP and meeting a minimum score throughout a climbing season.

It is worth noting that companies enrolled with the KPAP Partner program also tend to learn a lot about their own operations through the climb audits and feedback provided by KPAP. People working at offices and selling climbs can be very detached from the realities on the mountain. Company owners and managers may have the best of intentions, but without KPAP’s independent monitoring, they most often don’t even know how their own guides treat their porters.

Is Fair Voyage a member of KPAP?

Fair Voyage is partnering with KPAP to ensure that we only promote ethical climbs. We strictly only work with operators who are committed to ensuring porters are adequately equipped and paid fairly for their work. Our partners ensure that porters are given at least 3 meals per day and are not carrying more than 20 kilograms of luggage.

Please note that operators often claim to be KPAP Partners, or members of some other organization, without actually treating porters fairly. To verify that a company is indeed operating ethical climbs, please consult the official list of approved KPAP Partner Companies here.

The end result

By choosing a responsible tour operator, you are helping to ensure that both you and your porters have a safer, more enjoyable climb. The local teams that work for our partner companies also receive the adequate training they need to ensure that your climb is a safe and successful one. And they are sufficiently paid, nourished and equipped to attend to your comfort and safety, instead of struggling to meet their own most basic human needs.

At Fair Voyage, we commit to ensuring fair porter treatment and charging fair prices to our customers. Ultimately, it’s a win-win situation for all of those who dream of conquering Kilimanjaro.

Find more information about climbing Kilimanjaro and ethical climb offers here.

About the author

Janine is a travel content writer and blogger, with a background in marketing and journalism. She loves travelling and uses her writing to share her passion for responsible travel with others.

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