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Porters are unheralded heroes of Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro

For every foreigner who climbs Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro, at least three Tanzanians swarm up the volcanic slope as porters, carrying 50-pound bags on their heads. Their one complaint: low pay. 

By Alan BoswellMcClatchy Newspapers / January 19, 2012

A climber walks past a glacier at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the world's largest volcanoes and the highest free-standing mountain, in Tanzania in this January 2006 file photo.

Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters/File

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Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Up from the equatorial plains they climb, into a dripping rain forest, through a shrub-riddled wasteland and across a desolate alpine desert before finally making a nighttime trudge up the lonely ice-capped crater that's Africa's tallest peak.

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Every year, some 50,000 or so adventurous foreigners brave the oxygen-starved air atop Mount Kilimanjaro for the stunning dawn view of the hazy shapes and shadows from which they emerged just days before.

The tourists, however, aren't the only ones who make the journey. In fact, the foreigners are vastly outnumbered. For every foreigner who climbs Kilimanjaro, at least three Tanzanians, and often many more, swarm up the volcanic slope like worker ants, 50-pound bags perched precariously on their heads and baggy shirts flopping over their skinny frames.

For the world's restless travelers, the allure of Kilimanjaro is clear: It's the world's highest free-standing mountain, yet ascending it requires no technical climbing skills, and its icy chill is far more bearable than most comparable altitudes, thanks to Tanzania's tropical location. Middle-aged professionals and 60-something retirees aren't uncommon on its trails.

The flip side of that is that all these amateur hikers need help.

That's where the Tanzanians, with their blistered feet and sore backs, come in.

Kindness of strangers

Each tourist who climbs Mount Kilimanjaro needs at least three porters to labor beside him or her. One route, Marangu, offers huts instead of camping, but even that journey requires two porters per hiker. The more expensive and luxurious tour operators may assign six or more porters for every client.

Scrunched atop their heads and straddled across their backs are tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food, pots and emergency medical equipment, plus the porter's own necessities. Most groups also bring along mess tents and chairs for shelter during meals.

Veterans of the mountain joke over evening meals about how their quests for jobs in this chronically impoverished country drove them to take on Kilimanjaro's challenge. Now, at least, they can laugh about it.

"I didn't think I could do it again," said Athumani Juma, a senior guide, shaking his head in memory of his first portering assignment. The second time was barely better, he said. The third trip was easier — but it never got easy.

And he was one of the lucky ones. With his father's financial help, he was able to take a guide certification course, and he works for one of the mountain's busiest trekking companies.

For most, though, the several hundred dollars required to get certified are out of reach. They simply make a career of sweating on the mountain, hoping that friendly tourists take a charitable interest.

For them, Kilimanjaro is a series of seven-day hikes through knotty boulders, rolling wet clouds and, as happened on one trek in late December, stinging hail and rain with gusts of icy wind.

Many tourists don't make it to the top, seized by exhaustion or altitude sickness: nausea accompanied by an intense headache and, sometimes, hallucinations.

Porters gradually acclimate to the higher altitudes after their first trips. But many receive only one meal a day and lack proper cold-weather attire or hiking shoes.

Low pay

They also complain about their pay.

"It is not enough. It is not enough," Beny Satu, a 23-year-old porter with dreadlocks and a quick smile, kept saying about his $5-per-day wage, from which he doubts he can save enough to become certified someday.

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