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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. 

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Satu ought to be earning more. According to the website of the Tanzania National Parks, under a section titled "Regulations and Park Fees," porters are to be paid a minimum of $10 a day for their work. In a country that had a gross domestic product of $527 per capita in 2010, that would be an attractive wage, except that the work is seasonal and sporadic. Even during the busy period, many porters get only one or two weeks of work a month.

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"There are very few companies paying the $10-per-day wage for the porters," said Karen Valenti, the head of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project in Arusha, Tanzania, a jumping-off point for the climb.

Since 2004, Valenti, a Denver native and former Peace Corps volunteer, has led the small organization, which seeks to persuade companies to meet certain standards for treating their porters and to submit to a monitoring program. In exchange, the companies get free publicity on the group's website.

Only six companies signed up when the project began, but it now boasts 98, including an increasing number of Tanzanian operators, which traditionally have offered lower prices for budget-conscious travelers.

Many porters aren't paid properly, Valenti said, because no one institution is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage.

Enforcing the minimum wage

Reached by phone, the Tanzania National Parks service said the wages listed on its website were announced by the tourism minister after an agreement with a porters union, but it stopped short of saying the rates are legally binding.

"I would not say they are breaking the law," Ezekiel Dembe, the director of planning and tourism, said about companies that don't pay the listed minimum wage, "but they are not giving justice to the porters."

Provided with a website link to the wage rates, Sirili Akko, an executive at the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators, hesitated at first over the phone about whether the wage is required of its members or how the group enforces those wages. But in response to emailed follow-up questions he said that members must pay "at least the rates suggested by the government." The business consortium relies on complaints from porters unions and customers to enforce the rule, he said.

Porter surveys conducted by Valenti's organization show that in 2010, the average porter wages for partner companies rose to about $6. For non-partner companies, the wages were a little less than $5. When tips were included, the average porter pocketed nearly the $10-a-day minimum.

That's progress. In the three years since the surveys started, the average wage for the non-partner companies nearly doubled.

"The situation is improving," said Valenti, whose organization is branching out into offering free classes and donated clothes to porters.

Although outsiders might find the porter system bizarre or even offensive, the porters themselves aren't complaining: They need the work. They just want to be paid, fed and clothed better, especially considering that most companies charge a minimum of $1,500 for a hike. Many packages cost two or three times that.

"It is very little money," Satu, the young porter, said of his nascent career. "This past year we got a raise. We are hoping this year to get another raise."

(Alan Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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