Deaths on Kilimanjaro Raise Concern About Porters' Safety

Sandra Keats
for National Geographic Adventure
November 15, 2002
The death of three Tanzanian porters on Mount Kilimanjaro nearly two
months ago has raised concern about the plight of local people hired to
accompany climbers scaling the world's big peaks.

The three men died during a violent storm on the 19,340-foot (5,895 meters) mountain—the highest peak in Africa. They were not all in the same party, but are thought to have died of hypothermia on the same day, September 17.

About 20,000 climbers attempt the ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro every year. Fall is the prime climbing season because the weather is relatively tame that time of year.

This year, however, the week of September 17 had the worst weather conditions on the mountain that some people had seen in a dozen years. "All week the rain was very heavy, with wind blowing extraordinarily," said Debbie Addison, co-owner and manager of South Africa-based Wild Frontiers. "Then there was a sudden drop in temperature, compounded by the wind chill coming down off the summit."

Her company had employed Anthony Minja, one of the porters who died.

According to a post-mortem report, 47-year-old Minja died of acute cardiovascular failure, most likely related to hypothermia and possibly altitude sickness. He had been climbing along the Machame route with a group led by Wild Frontiers' local operator in Tanzania, Keys Hotel and Tours, when he decided to descend the mountain on his own.

He separated from the main group on the third day of the six-day climb, and his body was later found at 12,630 feet (3,849 meters), between the Shira and Baranco camps. It had been his first trip up Kilimanjaro as a porter.

The other two porters had been working for Tanzania-based Zara International. One died along the Machame route, the other while climbing the Marangu route. The exact causes of their deaths was not reported, and no additional information about them was available.

Cash to Carry

Most Kilimanjaro porters and guides are members of the Chagga tribe, who live in the town of Moshi and surrounding villages at the base of the mountain.

For the most part, local Chagga towns have subsistence economies. Since 1977, however, after Tanzania's national parks service officially opened the Kilimanjaro Forest Reserve, tourism has become a primary source of income for the Chagga.

Most tour-guide companies and independent climbers employ local porters to carry equipment and supplies up and down the mountain, often in ratios of three porters to every client. Many of the porters carry the gear in large sacks that they balance on their heads.

"Frequent mountain-goers remark that porters will hang anything from any part of their body," said Mark Jaffee, a filmmaker whose recent Kilimanjaro documentary, Polé Polé, Days of Heaven, Days of Hell, chronicles his journey up the mountain.

In a region with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, porter jobs are in high demand. "In the morning, before parties take off, it is not uncommon to see hundreds of young Chagga men standing behind the Machame or the Marungu entrance gates at the base of the mountain, waiting for a guide to grab him and hire him as his porter," said Jaffee.

Porters are usually paid from three to six dollars per day, although most make significantly more in tips. "There is no employment in Tanzania. That's the only way of life—carrying heavy luggage up the mountain and then coming down," Julius Minga, a Chagga guide with the Keys Hotel, says in Jaffee's film.

Some local guides and porters have climbed the peak with groups more than 500 times, although they generally do not go all the way up to the summit.

Not So Easy

Although Kilimanjaro has a reputation as an "easy" big peak to climb, about ten people die on the mountain every year.

Writing recently in the U.K.-based magazine Climber, Ed Douglas argued that the fee structure of Kilimanjaro National Park contributes to the risks of climbing the mountain. It costs climbers U.S. $70 a day to be on Kilimanjaro, which encourages some trekkers to attempt the climb in as little as five or six days, increasing the likelihood of altitude sickness, Douglas charged.

"I don't object that the Tanzanians impose a fee—that's understandable in such a poor country," Douglas said last month in an interview. "I do have a problem with it being a daily rate because that's dangerous for porters and clients alike."

Douglas argues that those most at risk are climbers without high-altitude experience, and he believes such climbers are attracted to Kilimanjaro in large numbers.

Yet the porters, Jaffee says, are often at greater risk than their clients. Many of them are inexperienced, don't know what to expect on the mountain, and lack proper equipment and clothing, he explained.

Although many tour companies have policies requiring that the porters they hire be outfitted with adequate clothing and sleeping gear, Jaffee said he has frequently seen porters wearing only trousers, sneakers, t-shirts, and a light sweater or jacket.

According to the Kilimanjaro Porter's Association, the three porters who died in September lacked appropriate mountain clothing.

"The concern is enormous worldwide," said Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, a U.K.-based organization that lobbies on behalf of porters' rights.

According to the organization, porters on Kilimanjaro and other mountains popular with climbers are more vulnerable to frostbite, altitude sickness, and death than is commonly realized.

"As a result of our campaign, we now have 37 tour operators in the U.K. who have written policies on working conditions for porters and will only specifically work with ground operators that have clear guidelines for the treatment of their porters," said Barnett.

Lending a Hand

Tourism Concern receives numerous inquiries from people around the world who want to contribute clothing and money to help outfit porters properly for mountain conditions, according to Barnett.

A number of other organizations—including Himalayan Explorers Connection, International Porter Protection Group, Porters' Progress, and South American Explorers Club—are also concerned with ensuring safe and humane working conditions for mountain porters.

Himalayan Explorers Connection, for example, began the Porter Assistance Project in Nepal in 2000. The project is being expanded to sites in Africa and Peru.

At Mount Kilimanjaro, the group plans to provide a supply of suitable clothing that porters can borrow for journeys up and down the mountain. The project is also organizing programs and classes for porters, guides, tour companies, and tourists on proper practices associated with mountain climbing.

"If we can get everyone educated, then people will be policing themselves—like making sure your porter is outfitted, paid properly, and has a place to sleep," said Ken Stober, the group's development director.

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