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The Fight for Workforce Equity on Kilimanjaro

[This story originally appeared in the Wired section of Alpinist 72, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]

Kilimanjaro (19,341'), with the Western Breach visible, as seen from Shira 1 Camp at 11,500 feet. [Photo] Christian Pondella

Kilimanjaro (19,341′), with the Western Breach visible, as seen from Shira 1 Camp at 11,500 feet. [Photo] Christian Pondella

AT 2:30 A.M. in Arrow Glacier Camp, Lukiano Barnabas woke in the dark. It was the peak tourist season in Kilimanjaro, and Barnabas, along with another guide, two porters and two clients, were up early to avoid the heat of the sun. While the standard ways up Kilimanjaro can be done without climbing equipment, Barnabas’s group was headed for the Western Breach, a scrambling route widely known for its risk of rockfall.

Over a combined seven years of experience on the mountain, Barnabas had guided the Western Breach twelve times. Nevertheless, Barnabas, who goes by the nickname “Lucky,” felt apprehensive. Two hours into the climb, as they approached a steep rocky and snowy area, he noticed increasing gusts. The whole team donned crampons, but only the clients and the two guides had helmets. Barnabas, who led the group, heard a rumbling sound. When he looked up, he saw a cascade of stones rushing toward them. Barnabas instructed the group to lie on the ground. The rockfall lasted less than a minute. One client, who remained standing, sustained a broken ankle as a stone struck her leg. Barnabas and his team treated the injured woman and carried her five kilometers down to Lava Tower Camp. There, he radioed a ranger to arrange for a helicopter to transport her to a local hospital for treatment. The porters were fortunate to have evaded any serious head injuries this time.

Lukiano Lucky Barnabas at Arrow Glacier Camp (15,981'). [Photo] Lukiano Barnabas

Lukiano “Lucky” Barnabas at Arrow Glacier Camp (15,981′). [Photo] Lukiano Barnabas

Rockfall on the Western Breach has claimed many lives over the years. In 2006 three American climbers died and four porters were injured when stones tore through Arrow Glacier Camp. After the accident, the park closed the route and commissioned a team to investigate the accident. They determined that the increased hazard resulted from melting glaciers. When the Western Breach route reopened in 2007, the park ordered that groups climb earlier in the day. After witnessing the death of another climber in 2015, National Geographic photographer James Balog commented that the route seemed “appropriate only for serious alpinists who imagine that a summit is worth a serious risk of death.” Yet, some companies still offer climbs up the Western Breach as an option for clients who want to escape the crowds on other aspects of the mountain.

Barnabas feels he is “risking his life” every time he guides this route, and he knows “it’s not safe” for porters to climb without a helmet or other technical equipment. But the problems with working conditions for porters and guides extend beyond the Western Breach. According to a 2013 World Bank report, as many as twenty guides and porters have died on various Kilimanjaro routes every year. The causes of death range from rockfall to altitude sickness and hypothermia. The fight for fair pay, work benefits and safety has been ongoing for many years. In the past few decades, various organizations have attempted to come up with solutions to these labor issues. It’s long past time for all stakeholders, including climbers and trekkers, to listen to the voices of the local guides and porters themselves, to understand the gravity of the problems, and to support their proposed solutions.

A group of climbers with Barnabas on the way to Crater Camp via the Western Breach route. [Photo] Lukiano Barnabas

A group of climbers with Barnabas on the way to Crater Camp via the Western Breach route. [Photo] Lukiano Barnabas

At 19,341 FEET, KILIMANJARO is the highest peak in Africa, a massif so immense that climbers can experience a variety of environments on the way to the summit, from cloud forest to moorland to alpine. Ice surrounds the crater of this dormant volcano, pouring in tendrils like frozen lava down the upper slopes. These famous glaciers, portrayed in countless photos and tales, are rapidly losing ice because of melting and sublimation, and they are projected to disappear by 2033. Already, you see only fragments of even-grander ice structures that the early mountaineers once scaled.

Back in 1886, before any known ascent of the peak, the region to the south and west of the mountain had fallen under German imperial control. A year later, Hans Meyer set out with a large caravan to try to reach the top from the southeast. Above 16,000 feet, he encountered a “solid wall of ice” nearly 150 feet tall that blocked the way to the summit cone. “I saw that without the aid of the usual alpine climbing-tackle it would be impossible to scale it,” he recalled in Across East African Glaciers. In 1889 Meyer hired sixty-two porters, ten soldiers and two guides to accompany him and Austrian mountaineer Ludwig Purtscheller to the base of the mountain for another attempt. The porters were each charged with carrying sixty pounds of provisions, as well as their own gear. Fearing mutiny, Meyer had them whipped along the trek to Marangu, a town at the southeastern extent of the massif. From there, Meyer assembled a smaller group of porters to ferry loads in shifts to camps above 14,200 feet. Some staggered across the rough, volcanic rock without any footwear at all. A Swahili guide, Mwini Amani, stayed at higher elevations for nearly two weeks, maintaining camps for Meyer and Purtscheller on the upper mountain. While the European climbers reposed in a small canvas tent with camel hair blankets and sheepskin sleeping bags, Amani slept in what Meyer described as “a crevice between the stones,” piled with woody plants and herbs and a wool blanket for warmth as temperatures dropped below freezing. Day after day, Amani ferried water, prepared meals and kept a fire going–enabling Meyer and Purtscheller to focus on exploring the wind-scraped slopes until they were able to chop steps up the hard, clear ice and finally stand on the apex. While Meyer and Purtscheller became famous in international mountaineering circles for the first ascent, Amani was nearly forgotten, along with the many other workers whose labor underpinned the achievement.

After the turn of the century, German climbers formed the Kilimanjaro Mountain Club and oversaw the construction of mountain huts at 8,900, 12,000 and 15,800 feet along the Normal Route, a path that two surveyors traveled in 1909 that avoided the steep ice the first ascent party had encountered. Three years later, German climbers Fritz Klute and Edward Oehler made an ascent by a new route from the west and descended by what is now known as the Western Breach. As Cameron Burns notes in his guidebook, Kilimanjaro & East Africa, hotels in Marangu started to offer guided treks on the mountain by 1932. Additional trekking routes opened on different aspects of the mountain as more climbers aspired to summit Africa’s highest peak. By 1973, when the independent government of Tanzania designated the mountain as a national park, a few thousand tourists visited the area annually. Cutting-edge alpinists also continued to seek out more challenging lines. In 1978 the famous Tyrolean alpinist Reinhold Messner and Konrad Renzler climbed an eighty-meter pillar of ice that rises above the Balletto Ice Field and connects with the Diamond Glacier high on the western face. In February 2020, Canadian climber Will Gadd returned to try to make the third ascent of the Messner-Renzler route (the last was in 1983), but climate change had reduced the pillar to a dribbling icicle. In modern climbing tales, the loss of ice and snows often appears like the loss of history as storied routes vanish into thin air.

In 2019 a total of 50,000 people attempted to summit Kilimanjaro by trekking routes. Since at least 1991, as a response to conservationists’ concerns about deforestation and trail erosion, the government has required that all visitors be accompanied by a Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) registered guide. A 2013 World Bank report estimated that tourists generated seasonal jobs for 400 guides, 10,000 porters and 500 cooks. In order to work on Kilimanjaro, both guides and porters must join one of the local professional organizations that operate on their behalf. Among these groups, the Kilimanjaro Guide Association (KGA) was formed in 1999 and is one of the few organizations that provides training and that advocates for regional guides. Today, KGA has a total of 1,200 members. Porters obtain their identification cards to work on Kilimanjaro through entities such as the Tanzania Porter Organization (TPO), a nonprofit founded in 2013. The TPO now has 16,000 members. Its mission, according to the TPO website, is “to improve the working condition of all mountain porters and to protect the interest of the members of the organization.”

But the mistreatment and neglect of porters during the first known ascent of Kilimanjaro set a troubling precedent. Standard practices within much of the mountain tourism industry tend toward maximizing profits, at times at the expense of expedition workers’ welfare. Both guide and porter associations have faced systemic issues such as the lack of an industry-wide, legally recognized agency of enforcement that can effectively monitor the working conditions of local guides and porters and that can enforce safety regulations. Several hundred companies operate tours in the area, and many outfitters sell budget tours that often result in the underpayment of expedition staff to keep their prices low.

In September 2020, government officials and trekking outfitters acted together to help preserve the environment in Kilimanjaro by organizing a Leave No Trace effort led by fifteen tour companies, along with TANAPA and Kilimanjaro National Parks Authority (KINAPA). Similar widespread industry support has not yet emerged for long-term changes to ensure a permanently equitable and safe industry for the workers themselves.

Clockwise from top left: Glory Thobias Salema guides clients to the summit of nearby Mt. Meru, where giraffes frequent the trails. [Photo] Glory Thobias Salema; Alex John Laizer guides biking trips on the trails of Kilimanjaro. As Chairman of the Kilimanjaro Guides Association, Laizer says, I believe in educating people to change the world. We do this in different ways. [Photo] Alex John Laizer; Barnabas at the summit of Kilimanjaro. [Photo] Courtesy Lukiano Barnabas; Rehema Olotu. [Photo] Rehema Olotu

Clockwise from top left: Glory Thobias Salema guides clients to the summit of nearby Mt. Meru, where giraffes frequent the trails. [Photo] Glory Thobias Salema; Alex John Laizer guides biking trips on the trails of Kilimanjaro. As Chairman of the Kilimanjaro Guides Association, Laizer says, “I believe in educating people to change the world. We do this in different ways.” [Photo] Alex John Laizer; Barnabas at the summit of Kilimanjaro. [Photo] Courtesy Lukiano Barnabas; Rehema Olotu. [Photo] Rehema Olotu

MUCH OF THE TREKKING industry’s approach to risk management on Kilimanjaro still focuses heavily on the tourists. During the 2014 accident on the Western Breach, a helicopter was readily available for Barnabas’s client, who would have likely had the costs covered through travel insurance or payment out of pocket. But according to local guide Glory Thobias Salema, outfitters generally don’t pay for this service for their expedition workers. (None of the trekking operators Alpinist reached out to responded to requests for comment.) When guides or porters are injured, they often have to descend on foot, according to Salema. In more serious cases, porters might carry them out on a stretcher. But because they generally don’t have access to the same level of safety precautions as foreign climbers and trekkers do, local guides and porters are more likely to get hurt or to suffer from hypothermia and altitude sickness in the first place, Salema says.

“Porters die every year,” Barnabas explains. “What’s the common cause of death? Not having good equipment.” Few trekking operators provide gear to guides and porters. Instead, local workers are often expected to purchase their own equipment–a significant financial burden given their salaries. Current guidelines specify a pay of only $10 per day for porters and $20-25 for guides. Some expedition workers receive equipment for free as gifts from tourists. Others have to improvise. In 2010, when Barnabas first started out as a porter, he couldn’t afford hiking boots, so he used an old pair of shoes made of cow leather, which caused him to get blisters and lose toenails. Unlike their clients, porters and guides rarely get to own gear from the latest high-tech brands. According to Barnabas, they frequently rely on locally made items, often used and of lesser quality. Sleeping bags might be made of cotton. Melted snow penetrates shoes that aren’t waterproof, and cold seeps into jackets that lack thick insulation.

While TANAPA requires guides to have wilderness first-aid training, Kilimanjaro guide Alex John Laizer says, Barnabas estimates that around twenty percent of companies offer some form of it to their porters. “If they know first aid, then they will know when a condition develops and they can do something about it. They usually don’t know hypothermia or the red flags from lack of oxygen,” Barnabas says. Laizer observes that teaching first aid to porters could help the overall operations of any trekking company. Laizer has been the chairperson of the KGA for the past four years, and he has guided on Kilimanjaro for fifteen years; before that, he worked as a porter for two years. “If I get sick on the mountain, I know first aid,” Laizer says. “When a client has issues, I’m the one to take measures. Now, imagine if the issue requires manpower from a porter. For example, someone has a spinal column issue…. A porter must carry the person, but if he doesn’t know how to do this, this can be life threatening to the client…. The porters make up the engine of the group–so if the engine doesn’t work perfectly, then there’s no hope.”

Wages remain an issue for both porters and guides. The government’s salary guidelines for expedition workers have stayed the same since 2008, despite the increase in cost of living. While some companies pay more than the set standards, others offer less. Because of the high demand for jobs in the region, a worker who refuses to accept a lower amount can easily be replaced by someone else. Laizer is determined to educate his colleagues about how to negotiate for their rights. To curtail the practice of underpayment by trekking operators, Laizer believes guides should collectively refuse all offers below minimum wage. He hopes that the increasing shift from verbal to written contracts will be a means to promote transparency about pay and compliance with salary guidelines.

Many guides, including Barnabas, rely on expedition work to support their children and other relatives. During high seasons, from December to March and August to October, Barnabas leads one to two trips per month, earning around $600 per month plus tips. He notes that a decent base pay is important since tipping is never guaranteed. Rehema Olotu, who has been working as an assistant guide for four years, is paid only $15 per day–income on which her parents and younger brother also depend. Since the job is seasonal, most earnings remain insufficient to cover the expenses of workers and their families throughout the year. Moreover, because many porters and guides are freelancers, trekking operators don’t provide them with benefits such as life and medical insurance, Laizer says. Laizer has attempted to obtain a group plan for members of KGA, but he hasn’t been able to generate the minimum number of enrollees required by private insurance companies. According to a 2009 ODI report, “Even though climbing staff wages are high relative to other unskilled employment in rural Tanzania, they are unlikely to raise an average household above the international poverty line of US$2 per person per day without being supplemented by other sources of income.” Salema says that workers still generally need other jobs to support their families.

Asifiwe Makere at sunrise near the summit of Kilimanjaro. Glory Thobias Salema launched the TWGF in 2015, she says, to empower women to become guides. [Photo] Asifiwe Makere

Asifiwe Makere at sunrise near the summit of Kilimanjaro. Glory Thobias Salema launched the Tanzanian Women Guides Foundation (TWGF) in 2015, she says, “to empower women to become guides.” [Photo] Asifiwe Makere

Women who want to become guides face additional challenges. Born in nearby Machame Village, Salema chose to pursue the profession because of her lifelong love of the mountains. She began as a guide trainee on Kilimanjaro in 2012, when she was twenty years old. At the time, she says, only one other female guide and five female porters were working on the mountain. “Women who hike, travel or bike are uncommon in Tanzania,” she says. “As a guide, you have to be out of the home for weeks…. In our culture, women stay home and care for the kids.” After Salema obtained her guiding license, she found work through a few trekking operators with whom she was already connected–an opportunity not available to most women, she acknowledges. In 2015 Salema launched the Tanzanian Women Guides Foundation (TWGF), which was recognized as a nonprofit organization in 2017. Dedicated to helping women succeed as both mountain and safari guides, the TWGF offers a month-long field course during which potential guide candidates demonstrate their physical and leadership abilities. Candidates who perform well can then enroll in a government-run guide-training course, and the TWGF pays their fees. Through this process, a woman can become a certified guide in just three months.

Certification, however, doesn’t guarantee employment. Olotu, who trained with Salema in 2016, spent six months looking for a job. “It’s hard for first timers,” she says. “Not everyone trusts us…. [Tour operators] think we can’t do what men do. They think we can’t solve the same problems. They see us as weaker than men.” Eventually, a company owned by a woman hired Olotu. To date, TWGF has trained twenty women as guides, a majority of whom now work as freelancers with various outfitters. Olotu has noticed that more companies these days are amenable to hiring women, and more women are also gaining interest in expedition work.

Alongside the increase in women’s representation, Salema points out other issues that need to be addressed. First, she says, female guides and porters need women-only tents to ensure a higher level of privacy and safety on the trails. Second, she thinks that tour operators should offer alternative job responsibilities to women on maternity leave so they can continue earning some much-needed income while they’re away from the mountain. For instance, tour operators could provide female guides administrative or office work during this time. “Working with men is still a problem,” Salema adds, since women are subject to extra scrutiny from male coworkers and employers. “But it takes time. When you, as a woman, go [to the mountains]–you have to do your best. The respect will come from how we do the job.”

WHILE GUIDES SUCH AS Olotu, Salema and Laizer have noticed some improvements in the conditions of expedition workers over the last few years, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic emphasized how fleeting those gains were. Guests began to cancel trips to Kilimanjaro in March 2020, Salema recalls. “International flights were banned so we stopped getting tourists,” she says. “We lost our jobs as quickly as that.”

Many guides were financially unprepared for the crisis and had to find other means of employment swiftly. Barnabas began renting a ten-acre farm in the countryside to grow maize and beans. Olotu is now entirely dependent on her small business of selling shoes, but the income isn’t enough to provide for her family. “No one is buying because of COVID,” she says. Other guides, such Asifiwe Makere, have gone without work for months. Makere has begun re-selling fruits that she obtains from farms or markets, but she’s concerned about the upcoming month’s expenses: rent, food and school fees for the two younger siblings whom she supports.

The impact of the pandemic has been worse for porters, Barnabas says. He and Makere and Olotu agree that salaries need to be higher for the entire workforce–guides, assistant guides, cooks and porters–to make it easier for everyone to save money for future emergencies. In addition, Salema advocates for a yet-to-be-established umbrella organization that would provide entrepreneurial classes to guides and porters so they can start their own businesses and avoid the need to rely solely on tourism.

By July, the Tanzanian government decided to open the borders for tourism. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism had already issued its standard operating procedures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, requiring guides and porters to have personal protective equipment including masks and gloves while interacting with guests. As with other safety gear, many porters are suffering from the cost of having to purchase this extra equipment themselves, Barnabas says. “Porters are asked to buy these items (mask, sanitizer, soap) before they can get a job,” Barnabas says.

But Covid-19 has also reignited the discussions about the overall health of the workforce. Laizer believes this is an opportune time to revisit the lack of insurance. “Anything can happen anytime,” Laizer observes. “Our income is seasonal. There’s low season when there’s no work. Just like the pandemic–if you’re sick during this time–how do you get treated? You may end up losing someone’s life because you cannot pay. But with health insurance, you can be taken care of more easily.” Salema has also engaged in conversations with the Tanzanian government about the need for medical and life insurance. She envisions an umbrella organization that will offer these benefits for its members and that will advocate for the rights and well being of all tourism workers.

Barnabas, Salema, Laizer, Olotu and Makere agree that visiting climbers and trekkers have the potential to become powerful advocates for lasting, industry-wide changes. Clients can directly inquire about the working conditions of porters and guides before choosing a particular outfitter. They can conduct their own independent investigations by observing firsthand the type of gear and shelter that porters and guides have available on the mountain. They can ask their guides and porters how much they’re being paid and request receipts from operators as confirmation that these amounts aren’t below the minimum wage. Since the system depends on visitors’ money, they could be more vocal about the reforms they want to see. Salema attributes the rising number of female guides, in part, to tourists who have urged trekking operators to hire more women. “If a company says they don’t have women,” she advises, clients should “consider another company.”

“The people working on the mountain are important,” Olotu says. If [trekking operators] treat us well, then we can also treat the clients well.” In recent years, the melting snows of Kilimanjaro have become a powerful symbol for climate change, and worldwide empathy has arisen for what environmental historian Mark Carey has termed “endangered glaciers.” The plight of local residents is all too often forgotten. Amid the precarious environments of our warming planet, as the ecosystems of crops shift in the valleys and as objective hazards of rockfall and icefall surge in the heights, members of vulnerable mountain communities will continue to confront additional challenges. Pandemics and other crises may spread in the future. By paying attention to more than just the attainment of summits, climbers can begin to perceive a larger landscape in which everything is connected. We can recall our human responsibilities not only toward the places where our adventures occur, but also toward the people who live in these mountains, who love them and who depend on them for their own sustenance and survival. There’s no better moment to be an advocate for change than right now.

[This story originally appeared in the Wired section of Alpinist 72, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]