Situated only a few hours away from Tanzania’s border with Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro and its 5,896 metres stands as the African continent’s highest point. Every year, thousands of people from across the world come to Tanzania to try to make it to the rooftop of Africa.
However 40 per cent of those who try to climb it, do not make the summit to, Uhuru (Freedom) peak, often because of altitude sickness. It’s estimated that every year around eight people die in their quest to conquer Kilimanjaro although official figures are difficult to find.
Over the last few decades hiking up the Tanzanian mountain has become a lucrative business for tour operators and for many Tanzanians, guiding people up and down the mountain is a tough full time job.
Shebaz Mohamed Baab, a mountain guide working for Zara Tours, has been up to the top of Kilimanjaro over 150 times. He told said that becoming a tour guide involved going to university to do environmental studies as well as learning the ropes of the trade as you worked your way up the different jobs.
“I’ve been in school on ecology for three years and then I started working as a porter for six years, then I came to be a waiter, then learning cooking from other guides, other cooks, and then I began training as a mountain tour guide, and now since 2003, I was a guide until now.”
Working on the mountain is hard. Porters have to carry heavy loads and arrive at the next camp before the group of hikers. Chefs and waiters have to wake up in the early hours and make sure they have the right amount of food. The weather can also be a challenge with temperatures that can drop to -25°C.
The Tanzanian government and Kilimanjaro’s national park are now trying to regulate the wages as in the past some tour operators barely paid their employees.
Porters are paid on average seven euros a day to carry heavy loads up the mountain while the guides get 11 euros. Those working the mountain rely heavily on tips.
Shebaz says conditions for those working up and down the mountain have improved.
“When we started we didn’t have porters’ associations, guides’ associations and also the guides were very few on Mount Kilimanjaro. But right now we have 3,000 guides in different companies and also porters now are not carrying heavy things, they carry 15 kgs and they have good mountain equipment like shoes, boots, warm clothing and sleeping bags.”
Basil Gifend is currently an assistant guide. He says that aside from the physical challenge, he finds it difficult when the mountain gets too tough for some of his customers. He finds it difficult to convince them to continue or stop when they detect altitude sickness.
First-timers aren’t the only ones who can be affected by altitude sickness. Indeed feeling dizzy, suffering from headaches and nausea also affect those who have been up the mountain many times. That’s why Shebaz says it’s important to know all the tricks of the trade.
Drinking around three litres of water a day and eating plenty is crucial for anyone hoping to make it to Uhuru peak. Mohammed has been a waiter on the slopes of Kilimanjaro for the last four years. He may speak very little English but is friendly. Singing in the morning is a conforting way to wake up trekkers ahead of their long walking days, he finds.
Although Kilimanjaro has far more visitors than Mount Everest, the only Africans who seem to be interested in climbing it are from Kenya or South Africa. Very few Tanzanians climb their national mountain.
Tanzanians are lazy, Shebaz says. They “see Kilimanjaro like their home but they never know what’s on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro”.