Women on the Trail: Two Porters’ Journey to Kilimanjaro – Part One

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Our Associate Elisa Spampinato shares the story of two young Tanzanian women, Nakijwa and Getruda, who’ve pursued careers as porters on Kilimanjaro. The interview was conducted on 6th October 2023, with interpreting support from Augustino J. Kobelo, Sustainability Coordinator at KLM Safaris, and organised by Gileard Minja, Managing Director at KLM Safaris.

The biggest trekking dream on the African continent has a short name: Kibo, ‘the house of God’, according to Maa, the language of the Maasai people. 

The highest free-standing mountain on earth – Kilimanjaro – has been featured in countless books, motivated many adventures and inspired fantasies for many travel plans. It continues to attract a large number of foreign visitors; every year 30,000 people attempt this trekking mission, for a minimum of six and a maximum of ten days, to reach the 5,895 m summit. There are many routes to Uhuru Peak, of varying difficulties and metaphorical significance, to reach the point of freedom: because Uhuru is Swahili for freedom.

Uhuru peak sign and Tibetan prayer flags on Kilimanjaro
Image by caromcdaid from Pixabay

The first time Nakijwa and Getruda placed their inexperienced feet next to the famous wooden board that announces the conclusion of their climbing journey, they did it after carrying someone else’s 20 kg backpack on their heads, necks and upper backs for 69 km. They are, in fact, two of those 80,000 people, among them porters and guides, who every year accompany adventurous travellers along their trek, allowing their lifetime trip to become a reality.

Nakijwa and Getruda are two local young women, 22 and 21 years old respectively, who a year ago embraced their decision to become porters. But this job-hunting experience, like the climbing experience itself, was not a journey free of obstacles.

Attractive Peaks: The Lure of Kilimanjaro

What Kilimanjaro represents to the local population is as obscure to us as our relationship with, and knowledge of, the many indigenous communities living at its foot – weak and scarce.

We can only get a glimpse of it. However, based on the little glimpse we had, we think it is safe to assume that the mountain’s strong presence is paired with equally forceful symbolism and a meaningful long-term relationship for the many tribes, such as the Chagga, that have known it for all of their existence on this land.

There is another strong certainty: if our two female porters hadn’t attempted the trip before, it’s not because the mountain didn’t appeal to them. We can find a sign of that fascination in its name: ‘The shining mountain’ – Kilima (mountain) Njaro (shining) – is the Swahili name given to describe the appearance of that uncommon, large white ‘thing’ (the snow) that keeps reflecting the sunlight in such a mesmerising way! Who wouldn’t be impressed by looking at that distant, massive source of this mysterious shining?

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Fascination is probably what local people still feel today, perhaps mixed with some of the traditional fear inherited from the time when this was an inaccessible place, which remained isolated due to the cold temperatures and the stories about evil spirits who supposedly inhabit it.

Nakijwa showed me that her fascination for the mountain is still very strong when she answered my question: “How did you feel when you reached the summit?”

She almost jumped out of her seat, opening her eyes wide and showing her shy smile to the camera. She couldn’t contain her excitement, even now, more than a year later, when she recalls the challenge: “I was really happy! Amazed to have accomplished that first journey.”

Still Further Away From It

In a separate conversation with Gileard, Managing Director of KLM Safaris, I learned that the locals have only started to get close to the mountain through tourism. “Our grandparents,” he stated, “only started climbing Kilimanjaro as porters in the 1980s.” 

It seems that Nakijwa’s feelings about the shining top are not that common after all. But there is a reason for it. During our conversation with them, Sustainability Coordinator Augustino confirmed,“the desire for Tanzanians to climb such a mountain is nowhere near as great as for foreigners.”

So, why is it not a normal thing for locals to do? Regardless of whether they want to or not, there is a very simple reason that acts as a strong deterrent: it is simply too expensive. 

On top of the National Park’s fee, there is a reservation fee that varies according to the number of days the climb will last. Above all, you cannot go there on your own; it needs to be an expedition with many other people, including a cook. A local cannot afford to visit a place that makes tourists invest a considerable amount of money, time and energy to get there.

Image by crobi15 from Pixabay

This is not the first time that I have witnessed this situation. I first encountered it while I was living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2007. It assumed bigger proportions in East Africa, when visiting Rwanda in 2022 and chatting with local community members and five-star resort employees about visiting the mountain gorillas. But this is another long and complex story with many factors to consider and which requires a few parallel reflections, including what type of conservation model a country has chosen.

We should come back to this topic another time.

Let’s go back to Tanzania and pay attention to the words of our young women’s story.

Their Journey to the Top

It wasn’t easy! First and foremost, from a merely physical perspective.

Getruda’s Preparation

Getruda put together an intense training programme to make sure she would be fit when the departure date arrived. She was doing regular jogging and a series of daily strengthening exercises, training her mind before her body, and making sure that her determination continued to be unshakeable until her body was ready for the challenge.

“Weren’t you scared that first time?” I asked her with the help of the interpreter, Augustino.

“It was normal,” she replied cryptically in her soft-spoken English. 

After she quickly clarified her reply with Augustino, he explained to me that she had recently passed through a very difficult life situation that was nothing in comparison to that journey. Moreover, the urgent need for money and the newly acquired income opportunity were her strong inner motivators. 

It was her mum, she admitted, who was really scared. However her apprehension turned into pure joy and pride when she saw her beloved daughter returning safely from her epic trip up the mountain.

Nakijwa’s Dad

Nakijwa’s journey was also filled with pride, happiness and the satisfaction of good earnings after a draining and unsuccessful job hunt for hospitality positions, which she didn’t have the right qualifications or formal education to apply for. 

In any case, her struggle before the first trip was less physical and more emotional, or at least this was what she chose to highlight to me. Initially, she couldn’t mention to her father that she was going to be a female porter on a medium-intensity route to Kibo for a total of six days. She couldn’t because her baba wouldn’t have allowed her to do it again and he might also have tried to stop her in the first place, if he had known about the first ascent beforehand. 

After a few treks, she needed to ‘bribe’ him with nice presents to show him the value of her new job, to finally make him accept her professional decision.

Much Harder for Women

Nakijwa’s dad is not an isolated case, though. Although the first female porters on the Kilimanjaro trails appeared in 1995, until a decade ago there weren’t many women performing this role. Today the situation has started to change, and we see encouraging signs of a positive shift, not only in society but also in the tourism industry.

However, we strongly believe that for the situation to shift positively, much stronger measures need to be put in place. More local and international tour operators – beyond the very few that are already doing an admirable job – should be determined to include strong gender equality policies and, above all, clear actions to guarantee the safety, equal opportunities and treatment for both genders.

Women porters today make up less than 20% of the total workforce, and their journey to the top is made even more difficult by the current unsafe environment, oppressive working conditions, but especially gender inequality.

Check back for part two of Women on the Trail following Nakijwa and Getruda soon. 

In the meantime, read about the transformative change happening for women connected to another part of the Kilimanjaro tourism industry. This is Tumaini’s story, one of many women who are thriving thanks to the Wamboma Co-operative, our impact project empowering local farmers.

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