Porters play a crucial role in supporting tourists on their climb to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. They carry all the supplies, including first aid, oxygen tanks and camping equipment. They set up tents and keep tourists alive and happy — all while doing the difficult trek. Without them, visitors would never be able to achieve the once-in-a-lifetime challenge of reaching Africa’s tallest peak at 19,341 feet above sea level, a journey that can last seven to eight days.
The mistreatment of porters in the tourism industry, however, whether in Tanzania, Peru or other parts of the world, continues post-pandemic. Whether by underpaying them or by failing to provide adequate hiking gear and equipment (some are forced to hike in flip flops while others have to pay a bribe to get selected to work), some workers remain at the mercy of tour operators.
That’s why it’s vital to choose a responsible tour company that’s a certified partner of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), a non-profit that ensures its members adhere to set standards for the ethical treatment of porters, including fair pay, and ongoing improved working conditions.
But who better to tell their story than the porters themselves? Tourism Lens spoke to Albert Sande and Samson Laiza — two porters who work for African Scenic Safaris, a Tanzanian owned tour operator based in Moshi that’s also a certified partner of the KPAP program. Albert and Samson talked about the plight of porters at other tour companies, why the company they work for is different, and why tourism is important to their livelihoods.
Tourism Lens (Lebawit Lily Girma): Share a little about yourself. Where are you from, how long you’ve been working with African Scenic Safaris.
Albert Sande: I live in Marangu, but it was born in Dar-es-Salaam. I’ve worked at African Scenic Safaris for five years right now.
Samson Laiza: I live in Arusha. I work for African Scenic Safaris for eight years now.
Tourism Lens: When did you first start working as a porter — was it at African Scenic Safaris or did you work elsewhere before?
AS: I started with African Scenic Safaris.
SL: I started in another company.
Tourism Lens: How old were you guys when you started?
AS: I’m 25; I started when I was 20.
Tourism Lens: What’s it like to be a porter for Mount Kilimanjaro?
AS: I love hiking, for sure, I love it. But the issues of porters you know, sometimes you can get it tough cause just imagine you can carry 20 kilograms and sometimes you can meet some rainfall. The mountain is changing every time; it’s changing like a chameleon. So sometimes you can meet rain, or a little bit chilly and you can feel cold. But I don’t see any problem from my side.
SL: I hike, I need to in order to make my life go easy, so I have to work.
According to KPAP guidelines, tour companies must pay a salary of at least 20,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$8.60) per day, not including daily tipping. For tourists, a Mount Kilimanjaro trek, not including airfare or lodging, can cost between $200-$500 a day, sometimes more, for seven or eight days.
Tourism Lens: I hear you — it’s an income. Are you still seeing other porters working with other companies that maybe don’t have as good (working) conditions as you do at African Scenic Safaris? Do you hear any stories?
SL: Yes we hear that. Sometimes they don’t have enough services. They don’t have good food, good meals, equipment, things like that.
AS: But here at African Scenic we don’t have problems compared to other companies. Other companies have challenges about shelter, about food, about all services. It’s not too good compared to African Scenic.
In high season, porters at African Scenic Safaris might climb three times a month or more.
Tourism Lens: Do you have friends who are in these other companies?
AS: Yes, yes, we have.
SL: Because sometimes we will be there on the mountain, they tell us the story about that.
Tourism Lens: That’s very difficult, no?
AS: Yes. It’s difficult. We already saw a lot of things about other companies because when we hike there we work together, we stay together in the same camp so we see a lot that’s different compared to African Scenic Safaris. It is very different because we have good services.
Tourism Lens: Do you hear whether porters are still paying to be selected to go up the mountain? I heard that sometimes porters pay money so the company will choose them to take tourists up to the mountain. Is that still happening?
AS: It’s happened but I don’t see it for most, for a little bit of people. Some people must obtain some chances to go there because you know that most, as we come from a poor situation, from poor families, so we depend on the mountain. Our families depend on us. So we must work. A lot of people desire to work with some companies and it’s difficult to get the chance to go so you would pay something for the person or anybody to give you a chance.
But here in African Scenic Safaris we have a system – we have a lot of people so we follow schedules. Our company starts (in) alphabetical (order), A up to Z, so if you climb, when you come down you must stay and wait for your (turn).
Tourism Lens: OK so the schedules are made fair so that everyone gets a turn. Do you see a difference in your work from before the pandemic and now?
AS: Right now we have a lot of visitors coming here compared to before the pandemic. During the pandemic it was a difficult situation.
“We depend on the mountain. Our families depend on us. So we must work.” – Albert.
Tourism Lens: Do you have a message that you want tourists to know? Tourists who read my platform — from America, Europe?
AS: For me, I have one message. I need tourists right now to come (a lot of people), and I think for anyone who already hiked the mountain Kilimanjaro to be good ambassadors for their neighbors, and families to come more. Because when they come more they can give us a chance to get more work. And know that here in Tanzania is so different compared to America. Because here if you’re helping one person it’s like you are helping more than five people; our families are dependent on us. So when you’re helping me, it’s helping five people who are standing behind me.
SL: At African Scenic Safaris, we love your business and we work hard in order to give back good service so you are welcome. When you come here, we go to work so we have some income.
Tourism Lens: And the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance project is important for people to know, right — that it’s important to choose a company that cares about porters.
AS: Yes. Like African Scenic Safaris, they care about porters and all the services are very good. We don’t have any challenges. So we have fair work compared to another company. A lot of people desire to work with African Scenic Safaris.
Tourism Lens: Wonderful. I really appreciate both of you making time to talk to me. I know you’re busy and you have other things to do. So, thank you so much for sharing your experience because a lot of times we hear about porters and we hear the stories — but we never hear from them directly. We never see your faces; we only see them in videos, but we don’t really talk to you so that’s why I wanted to do this. Thank you very much and thank you to Laura (at African Scenic Safaris) as well for making it happen.
AS: Thank you very much. Glad to meet you.
Tourism Lens: Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to go up Mount Kilimanjaro (laugh). I don’t think so. But I do want to visit Tanzania. Thank you Albert and Samson.
AS and SL: Thank you. Take care, you’re welcome, so much.
A Message for Tourists
I had planned to share just a transcript of this conversation and therefore didn’t have my light equipment set up at 7am. But since Albert and Samson were keen on having a video clip shared, here’s a snippet of the last portion of our interview.
A Message for Storytellers
African Scenic Safaris was the winner in the ” sustainable and regenerative tourism” category of GLP Films’ sustainable tourism storytelling competition. I had the honor of serving as a panelist judge for this category last year alongside my illustrious colleague, Ayako Ezaki at Training Aid.
Because the resulting video that GLP Films created did not feature the porters themselves, I decided to conduct this interview. Storytelling about an African destination should not be limited to featuring those who have received a formal western education. It’s about sharing the voice of those who are living the reality of tourism on the ground — and meeting them halfway to share their message.
My hope is that this interview encourages tour operators and others in the travel industry to place Africans in tourism at the forefront of storytelling, and not feature them solely as colorful props in entertainment scenes when in fact, the story you share with customers is about their livelihoods. Livelihoods that entire families depend on, as you heard Albert explain.
Tourism shouldn’t overlook and silence their voices just because they’re not fluent in English; better yet, it should offer to train them.
Thank you to Laura Sondermann, tourism manager at African Scenic Safaris, for advocating for Tanzanian porters and for helping to arrange this interview for Tourism Lens.