I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last week. It was amazing. My inner nature-loving nerd was very much in his element for six days of trekking through the wilderness. But, while climbing and taking advantage of the overabundance of time to think, I was reminded of one of the main reasons children are pushed to live on the streets; simple poverty.
In East Africa, even at 19,000 feet, one can’t escape the fact that sometimes the best jobs still don’t pay enough to help a family escape poverty. On Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was reminded of this by watching the many porters that scaled the mountain carrying more than one-hundred pounds of food and equipment. It is these porters that make Kilimanjaro such an accessible mountain in spite of its size and height.
I climbed the mountain with my friend, Jonathan (yes, we were referred to by other climbing teams as “Team Jonathan”). For the two of us, we had two guides and four porters. Before you call us pansies, I should tell you that this is typical. Another group who we became friends with (Team Canada) had 10 porters and two guides for a climbing team of three people. Yet, another group of 7 hikers (Team NATO) had 25 porters. The mountain is climbed by an army of porters who are there to help just a few tourists get to the top.
Porters work hard. I can’t quite describe how hard they work. But, imagine climbing for four days with a five gallon propane tank balanced on your head. Or imagine doing it with a portable kitchen on your head and two backpacks full of equipment strapped to your back. It’s not easy.
In spite of the challenge of the work, it is a sought after position. When leaving the bus stations in nearby Moshi or Arusha, one is accosted by several hopeful-porters wanting to be hired by the brave climber who would rather hire his own crew than go through a climbing company. The number of young men clamoring to be a porter shows just how little opportunity there is in the local economy.
The weakness of the economy really comes to light when you find out how much each porter is paid. While climbing, Jonathan and I began calculating how much we had paid our tour company for our mountain experience and started to estimate how it was divvied up between park fees, paychecks, equipment, and transportation costs. We figured that each porter was paid $18 to $20 for 6 days of work. Ouch!!! I’ve never felt like such an imperialist before. Our climbing company gave us guidelines of how much to tip each porter at the end of the week. Even with the amount they suggested, each porter would only take home $50. Ouch, again!!!
Jonathan and I spent a lot of time discussing how much money to give the porters. We considered what $50 can buy in the local economy and mentioned that it was better than the alternative of having no work at all. A second hand coat is only $4. A hotel room is only $5. How could we afford to give more? We’re students, after all. But, we returned to the topic again and again and each time we would increase our tips by a few bucks. These porters have children. There’s no way any of these porters can afford health insurance. And considering the work environment these people work in, a life insurance after a heart attack is would be imperative. $50 for a week of hard work is exploitation. These are parents. These porters are killing their bodies for a pittance of a paycheck. By the end of the reoccurring conversation, we had committed to give well over the suggested tip amount.
Besides being a firm believer in tipping karma, I couldn’t help but think about the children of these porters. Children are expensive and I don’t think a $50 income once or twice a month could pay for the health and education of a child. Even if it could pay for the needs of a child, the porters had earned more than $50 for their work.
At the end of the week, when we gave everyone their tips, the smiles on the faces of the porters made us glad we had given a bit extra. Yet, after leaving the mountain, I woke up one night and thought more about how much we gave them. I figured that even if every climber tipped over the suggested tip amount, the porters would still not be making enough to provide basic healthcare for their children. Ouch!!! My mind flooded with needs that couldn’t be met. And in the back of my mind, there was the constant nagging of the thought that the children of these porters are some of the children who are the most at risk of becoming street children.
Posted By Jonathan Homer
Posted Jul 30th, 2007