Deadly journey: Female porters on Mount Kilimanjaro face sexual abuse
Deadly journey: Female porters on Mount Kilimanjaro face sexual abuse
Waiting for her turn to check in at Mweka Gate, Suzie is the only female amidst a dozen of male porters, who scale up Mount Kilimanjaro for a wage.
Suzie feels lonely and frustrated, as she reflects on the six-day deadly trek to the world’s highest freestanding mountain peak with a tourist’s 20-kg luggage on her shoulders.
Suddenly the horror into which she bumps into time and time again on her way to the roof of Africa is written all over her face.
Sadly, no one is interested in listening to her silent cries, let alone relieving her of both mental and physical agony that she often comes across in closed doors of tents.
And poverty leaves her with limited options. In her mind, Suzie thinks she either becomes a prostitute or a porter to eke out a living and to fend for her destitute parents. She chooses the later to protect her dignity.
Suzie shoulders a 20-kg knapsack laden with valuables of tourists and climbs Mount Kilimanjaro along with them, tour guides, rangers, and other porters to earn a decent income.
Little did she know that not all that glitters is gold. She went back home joyously when she secured the job with no academic credentials in 2014.
“My first trek to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro with a 20-kg knapsack on my shoulders was burdensome,” recalls Suzie, as she recounts the plight of few female porters engaged in the tedious task.
Porters walk five to six hours every day with heavy baggage on their shoulders, as they contend with extreme weather and altitude sickness.
But Suzie has, in addition, to cope with the lust of three sexual predators along the route, each competing for a night in bed with her.
“The first intruder was a tour guide, my immediate boss. Then came a ranger, and finally a male porter, each pledging his love for aye,” Suzie recalls the day, which never escapes her mind.
To turn down both offers of sleeping with her boss or the ranger, she had no other options than to share a tent with over 14 male porters, including the one who had tried to seduce her.
“I spent a sleepless night over fear of being raped by a group of men. I cried silently because I was like a captive in the middle of enemies,” she recalls.
Luckily, they did not rape her, but they ridiculed her, as they kept on asking her “why don’t you find a man to take care of you?”
Suzie (not her real name) is but only one of nearly 100 young girls who risk their lives in their desperate attempts to earn US dollars from tourists climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Ruthless tour guides, rangers, and fellow porters consider them their rightful prey, forcing them into “sexual slavery.”
“The mountain hike is a very risky task to us female porters; the environment is harsh. We often run into physical and sexual abuse, but life has no mercy,” Suzie explains.
Indeed, a random survey and climber’s tales confirm the hostile working conditions to female porters climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
They share bathrooms, toilets, and other basic facilities with their male counterparts, denying them their fundamental human right to privacy.
This is in addition to a shocking scale of abuses, not easily noticeable to men, from some pitiless tour guides, rangers, and fellow male porters.
A seasoned tour guide, Mr. Victor Manyanga, confirmed to this reporter that indeed female porters face sexual harassment on both Mount Kilimanjaro and Meru.
“This work is dominated by males because of obvious reason. It is extremely tough. Owing to the harsh working environment, females find themselves in sexual traps from tour guides, rangers, and their male counterparts,” Mr. Manyanga explained, stressing that tour operators need to guarantee female security.
He was of the view that the trend of female porters to share accommodation facilities with males should be tackled as part of addressing their historical injustice.
Tanzania Porters Organization (TPO) Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Loishiye Lenoy Mollel, confirmed the allegations of female porters being sexually abused while on duty.
“Sexual harassment against female porters is real. We’re struggling to advocate for their rights, but as you know, we are incapacitated,” Mr. Mollel explained.
TPO needs key personnel like an advocacy expert, a human rights lawyer, public relations professional, and institutional capacity building for it to effectively fight for the rights of its members.
The outfit urges tour operators to pay porters their due daily allowances instead of leaving the hiking laborers at the mercy of mountain tour guides who have of late reportedly turned both female and male porters into modern hiking slaves.
A report of the commission of inquiry the Kilimanjaro regional secretariat formed a few years ago to establish the porter’s welfare shows that a significant number of tour companies offer their porters a single meal a day, to the astonishment of many in the civilized world.
“This does not only risk the porters’ health, but also is a gross human rights violation,” reads part of the report of the commission chaired by Mr. Isaria Masam.
The report also indicates that a number of tour companies pay porters well below the set minimum wage of $10 per day.
The Tanzania Government Notice No. 228 dated June 29, 2009, dictates that porters should pocket the $10 per day, but 8 years down the line, the majority of tour operators still pay them as low as $6.25.
Tour operators are also required to provide porters with food, clothing, climbing gear, and shelter each time they scale up the mountain.
It is, however, reported that, in most cases, porters are not equipped with protective gear such as boots and warm clothing, and that more often they go without food as well.
Fierce competition among porters themselves leaves them vulnerable to unscrupulous tour guides, as they often crave for the job for years to no avail.
The Tanzania Associations of Tour Operators (TATO) Chairman, Mr. Willbard Chambulo, maintains that a majority of members of the outfit pay porters beyond the state’s laid-down minimum wage.
“We ask porters to reveal tour operators underpaying them for us to squarely deal with them for violating the law of the land,” Mr. Chambulo told this reporter.
Many tour firms reportedly do not cover porters with health insurance. “Nearly 53.2 percent of porters questioned said they have been footing medical costs themselves,” the report reads.
Porters also complain of working under an extreme environment without binding contracts with tour firms.
Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA) Chief Park Warden, Ms Bettie Loibook, says she had never heard about the sexual abuse facing female porters, promising to follow up on it. “How come they continue engaging in a job with full of risks like this?” she wondered.
Although Mount Kilimanjaro has been taken for granted as an “easy” peak to conquer, unofficial estimate shows about 10 people die on the mountain every year.
Porters are often at greater risk than tourists because they normally shoulder heavy luggage with no proper equipment and clothing.
Many tour companies, though, have policies requiring them to ensure their porters are adequately clothed and equipped with sleeping gear, yet the caretakers end up wearing only trousers, sneakers, T-shirts and a light sweater or jacket.
Writing in the UK’s “The Times” in 2008, columnist Melanie Reid states that up to 20 guides and porters die on Kilimanjaro every year – more than double the number of tourists who die on the peak.
The oldest porter still taking tourists to Mount Kilimanjaro by that time was 32. Most men were physically exhausted by their daily exertions well before the age.
“The plight of the Kilimanjaro porters is one of those quiet scandals that no one likes talking about, least of all the companies that organize the lucrative trips,” writes Melanie Reid.
“By Western standards, what is happening there represents the kind of exploitation long stopped on [Mount] Everest,” Ms. Reid writes.
“The 20 or so guides and porters who die on Kilimanjaro every year, do so from altitude sickness, hypothermia, and pneumonia brought on by inadequate equipment and the relentless, competitive pressure to keep working.
“By the time these young men reach their 30s, they are finished; their bodies burnt out by the pounding they take,” she writes.
“Kilimanjaro raises the universal issues of tourism casual labor, viable wages, and exploitation,” Ms. Reid writes in her article, raising issues of poor equipment, shelter, and medical care for porters on the mountain.
Described as the “world’s highest freestanding mountain,” Mount Kilimanjaro, with its three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira – is a dormant volcano whose height is 5,895 meters above sea level.
The mountain tops the bill in generating income among the country’s numerous tourist attractions.
The roof of Africa fetches $50 plus million annually, ahead of Ngorongoro Crater, which generates $33 million, and Serengeti National Park, which garners nearly $30 million.
There are about 3,000 porters operating around Mount Kilimanjaro at the moment.