Among the porters of Mount Kilimanjaro

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2011

Maganga is not twenty years old.

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Photo by Jess Page
Photo by Jess Page

He told me this through a toothy smile.

“Oh! Oh no … not twenty … for me, maybe … for me, I don’t know,” he said.

In Tanzania there are more important things to remember than age. Maganga has a child, a wife, a younger brother, but no other family to rely on. He lives in a cinder block house next to the defunct railroad tracks in Pasua, a neighborhood dwarfed by the skyline of Mount Kilimanjaro. The house consists of a single room with a red dirt floor and a tin roof — typical for the neighborhood. The blank walls act as a perfect target for kicking a half deflated soccer ball late in the morning. We used to kick the ball back and forth in the shade of the banana trees before the day got too hot. We strung together the best conversation we could, both of us only knowing parts of the other’s language. This was our day off. When I asked him how many times he had climbed Kilimanjaro, he laughs hysterically and gave me a high five.

I waited for the answer.

“Ohhhh … sorry Billie … for me … maybe more than counting.”

We worked together taking clients to the top of the mountain on a team. I was the American guide, Maganga a porter and cook. Being a porter on Kilimanjaro is a sought after job in Tanzania, and considered a privilege in a country with high poverty, unemployment, and expensive education. In order to get the privilege of carrying eighty pound bags uphill on your head for a dollar a day, you need to know a guy, and do everything they say without question. When arriving at the gates of the mountain there are piles of men begging to carry your bags up the mountain, most of these men are in Maganga’s position, orphaned, without work, except they do not have the dollar a day to fall back on. Maganga used to tell me stories about trying to sneak into school. I told him stories about sneaking out.

The first few trips working together on the mountain there was a racial divide. I had my clean, quiet, boss tent next to the clients, which overall, was boring. They had a 20-person ripped tent blasting reggae music, complete with propane burner and card games that frequently broke into yelling matches. I wanted in. The first time I crossed the divide between tents the radio was switched off, I was offered a chair above the mud, and my team, who I just wanted to be friends with, hung their heads like naughty kids that I was going to lecture. There was a racial history here I could only partially understand, and due to a language barrier, I needed to find another common ground.

It took me three climbs before the breakthrough.

My key to the fun tent was a soccer ball. The porters of Kilimanjaro pledge their allegiance to the British Premier teams with a religious tenacity. The porters wear T-shirts with David Beckham and Christian Ronaldo like military uniforms and, back in town, most of the porters grew up wrapping banana leaves with twine and having pick up games in the red dust. I don’t know a thing about soccer — I grew up with ice hockey — but I knew that I didn’t need to communicate in broken Swahili when kicking a ball. We had our first pick up game on the Shira plateau, a large flat crater halfway up the mountain. We moved rocks to make goals, took our shirts off, and had the highest pick up game on the planet amongst the sagebrush.

It was five summits and many pick up games later that I found myself rolling out my sleeping bag in the porter tent. A propane deep fryer popped in the corner, the air smelled of cigarette smoke and reggae music blasted over the noise from the card games. Most of the team I climbed with lazed around on top of each other like sea lions on a beach, something that most American males snuff at. I laid my minus twenty down bag and Therm-a-Rest next to Maganga’s cotton pink sleeping bag adorned with Care Bear cartoons from the 1980s. I knew he was going to spoon me when it got cold, and I no longer cared. Maganga gave me the enthusiastic high five he always did, handed me a piece of banana chewing gum and pulled out my iPod. He shoves one headphone in his ear and the other in mine. Maganga, like most porters, listens to Celine Dion and Lionel Richie, which is something I have yet to understand. Some of the porters drank Konyagi, the local gin they tell me puts fire in your blood to keep you warm, but my team was mostly Muslim and sip hot pepper tea, which is far better for on a mountain anyway.

I can remember one summit morning when it was raining. Snow usually falls high on the mountain, but things can change. Maganga wore an Orlando Magic windbreaker from the early nineties and assured me it is a “very strong” raincoat. He stacked up t-shirts underneath to absorb the moisture. I had my Gore-Tex covering synthetic fleece and still felt cold. His “mountain shoes” were an old pair of Converse with six pairs of socks. Statistically, life expectancy for the people in this area is around 50 years, which is something I try not to think about when remembering Maganga and his son.

As we woke the clients to start the long slog up the final rocky slopes to the ice capped summit of Kilimanjaro, I realized we acquired a synergy that works up here. Maganga and I have virtually nothing in common, grew up in completely different worlds, and look entirely different from one another. However, on the mountain, we transcended these borders and enjoyed each others company. We helped clients across the icy crater rim at 19,000 feet, watched the colors of the sunrise over the Serenghetti Plains and felt like we are on the same team. On that mountain, Maganga was my best friend.

Back home in Juneau, I realize this is not a unique situation. Many of my climbing partners and I have nothing in common, and we only talk when we are out in the mountains. Up at Eaglecrest Ski Area, there are hundreds of people from different backgrounds, yet many are enjoying the thrill of the sport and share common goals. Mountains are a place apart, away from political affiliations and the financial stresses of town. Although time in the alpine can seem trivial, and climbing mountains paltry actions, it might be one of the most symbolic and important things we do. Mountains have a way of uniting us by taking us away from where we are comfortable and making us work together. Over time I have learned a lot from this transformation.

Maganga came to my apartment the day before I left Tanzania, but he wouldn’t come through the front gate. Instead, he waited in the dark road for me to come out. He wouldn’t normally come to this part of town, except that I had invited him. We greet each other with enthusiastic high fives, but he still won’t come past the barrier of the front gate. I hand him my old mountain boots as a gift before I go, he smiles and gives me another high five. We talked about good times on the mountain briefly, but he had to get home to his family and I needed to keep packing. He walked off towards Pasua with my old boots under his arm and didn’t look back. I found out later that he sold those boots to a German hiker on a street corner in Moshi for 5 bucks. I could have gotten $300 for them on eBay — but it doesn’t matter — I hope the $5 helped him get his family through the off-season.

• Bill Dwyer works as an international mountain guide and thinks Juneau is the best town on the planet.

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