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Allure of Tanzania's Mt. Meru

Dawn over Kilimanjaro, from Meru's summit

Anderson Lucus (l.) and his uncle, with the author

Mt. Meru summit
by Rocky Lis

[From Summer 2010] Anderson Lucus is a jovial, lean, 21-year-old Tanzanian with dreams and ambition. Like many young Tanzanians, he likes R&B music, especially that of the Senegal-born Akon. Anderson recites his lyrics, but wastes little time. After only his second day on the job as a trek porter he is aiming high, to become a mountain guide. He knows that the route to becoming a guide is long and arduous. A member of the Iskuma tribe, Anderson is a man taking life into his own hands. He is putting himself through school with the understanding that he is not alone in his dreams, and competition is fierce. But Anderson is determined. In his spare time he studies the English dictionary or reads novels to improve his English skills.

I met Anderson while trekking up Tanzania’s Mt. Meru. The 5th highest peak in Africa (4,560 metres or 14,961 feet), Meru sits within the Arusha National Park. The park hosts a range of ecosystems ranging from savannah to tropical rainforest to Afro-alpine. If the allure of Meru doesn't satisfy thrill-seeking tourists, there is Kilimanjaro; at 5,895 metres (19,341 ft) it is the highest peak on the African continent. Thousands of tourists attempt the summit every year, but the physical demands of the trek, coupled with the extreme altitude, results in about half of all trekkers failing to reach the summit.

Volcanic activity of the region has rendered other natural wonders. The Ngorongoro Crater conservation area, contiguous to Serengeti National Park, forms a protected area that hosts the greatest density of charismatic megafauna (elephants, giraffes, herds of wildebeest, gazelle, zebra, lions) on the planet.

The city of Arusha - a lush oasis among dry scrublands - straddles the lower reaches of Meru, a volcano that erupted 6,000 years ago, leaving behind the dark, fertile soils that feed the region. Ambitious Tanzanians flock to this bustling city in search of work, prosperity and adventure. Arusha attracts an overwhelming crowd of opportunity seekers, and many are left without a piece. Those with more education and motivation, and a bit more luck, find jobs as taxi drivers, hotel and restaurant workers, safari guides, safari/travel company workers, mountain guides, cooks and porters. Porters are considered among the lowest rungs of the mountain tourism industry. Their job is to act as human packhorses, carrying backbreaking and unpractical loads of army tents, stoves, food and other implements that make trekkers’ experiences more enjoyable.

A porter’s base wage is paid by the park to ensure they actually receive their day rate of 6000 Tanzanian Shillings (just over $3). Treks up Mt. Meru take about 3-4 days, while treks up Mt. Kilimanjaro range from 5-10 days. Porters trekking Kilimanjaro can earn more provided they are able to do multiple treks within one month. Competition for porter work is fierce, and availability is inconsistent and depends entirely on tourist demand. During the wet season (March through May) visitor numbers plummet and work is scarce. Should a porter fall ill or become injured, work is not possible and no compensation is available.

Some porters work to meet basic needs. Others work to save up for an education in order to move onto other pursuits. Still others do not wish to escape the mountain, but rather are intent on continuing to work within its mists. The latter sort dream one day to achieve the prestigious and lucrative position of mountain guide. To become a certified mountain guide, one that can lead organized groups of tourists up the mountain, a porter must put in substantial time with trekkers on the mountain, and pass the obligatory administrative hurdles.

Just as there are many different routes up these mountains, a porter may choose many different paths en route to becoming a guide. The first step is to acquire at least 2-3 years experience on the mountain. This ensures the porter becomes accustomed to the challenges of the mountain environment and to the demands of the tourism-oriented service industry. Porters who have sufficient English proficiency and are well versed in natural history, mountain safety and the service industry, may apply to sit the two-week long mandatory guide training course. Still others, like Anderson Lucus, may opt to pursue higher education. This ranges from completing secondary school to taking intensive language, service or natural history courses, diplomas or university degrees.

A more stepwise approach that some mountain workers take is to begin as a porter for a few years and then become a cook. Compared to a porter, being a cook is a more financially rewarding, secure job. Although cooks still have some porter-type duties, their main task is to prepare meals for trekkers. As their English improves and they gain mountain experience, cooks are eventually given the added task of acting as assistant guides. This is especially important when part of a trekking group must turn back before reaching the summit, due to injury, or more commonly, altitude sickness. The guide can continue to the summit with the remaining trekkers while the cook, acting as assistant guide, leads incapable trekkers back down. After 5-10 years of mountain and assistant guiding experience, a cook becomes a good candidate for admission into the guide training course and certification program.
So why the strong allure for Tanzanians to become mountain guides? The most obvious attraction is the monetary reward. In addition to the $20 or so per day a guide receives from the trekking company, tips from satisfied trekkers can add up to a substantial sum. Less tangible, but equally important, is the prestige of being a mountain guide. Not only does a guide socialize with tourists from around the globe, but also bears sole responsibility for the health and safety of the trekkers. The guide becomes the “man or woman of the mountain,” the one with knowledge of the routes, the flora and fauna, and the one entrusted with the lives of foreign visitors.

Among the most rewarding experiences of my Mt. Meru trek was hanging out at the end of each day with the community of mountain guides, porters, cooks and rangers. Unlike other mzungus (foreign tourists) who often segregate themselves from their guides at the end of the day, I sought out the guides’ companionship. They were almost entirely young men, with the exception of a lone woman porter. Many spoke fluent English and wanted nothing more from me than to talk about their lives and learn a little about mine. We sampled each others’ food, sang songs and shared stories and ideas. The guides told of how they achieved their status, while the porters and cooks spoke of their dreams of becoming mountain guides. This group of young people was perhaps the coolest I had met in Africa - living the dream of the great African mountains and wanting to share this with visitors from around the globe.

Editor's Note: Rocky is a veterinarian in general practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has traveled and worked with the Canadian arm of VETERINARIANS WITHOUT BORDERS, a non-profit organization involved in development projects worldwide. For more information on VWB's work in the developing world, visit their website.

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