Tipping Ceremony on Kilimanjaro

by Kshaunish Jaini

Climbing Kilimanjaro is now, by Tanzanian law, something you have to book through an agency . Gone are the days of the intrepid solo explorer, hiking the most famous mountain in Africa by himself.  The guidelines are also insistent that a minimum number of guides and porters need to be hired. Unless you are a professional explorer, you will end up actually needing more than the minimum number of recommended crew. This is, in part, because off the restrictions (by the same law) on the amount of weight that can be carried by your porters.

These same bunch of rules also specify the minimum wages that your crew should be paid, which is a woefully inadequate amount. Another quirk of the Tanzanian culture is a looser interpretation of the law. That, combined with the sheer number of people looking for work as a porter and the natural laws of supply and demand, may even mean that your crew may have actually paid money to be picked as a working porter on your trek.

Porters on Kilimanjaro

Basically, your porters will be working really, really hard on the mountain, despite being woefully underclothed, ill-equipped and underfed. Every single day, after you have rested, eaten and started, they will pack up the entire camp, race unto the next campsite with your bags, carrying at least 20 kgs ( sometimes more ) on difficult terrain, set up the camp and ensure that when you arrive, your meals are waiting. They will barely have sufficient clothing, and will be paid about $2 per day, if lucky. They are the reason that you will be able to make a serious attempt at summiting the highest mountain in Africa!

Porters climbing Kilimanjaro with heavy loads

Porters rush ahead carrying heavy loads. Photo by Clark

This background, was to give a little bit of insight into the life of porters in the mountain. Most people, on being told that tipping is all-but-mandatory, are a bit taken aback. This is the same system that is seen in American restaurants where the servers ‘work-for-tips” and not the salary. Most people have not seen this system anywhere. When the trekkers see their hard-working crew work with a smile on the trek, helping them out at when they are exhausted, almost everyone agrees they deserve their tips.

I have another blog post describing the Kilimanjaro porters, their life and tipping , and you will find a lot more information there. This blog post is about the tipping ceremony at the end of your trek.

Porters climbing Kilimanjaro without breaking a sweat

This section of reasonably exposed blocky ledges was the hardest part of the entire climb, from a technical perspective. Still, the porters with massive loads on their heads had no problem negotiating this section with no hands. Photo by Mouser

One Step at a Time

Dr. Joel Batzofin climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his family in December 2014. I highly recommend anyone who is climbing Kilimanjaro to read it before you start preparing for your Kilimanjaro trek. Dr. Joel is a tough doctor who grew up in South Africa, but settled in America as a young professional. To those wondering, he embarked on this adventure when he was about 60 years old, along with his wife, his daughter and her friends . Through the book, he describes his experience, preparation and expectations from the mountain. The last chapter, with detailed guidance on preparation, is particularly useful for those who are planning to climb Kilimanjaro.

Here, I wanted to explore a the tipping ceremony at the end of the trek. It is an exuberant celebration by the porters, who break out into song to celebrate their group’s attempt at the mountain. This is a section from Dr. Joel’s book that I feel is particularly effective at conveying what happens at the end of this momentous trek.

Kilimanjaro porters smiling broadly

Porters are cheerful and pleasant to talk to. Photo by Mouser

The Tipping Ceremony on Kilimanjaro

“This afternoon will be the tipping ceremony,” said Pendaeli from his usual seat at the head of the table. “You will need to select one person from your group to announce to the porters the total amount of the tips you will give to them. That person will make a speech, and I will translate it into Swahili for the porters. Then you will give the tips for the assistant guides, the cooks, and then the guides.” 

When I had first read their guidelines several months earlier, I had thought the suggested amounts were rather generous. They had suggested that each hiker should tip around $500. However, after what we had gone through the past week, and having witnessed firsthand the hard work of the support team, I suddenly felt that the amount suggested by Thomson was not nearly enough and highly inadequate. I was again reminded of the importance of perspective in life.

Teresa brought her iPad to the lunch so that we could do some calculations. After lunch, Pendaeli and Pascal left us alone in the tent so that we could negotiate tipping amounts among ourselves. We had all brought wads of cash to the dining tent. Pendaeli had told us that we should give just one envelope to him for all the porters, and he would distribute the money among all of them. 

A short while later, at around 2:00 p.m., we heard quite a din emanating from just outside of our dining tent. A group of people were singing in chorus and clapping their hands. We all stood up and immediately left the dining tent. As we emerged, we could see all of our porters, cooks, assistant guides, and Pendaeli standing in a semicircle in the center of our campsite. They were singing in Swahili in a traditional African rhythm. Although I could not understand what they were singing about, intermittently I could hear the words “Shira,” “Lava Tower,” “Barranco Wall,” and “Uhuru Peak” in their song. Clearly, they were singing about the journey we had just completed over the past eight days. This was the start of the tipping ceremony.

We gathered around and stood opposite the group of porters. Dark clouds were starting to gather behind them in the bright mid-afternoon sunlight. This was Africa in its finest and most traditional sense. I felt completely at home.

Calvin then took charge of the gathering. He moved to the center of the semicircle while singing the lead. Everyone else clapped rhythmically and participated in the chorus. We took pictures. This scene was immensely powerful. The sun was shining brightly, and the snow-covered peak of Mount Kilimanjaro could be seen far off in the distance behind us. There were about fifty Africans singing enthusiastically, clapping their hands, smiling, and dancing. Audible in the chorus being sung in Swahili, we could hear the words “Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro,” followed by additional lyrics in Swahili. Although we could not understand the words they were singing, it was obvious from their tone and enthusiasm that they were singing our praises for having conquered their mountain.

Calvin then started acting as though he had severe back spasms and sciatica. His hands were placed low on his back as he limped around grimacing, as though afflicted with significant back pain. The other porters kept singing the chorus as he shuffled around with apparent difficulty. He was actually mocking us, and as the elder member of the group, he was mocking me in particular. It was obviously being done in jest, and we all enjoyed his antics.

Photos from the book passage. Calvin mocking in jest on the left. Group photo with porters on the right

On the Left, Calvin making exaggerated back pain motions. On the right, Dr. Joel's group photo after the conclusion of the ceremony. Photo courtesy Dr. Joel

A few minutes later, Pendaeli moved into the center and called for me to give him our envelope containing the tips for the porters. I walked forward to hand it to him. He then said to me, “You need to make a speech to the porters now. I will translate what you say.” At that moment, I felt quite overcome with emotion, and I could tell that it was not going to be easy for me to speak. So in order to help me relax, I walked over to Calvin and gave him a big hug, and I started dancing along with him. He went along with me as the porters again started singing and clapping their hands. While doing this short dance, I was trying to gather my emotions and think of what I wanted to say to the porters.

We stopped dancing, and I walked over to stand next to Pendaeli as I faced the porters. I started slowly: “It is hard to find the words to adequately say thank you to all of you for all the help you have given us these past eight days.”

I paused. Pendaeli immediately translated what I had said into Swahili. It was very quiet as the group waited for me to continue. “Over these past eight days, we have climbed this mountain, and you have amazed us with your strength, your grace, and your courage. There is no way on this earth that we could ever have reached the top of this mountain without your help. Thank you all so much!” I paused. Pendaeli translated again. They all remained silent. I continued, “As some of you know, I am originally from Africa. For me, this experience was very much like coming home.” I paused. Pendaeli translated.

This time they all clapped and whistled loudly. I was somewhat overwhelmed as I felt their genuine warmth and camaraderie. “Some in our group have never been to Africa before, and I want to thank you all very much for giving them and all of us such a warm welcome and such an authentic African adventure”

I paused. Pendaeli translated. They clapped some more. “Being on this mountain at this time of year, saying good-bye to the old year and welcoming the new year, and reaching the top of this mountain was like a dream for me and for all of us. We all thank you for helping us realize our dreams. As I said before, without your help this could never have happened.”

Pendaeli translated and they clapped more.

Dr. Joel with his porters hiking during the early days of the climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro

Pictures from the hike. Some of these can be found in the book ( One Step at a time ). Photo Courtesy Dr. Joel Batzofin

“I want to thank the chefs for the most delicious food.” They laughed and listened. “In the United States, when they say someone is rich, they are usually talking about how much money that person has in the bank. Here, on this mountain, doing the things you do, it is you who are the rich people in this world.” I paused as Pendaeli translated and they immediately broke into a significant applause and whistling for their appreciation of my recognition.

“I wish you all the best for the new year and for the future, and that all of your dreams should come true, just as you have helped us realize our dreams. If we do not see you here again, I hope we will see some of you in America.” I paused as he translated again. “I want to recognize the incredible leadership and experience of Pendaeli, Andrew, Calvin, and Willy.”

They clapped some more after Pendaeli’s translation.

“Asante sana,” I said. They then broke into an enthusiastic applause, and they whistled loudly, as if one of their favorite soccer teams had just scored the winning goal.

They were all smiling and laughing, clearly enjoying this moment in the brilliant sunlight. I quite literally had goose bumps on my skin. I walked back to join Teresa and the rest of our group. “That was wonderful, honey,” Teresa whispered in my ear.

The group then continued singing another song in Swahili. Although I could not understand the lyrics, it seemed that they were voicing their appreciation and gratitude. Pendaeli then asked us to hand over the envelopes to the cooks, the assistant guides, Gama, the other personal porters, and finally to himself. Each recipient walked toward Pendaeli when called, smiled warmly, and received his envelope. It was easy to appreciate their gratitude. Most of them were smiling broadly. This was, after all, their payday! We then took some group pictures with the porters, chefs, and guides. The clouds and fog had started to gather in behind us, but there was still plenty of sunshine.

After the conclusion of the tipping ceremony, the porters moved over to the side and stood in the shadows of a large tree. Pendaeli divided the cash as they lined up in a long line. They came forward to him, and each received their pay. It was so peaceful in the fading sunlight.

————————————————————————————————

Conclusion

I want to thank Dr. Joel for giving me permission to take the above passage from his book for this blog post. Though I’ve mostly left text as mentioned in the book, some parts have been left out for the sake of brevity. I would highly recommend reading the book if you have plans to climb Kilimanjaro. It is both energetic, emotive, gives you a good idea of what to expect and how you’ll feel when on the mountain. You can find it on Amazon or buy it from your local bookstore. Here is a list of other books I recommended for Kilimanjaro . If you like this post, do subscribe to the blog. We have a collection of articles on Kilimanjaro, Mt. Everest, Machu Picchu, Safaris in Africa and many more.

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