An Open Letter to Anyone Who Has Yet to Visit East Africa

Musings on my first 24 hours in Tanzania and why ignorance is not always bliss.

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“A hasty person misses the sweet things: Mwenye pupa hadiriki kula tamu”

- A famous Swahili proverb

  • “Why would you go to Africa?”

  • “You must be going to South Africa”.

  • “Be careful”.

  • “Watch out for Ebola”.

  • “Where is Tanzania?”

  • “Did you get the malaria vaccine?”

  • “ Come back in one piece”

These are some of the questions and comments directed at me as I recently prepared for my temporary move to my favorite country in the world, Tanzania. In 2006, I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country and I eagerly returned in 2008 (for the long-haul). Leaving Tanzania in the beginning of 2009 was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I love the people, the smells, the rains, falling asleep to the loud chirping sounds of bugs and animals at night, the simplicity, the hardships, the beauty and the generosity of this fine culture. Sure, Tanzania has it’s own set of problems, but let’s be honest the United States is in shambles. People in the U.S. are angry, bitter, competitive, and can no longer consume iceberg lettuce. For the past few months I was so busy wrapping up things in the States that I did not let any of these comments or questions about my journey to East Africa bother me. I get it; a white girl departing to Tanzania for her third time is not normal (to many Americans), especially when our fine President declares this part of the world a “shithole country”. But after my plane touched down at Kilimanjaro airport and I planted my feet on African soil, the first thing that hit me was the smell…the smell of dampness in the air, the sweet memories of people I adore, trees, and burning trash (which is apparently illegal now); a smell that only Africa has and to me in that moment, I was SO happy to be back. I took a long inhale, savored the smell and thought to myself, “I am finally here and I wish others knew the truth about this part of the world”. While standing on the tarmac with my carry-on bags and passport in hand, I reflected on all the comments and questions and I became upset. Upset because these questions and remarks were stated in way that made Tanzania look dangerous and dirty. Of course, many of these comments and questions came from dear friends and family members who in no way had any ill or malicious intent but for some reason, I was and still am deeply bothered by these words. Instead of taking a defensive stance against these questions or correcting these false statements, I want to share snapshot moments of my first 24 hours upon arriving in Tanzania.

Maasai warriors: “Being a warrior is exciting and fun, it has many privileges but also many duties. Many of us look at those times as the best in our lives- though by no means the easiest. To become warriors we have to demonstrate our bravery: we have to undergo circumcision in front of the whole community, without flinching or squinting our eyes or giving any other sign that we are experiencing pain. After all, if we cannot stand bravely that bearable pain, how can we persuade the elders that we will risk our lives to protect our livestock and our community?”

Maasai warriors: “Being a warrior is exciting and fun, it has many privileges but also many duties. Many of us look at those times as the best in our lives- though by no means the easiest. To become warriors we have to demonstrate our bravery: we have to undergo circumcision in front of the whole community, without flinching or squinting our eyes or giving any other sign that we are experiencing pain. After all, if we cannot stand bravely that bearable pain, how can we persuade the elders that we will risk our lives to protect our livestock and our community?”

The awkward name card

 Upon arrival at the airport, my good friend Erick (who was supposed to meet me at the airport) informed me he was on a business trip to Dar es Salaam but has arranged his good friend Raymond to collect me at the airport. I trust Erick with pretty much every fiber in my body and thought it was very kind to arrange my airport pickup, when in reality I could have easily taken a taxi to my house. After I collected my 80 pounds of luggage, dragged one of my 50 pound broken suitcases off the conveyer belt and did a quick currency exchange; I walked outside holding my breath to a sea of taxi drivers and random people holding name signs in hopes of quickly finding a sign with “Kristen Fuller” written on it. I did not have my glasses on, so there I am walking up (in way too close of proximity) to random strangers just so I could read the names on their sign (this is always such an awkward experience for me and I dread it upon every international arrival). Within minutes I found my name and I quickly introduced myself to Raymond and within seconds I recognized him. I met him a few times on my past visit to Tanzania and we picked up our conversation where we left off 10 years ago. In the car we called Erick on speakerphone and we all laughed because lo and behold, we were all old friends.  Raymond told me that he drove to the house where I was staying earlier during the day to make sure he knew where to go and that he was tracking my plane throughout the day in case there were any delays (my parents won’t even drive me to the airport, let alone check my flight status). My heart silently exploded and then I realized, “Ahh yes, THIS IS Tanzania”. He offered to take me into town the next day in case I needed anything and told me to contact him with any questions. I am pretty savvy with the public transport in Arusha (old school VW minibuses called dala dalas that cost equivalent to 25 cents per ride) and planned on spending my first day re-acclimating to my old stomping grounds. My plan was to take a dala dala into town, go to the central market to buy food, purchase malaria prophylaxis pills (there is NO malaria vaccine) and take in all the sights and sounds.

A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

A necessary drink before a 19 hour flight with a 90 minute layover sprint!

Kitchens are where friendships form

 I awoke the next morning at 5am to the sound of a very confused rooster, checked my work email and realized work was piling up faster than I can say, “mambo”. I wandered downstairs to the kitchen to make myself 12 cups of coffee (jet lag is real) so I can tackle my work and catch a bus into town. Within minutes I was in full conversation with a sweet Tanzanian girl in the kitchen talking about all the words I do and do not (mostly do not) know in Swahili. She instantly reminded me of my Tanzanian dada (sister), Jackie (who I insanely adore and who just got married). An hour quickly passed, I was on my 5th cup of coffee and we both realized we never even introduced ourselves. She told me her name is Monica, she is in her early 20’s and bless her heart, she thought I was 26. She made me breakfast after a long confusing conversation of whether I should pay for meals or make my own food (I decided on both but we will see how that goes). She asked me about all the Tanzanian foods I do like and the very few Tanzanian foods I won’t eat and before I knew it, I had spent half of my morning standing over an entire pot of coffee and chatting with Monica while sending messages to my Tanzanian family informing them that I am back in town…a morning that will never be forgotten because within those few hours, standing in an African kitchen, a new friendship was formed. Within minutes, my entire African family, (Jackie, her younger brother Joshua, Mama and Baba) were all texting via WhatsApp arranging plans for me to visit (I now have full-fledged Christmas plans and standing dinner plans any night of the week).

Long story short, I didn’t leave the house until nightfall. I sat upstairs working away on my computer while listening to the rain. I made plans to go on safari to Terengeru National Park the following day (Thanksgiving) with Raymond, as he is a safari driver (I made sure we can purchase beer before entering the National Park) and around 6pm in the evening I ventured out for a walk (I needed water and beer).

Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

Tanzanian breakfast of champions! Eggs, cassava, a bread I cannot pronounce in Swahili and COFFEE all made with love!

“I will bring back your bottle, kesho”

I found two shops within minutes of walking on the road (yes, I walked alone at night in a very safe city). Side note: the shops in Africa are amazing, they are basically tiny little buildings where you can buy anything from cooking oil, toilet paper, beer, water, pasta, a plethora of meats in a freezer box, matches and literally any random thing you can think of. If you can’t find what you are looking for at one shop, do not worry (hakuna matata), because there are 10 other shops within the next two blocks. I purchased two large bottles of water at the first shop with my broken Swahili (there is Typhoid in the tap water so I either boil my water or buy bottled water) and asked for a cold beer (bia baridi) at the next shop. The shop owners will hound you for a bottle deposit unless you swear to them you will bring the empty bottle back. I told the guy I will bring back the empty bottle tomorrow (kesho) and he asked me what time. I couldn’t help but laugh because I know how serious these guys are about their glass bottles. I told him he could collect a deposit from me if he wished but I am staying just a block down and will most likely be his favorite customer within a week. He was hesitant, pulled out two small cold beers and reminded me “kesho”.  I ended up returning the empty bottles back later that night and he then knew I meant business (and yes, he is now my go-to beer guy).

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Setting the facts straight

Within 24 hours of landing in East Africa, I met five people (this post is becoming too long to introduce you to the other 2 people) who showed me kindness and generosity because it is in their blood. These may be pointless encounters or simple conversations to many, but to me, these encounters are proof of the kindness that represents Tanzania. So before you wonder about safety, racism, crime, diseases, or anything else that is heavily portrayed by the media in these “shithole countries”, listen to the stories and experiences from people who have set foot within these countries, who have formed relationships with the people or better yet travel to some of these places yourself because I promise you one thing, your life will be changed forever. I am not “brave”, nor am I here to “help” people, but I am simply an individual who was stuck in an American box for 19 years of her life and consciously decided to spend everyday possible forming memories and relationships with people (and animals) around the world.

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Happy hiking and hope to see you on the trails upon my arrival in 2019

Xx

Kristen

Giving Back, Porters' Rights and My Experience Climbing Kilimanjaro

 “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” 

- Muhammad Ali

Summit photo of me in all my rented gear in 2006! 

Summit photo of me in all my rented gear in 2006! 

As a child, I was taught by my parents to either give my time, money or skillset to others who were in need, regardless of how much or how little I have. I recently made the decision to return back to Tanzania this winter for three months, not to volunteer, but for personal reasons. My heart has unfinished business in this country and the individuals in my life who are close to me, understand how deep my connection runs with Tanzania. I have spent over a year in this beautiful African country on two separate visits that I took 10 years ago; both of which were centered on giving my time, my skillset and fundraising for the people in Tanzania. I worked closely with women and children who were directly affected by the underlying poverty and medical complications associated with HIV. I also worked closely with porters, who assist tourists in climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, commonly referred to as “the rooftop of Africa”. After spending so much time in this vibrant country, I can guarantee that I received much more from the Tanzanian people than I could ever fathom giving back to them. I lived with a family, whom I now consider my own, I developed deep friendships with individuals who are still in my life today, I fell in love with an incredible person and I left knowing that one day, I will come back. On my departure to the airport, I rented a bus and 15 of my closest African family members and friends departed with me to the airport to say goodbye. We all cried outside the airport (African people do not cry in public) and it took me months to readjust back to my life in the states.

I became very involved with the most incredible 13 children at a local orphanage in Arusha. Every week I would visit and play with the kiddos. I raised a few hundred dollars over Christmas and threw them a huge Christmas celebration with food, gifts, a cake and kitchen necessities. As I drove up with my Tanzanian family, each child was in his or her Sunday best and the Bibi and Babu prepared a huge African feast for me! They wrapped me around in this African blanket and gathered around me and sang songs to welcome me into their family, a tradition that is done at Tanzanian weddings. And to think I was giving THEM a Christmas. THEY gave me the most memorable Christmas of my life. 

I became very involved with the most incredible 13 children at a local orphanage in Arusha. Every week I would visit and play with the kiddos. I raised a few hundred dollars over Christmas and threw them a huge Christmas celebration with food, gifts, a cake and kitchen necessities. As I drove up with my Tanzanian family, each child was in his or her Sunday best and the Bibi and Babu prepared a huge African feast for me! They wrapped me around in this African blanket and gathered around me and sang songs to welcome me into their family, a tradition that is done at Tanzanian weddings. And to think I was giving THEM a Christmas. THEY gave me the most memorable Christmas of my life. 

Orphanages can be boring! The 13 kiddos were always cooped up in a tiny building when they were not in school. I decided to rent a bus and take them all on a field trip to a wild animal park. My African mama and sister spent all night preparing home cooked lunches for 17 people (to surprise me) and as I showed up each kid was wearing a matching t-shirt. Literally the best day! 

Orphanages can be boring! The 13 kiddos were always cooped up in a tiny building when they were not in school. I decided to rent a bus and take them all on a field trip to a wild animal park. My African mama and sister spent all night preparing home cooked lunches for 17 people (to surprise me) and as I showed up each kid was wearing a matching t-shirt. Literally the best day! 

On my very first trip to Tanzania, working in a very rural medical clinic. 

On my very first trip to Tanzania, working in a very rural medical clinic. 

 What I have up my sleeve

This past July, I called my brother (he is my voice of reason because I am impulsive) to tell him about my deep desire to return to East Africa while telling him my game plan of how I would live and work in Tanzania. I asked him if he thought I was crazy and if this idea should just be that; an idea with no action. He told me I should go. I made the decision to go back to this beloved country this winter because everything in my life aligned for this journey. I am moving out of my home in Laguna Beach, leaving my precious doggies with my mom and moving everything I own into storage so I can live in Tanzania for 3 months to reconnect with the country that still has my heart. I do not know where I am going to live upon my return to the states in 2019, but I know I will land somewhere amazing. 

It took me a couple of months to finally feel comfortable sharing with others about my decision of temporarily moving back to Africa and one of the first things everyone said to me was “what projects do you have up your sleeve?”

My answer was “none, I am going for myself”.

The outdoor industry and helping out porters

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through my email history and an email chain from The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) popped up. I found this interesting since I am planning to hike Mt. Meru, Africa’s 4th tallest mountain that stands just under 15,000 feet above sea level, and I made a mental note to look into climbing companies that support porters’ rights. I am a huge advocate for porters’ rights and I spent the off-season in Tanzania teaching English to a group of porters during my last stay in Tanzania. I knew right away that KPAP and supporting porters was going to be “my project” for my upcoming trip. With my love for the outdoor community, my advocacy for porters’ rights, my desire to see a change among the corruption in Kilimanjaro expedition companies and my close ties to the outdoor industry; I knew I had to get my hands dirty in a project that can benefit the porters. So down the rabbit hole, I go! I am choosing to support KPAP by collecting new and used outdoor gear donations for the porters! 

My experience on Kilimanjaro

My first trek on Mt. Kilimanjaro 10 years ago I was devastated in regards to the treatment of the porters on the mountain. From wearing flip-flops, torn clothing and the lack of gloves and hats while carrying excessively heavy packs in freezing cold temperatures, high altitude, and challenging terrain, these porters were working under inhumane conditions for less than $10 a day. The daily wage for a porter as of 2017 is Tsh 20000/ $8.50 per day, but usually, operators pay a lot less, maybe half that. I remember seeing porters enter the gate and weigh their packs (each pack back then had to weigh under 40kg) in front of the guards only to walk several miles to past the guards and double up on packs while half of the porters were sent back down the mountain. This occurred so the safari companies would only have to pay half of the porters (while the other half were sent back down the mountain with zero wages) and pocket the rest of the money. Keep in mind each porter now had double the weight. I witnessed porters literally running up the mountain carrying gear on their backs, heads, and chest, while many other porters were helping transport sick or injured tourists on gurneys down the mountain. Porters make the majority of their money through tips, however, the general public is not properly informed on how much to tip each porter and as a result, tips are usually not up to par. Kilimanjaro porters are at the bottom of the food chain. A cutthroat price war rages on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and when budget operators cut corners to save money, the porters are the first to suffer. The trekking industry (in all developing countries, not just in Tanzania) is corrupt and broken. I became involved with KPAP immediately after my first experience climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I spent two months teaching some of the porters basic English so they could communicate with English speaking tourists, in hopes of gaining higher tips. Today porters have a lower weight restriction (around 25 kilos) and more awareness is being raised about their wages, tips, safety and climbing conditions but we still have so many oceans to cross. The other day my friend in Tanzania told me that women are now working as porters on the mountain and are wearing their Kitenge (typical African fabric) as mountain clothing. 

One of the porters is wearing jeans....

One of the porters is wearing jeans....

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Too much weight and not proper gear. 

Too much weight and not proper gear. 

Too much weight and no gloves 

Too much weight and no gloves 

I need your help

As I return to Tanzania in November, I will be taking new and use donated outdoor clothing and hiking boots to give to KPAP so they can lend their porters' proper gear to help ensure their safety and comfort while tackling one of the hardest jobs in the world. Many females are now porters so female-outdoor clothing and boots are also needed. I am not only reaching out to my friends in the hiking community, but I am reaching out to outdoor brands who also want to help make a difference.

About KPAP

Established in 2003, the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) is a legally registered Tanzanian not-for-profit organization. Our Mission is to improve the working conditions of the porters on Kilimanjaro. KPAP is not a porter membership organization, or a tour operating business, and we do not collect any fees from porters or climbing companies. 

KPAP is an initiative of the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based out of Boulder, Colorado in the United States.Those who have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro know that porters are the backbone of the trek. Many climbers may not realize that porters can be ill-equipped, poorly paid and have improper working conditions. KPAP’s focus is on improving the working conditions of the porters by:

  • Lending mountain clothing to porters free of charge
  • Advocating for fair wages and ethical treatment by all companies climbing Kilimanjaro
  • Encouraging climbers to select a climbing company with responsible treatment practices towards their crew
  • Providing educational opportunities to the mountain crew

Since 2003, KPAP’s work has had a tremendous impact for porters climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. These include:

  • Porters on over 32,500 climbs have borrowed KPAP’s mountain climbing gear free-of-charge
  • Over 7,000 porters climbing with Partner for Responsible Travel companies are ensured fair and ethical treatment every year
  • More than 16,000 mountain crew have participated with KPAP’s free educational and training classes in English, HIV/AIDS Awareness and Money Management
  • Through funding provided by the Tanzanian Foundation for Civil Society, KPAP has instructed 5,225 porters in classes on Porter Rights
  • 115 mountain crew have received Leave No Trace certification in environmental care of Mount Kilimanjaro
  • More than 1,320 mountain crew have been certified in First Aid and 69 porters and guides have been trained as First Aid Instructors and have gone on to conduct First Aid Certification courses for additional porters and mountain crew.

I cannot wait to see this project take off and bring joy to the porters of Kilimanjaro. 

I am truly hoping the outdoor community can come together because, without this outdoor community, this project will not be successful. 

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” 

-Winston Churchill