'Life is an Adventure' in Tanzania
By GARY FALLESEN
Yusuf Hemed was sipping chai tea at a Rochester, N.Y. coffee shop. He was tasting something that costs about 20 cents a cup in his native Tanzania, but is $4 here.
Welcome to America.
For Thanksgiving 2004, the 26-year-old Mount Kilimanjaro guide made his first trip beyond the borders of his African homeland. He was brought to the United States by Rick French, the director of Pack Paddle Ski adventure travel company, which has used Hemed as a guide four times since 2001.
“Everything was very nice,” Yusuf said about his first Thanksgiving dinner. “I ate a lot. After dinner I went to the bed.”
Feast and fall asleep – how truly American. Of course he was also dealing with jet lag and the culture shock of being in a land far different from his own.
Yusuf came for what we would term professional development. He was broadening his horizons. During a six-week stay, he would speak 15 times at schools and to clubs about a Kilimanjaro guide's life.
Many of his clients are from the United States. For the previous couple of years he said he had aspired to visit “to see the country and how (Americans) were living. It will help me deal with them.”
The differences between the places and the people are many. Tanzania is a Third World nation, where, as Yusuf will say repeatedly, “life is an adventure.”
He was not putting some U.S. marketing spin on things. He was speaking the truth – of a people who work for a minimum salary of about $55 a month, who use one-fifth of their salary to pay for electricity, who often cannot afford education past the seventh grade.
Yusuf did not intend to become a climbing guide. He dreamed of being a doctor. But he could not pass the exams that select the few students who get to go to the government-sponsored high school and his family could not afford to send him to private school.
So, at the age of 18, he was invited to work as a porter with Zara Adventures in his hometown of Moshi. “That is very hard,” he said of the work done by porters, who carry most of the gear brought to 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro by foreign climbers.
He was a porter for one year and a sub-guide (or assistant guide) for one year. He became a guide in 1998, leading two or three trips a month up the mountain from December through February and June to September. He said he earns about $40 for six or seven days’ work, plus tips. The tips usually are greater than the salary.
“This is a good job compared to other people,” Yusuf said.
Since 1991 independent trekking has not been allowed on Kilimanjaro. Climbs are organized through a local company.
Yusuf said there were at least 60 companies, employing perhaps 600 guides. It is competitive work. While it pays well, relative to the Tanzanian economy, climbing Kilimanjaro is not something the locals would otherwise do.
“There’s no reason,” Yusuf explained. “No one in our family climbed the mountain. My parents don’t believe someone can reach the top.
“I tell my father I’ve been up there and he says, 'No, you’re a liar.' I show him photographs and he says, 'No, this is from the government. It is the way for them to cheat money from people who will come here.' They believe you cannot climb it. If you will you must die.”
Much of that wive’s tale is rooted in the stories handed down by the local Chagga people, who believe that God lives on Kibo (as Kilimanjaro is known). “If God is there, you cannot go there,” Yusuf said.
Yet he has reached the summit more than 100 times.
French, who first took a group to Kilimanjaro in 1999, had Yusuf as a guide in 2001. He has requested him as Pack Paddle Ski’s guide ever since.
“He was just a young lad then,” French said, laughing with Yusuf. “I liked him. I heard from one of the shops in Moshi: 'Yusuf - he is an honest man.'
“He was sincere, honest, hard working. I liked how he tried to figure out things for his family.”
Yusuf has been married for four years to Fatma. They have a 3-year-old son, Hemed, and they have adopted the 13- and 10-year-old daughters of Yusuf’s oldest brother, Riziki, who died of diabetes when he was 35. As the youngest son, Yusuf also is expected to care for his parents when they can no longer live on their own.
He has one other older brother and three younger sisters.
Yusuf invested the tips he received from guiding (often $200 to $300 a trip) to buy property outside the city of Moshi. He built a three-room home there and has added three more rooms that he rents out. The rent he receives pays for electricity.
He has a small retail store – a very mini mini-market – in Moshi that his wife operates while he is guiding.
“I like the way he helps his kids and his wife,” French says. “Not all guides will do that. Some just take their money and it’s gone.”
To avoid becoming a wasteful guide, Yusuf said he stopped drinking alcohol.
“Guides will get a good tip and use it for drinking,” he explained. “They come off the mountain and go to the bar and they must buy for all their friends.
“I skip those friends. I had a change of life.”
He also does not smoke, which is another common vice of Tanzanian guides.
To make his life better, Yusuf knows he must continue to work at it. He had realized he cannot guide on Kilimanjaro forever. He must find a way to go to Mweka Wildlife College in the Kilimanjaro trailhead village of Mweka, where he can learn to be a safari guide – a job he can do as he grows older. But that costs about $3,000 a year.
That might not seem like much when compared to the price of a college in the United States, but it is five-to-10 times the average annual salary for a Tanzanian.
“You have a very nice country,” Yusuf said about the United States.
He even enjoyed his first Thanksgiving turkey, a food he'd never eaten before but something that was similar to a bird he eats at home.
“It tasted like chicken,” Yusuf said.
A universal expression.
POSTSCRIPT: On Aug. 23, 2005, Pack Paddle Ski announced that donations would provide Yusuf with enough tuition money to go to college in the spring of 2006. “This will allow Yusuf to get a college degree and then employment as a safari guide,” said Rick French of Pack Paddle Ski. “this will give him a job he can follow the rest of his life allowing him to support his family and children and helping them with their education. On a Kili guide's salary of $50 plus tip, the college that Yusuf passes every time he descends off the mountain is out of reach for most Tanzanians.”