At the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro is, at best, a strange place to make new friends. But that’s just what happened for Rebecca Carlson.
Carlson, of Silverdale, was at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa in July 2016, when she began to realize that her guide and her porter were becoming like family. She knew that without those two men, Samwel Danford and Ramadhani Ismail, she and her climbing party would not have made it to the summit.
“You form relationships,” said Carlson who is executive director of the Kitsap County Medical Society. “You rely on them greatly to keep you well and safe.”
After months of climbing locally to prepare for the trip, Carlson and her husband, Glen, who is an emergency room physician, left the airport in Arusha, Tanzania, and met up with the rest of the climbing party, their guides and their porters. The climb was arranged through G-Adventures, and it took the group four days to reach the summit and two days to go back down the mountain. They took the hardest route, which is named the Whiskey Route.
Porters go in advance of the group and set up tents so that they are ready when the climbing party arrives, according to Rebecca. They also stay behind the next morning and tear down camp, then meet up with the climbing group and run past them to go ahead of them and prepare for that night’s camp.
“The porter’s job is to carry everything that you’ll need, other than just what you carry with you as you climb,” she said. “They carry your tent, your extra clothes and food. They have a very tough job.”
And, surprisingly, the jobs are very competitive but only pay from $15 to $20 a week.
During the climb, Rebecca and Glen noticed something else. Most of the guides and porters had very old, worn-out clothing and gear.
“In some cases, they were only wearing T-shirts,” she said. “Some of them had holes in their shoes. And some of them just had shoes made of old tires.”
Once down off the mountain, Rebecca asked about the porter’s gear and clothing.
“I said I wanted to help them by sending them better things,” she said. “But I was told that ‘Yes, there is a program,’ but if I sent things, it was likely it would never get into their hands.”
She said she was told packages would be inspected and that the process is “rather corrupt.” Items would be taken and sold, and never get to the guides or porters.
“I was discouraged, but I kept thinking about it,” she said.
Once home in Silverdale, she also thought about another conversation she’d had with her guide and porter.
“They meet people from all over the world,” Rebecca said. “I asked them if they had the chance to travel, where would they want to go. They both said ’To the United States.’”
Danford and Ismail told her to step foot on American soil would be an honor, and that the people they meet from the U.S. are so friendly and caring. They view the U.S. as the most powerful nation in the world.
That helped her come up with a plan — to bring them to the United States, let them climb in Washington state and then send them home with better gear they could make sure got to those who needed it the most.
“I offered for the two of them to come here,” she said. “At first they were a bit hesitant. They didn’t think it could work out. But we just got busy getting them passports and immunizations and planning for their trip.”
All of that took about a year, and in September, Sam and Rama, as Rebecca calls them, arrived at Sea-Tac airport.
“We held a sign at the airport because we weren’t sure that they would still recognize us,” she said.
The two-week trip, which concluded on Nov. 1, was a whirlwind for them.
“I thought ‘this is the only time they’ll see the U.S., so they need to see more than Washington,’” Rebecca said.
They ventured to the Grand Canyon, went thought Las Vegas took in Disneyland and saw Los Angeles and San Francisco. Once back in Washington, they hiked Mt. Ellinor, a peak in the Olympic Mountain range, which is in view from the Carlson’s front room at their home.
As a part of their visit, the Carlsons also hosted a “Kilimanjaro Soiree” dinner at their home where Sam and Rama spoke to guests about Tanzania, life in Africa and about their jobs climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Guests gave donations and brought new and gently used climbing gear for Rebecca’s project.
In all, more than 300 pounds of gear was collected, including poles, backpacks, down coats, boots, rain gear, gloves, hats and other basic clothing items.
“Sam and Rama went through all of it and we weighed it,” Rebecca said. “Each of them are allowed 100 pounds to go back with them on the plane. And the rest, we’ll pay extra fees, so they can take it all.”
For Sam and Rama, the trip was overwhelming. They were honored by the generosity of the Carlsons, who paid all their expenses, and the others, who made donations.
And they were in awe of what this country has.
“The markets are so big,” Sam said, telling of a trip to Central Market in Poulsbo. “And there is a lot of stuff there.”
At home in Arusha, there are only street vendors in open markets, Rebecca explained.
Sam and his wife have two children, a son, age 7, and a daughter, 3. Their home is small, with just one bedroom. Rama has a fiancée and a 2-month-old daughter. Sam has been a guide for 15 years and has gone up the mountain at least 260 times. Rama has been a porter for just a year, and has made the trip 70 times.
“Our sole job is to keep the clients safe,” said Rama. “We are there for their protection.”
Both have had adventures on their visit with American food. They liked cheeseburgers, and they tried sushi. But they don’t eat crab because in their country it is thought to be worthless.
“They are the bottom feeders,” Sam said.
As the time for Sam and Rama to return to Africa grew nearer, Rebecca said it would not be the end of a friendship — only the beginning.
“I’m working on finding a way to make this a nonprofit that can make sure the gear gets into the right hands,” she said. “And we will keep in touch on Facebook messenger.”
Sam said the visit had been more than he ever thought was possible.
“I have so much to tell when I get home,” he said. “Las Vegas was crazy busy. Disneyland was so much fun and sometimes scary. But Silverdale was the best. The people here are so kind and they welcome you in a good way. I have been blessed to travel here.”