Kilimanjaro is ready for Instagram as Mt Kenya still cries for toilets


An old latrine on Mt Kenya. (courtesy)

As Kenyans were glued to their TV screens following the disputed presidential elections, our southern neighbors were busy installing high-speed internet connections on Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest.

The news got some brief pings in Kenya but was carried by almost all major global media outlets. The news that you can now livestream your ascent to the highest peak on the continent seemed too good to be true.

“You can now tweet as you climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” said NBC News. “Climbers, hikers, and adventure enthusiasts now have one less thing to worry about as they trek up Mount Kilimanjaro: Wi-Fi access,” CNBC reported.

Even Kenya’s dreaded keyboard warriors who love to pick up an online scuffle with their neighbors were silent on this one except for their usual “Tanzania owns the mountain and Kenya owns the views” line.

Perhaps their silence was golden. Experienced hikers say there is little to write home about on the climbing experience on our own, Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest as far as basic amenities are concerned. Climbers have endured the lack of proper sanitation facilities on one of the most recognizable landmarks in the country.

Hiking Mount Kenya is listed as one of Magical Kenya’s Key Signature experiences, the exclusive itineraries crafted to showcase Kenya as a tourism hotspot. Any climber to Lenana Peak, the only point that does not require technical climbing can attest to the mountain’s contrasting landscape.

A survey done on the mountain by conservationist Bongo Woodley lists 882 plant species, 81 of which are endemic to the mountain. A dense forest straddles the base, rising to almost 10,000 feet.

Then there are Afro-Alpine zone vegetation, some that only occur in high altitude areas in East and Central Africa such as the giant groundsels and the picturesque lobelias while the beauty around the peaks is enhanced by several tarns.

In 1932, Mount Kenya was gazetted as a Forest Reserve while the national park was created in 1949. Owing to its natural resources, Mount Kenya was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme.

However, the highest recognition came in December 1997 when the World Heritage Committee sitting in Naples, Italy, designated the mountain as a World Heritage Site for being “one of the most impressive landscapes of Eastern Africa with its rugged glacier-clad summits, Afro- Alpine moorlands and diverse forests which illustrate outstanding ecological processes.”

Yet, such a high value of the mountain as a top tourist destination stands to be marred by a lack of suitable sanitation facilities.

The poor state of sanitation facilities was acknowledged by none other than the man who has been at the helm of the tourism docket, Najib Balala. He had hiked the mountain in May 2022 to raise funds for what he termed as “enhancement of hiker experiences”.

His resolve was firm: “Through this excursion, we shall also be fundraising to ensure the improvement of tourism facilities including improvement of toilet facilities at different stop points of the route.”

Hikers who have been to East Africa’s tallest mountains say both Uganda and Tanzania have an edge over Kenya as far as hiking experience is concerned. “Mount Kenya is a sad story,” quips Job Mugo, a hiking enthusiast who has lost count of the peaks he has summitted within the region.

“Look, the guys in the Rwenzori’s in Uganda have flushing washrooms complete with pipes of running fresh water. At Kilimanjaro, the pit latrines are cleaned twice a day by various groups including tour guides after using a specific campsite,” he adds. “In Mt Kenya? try the bush.”

Tired of the embarrassment, hiking enthusiasts lodged an online petition meant to garner support for the establishment of proper sanitation services on the mountain. The petition has so far been signed by close to 3,000 people.

Part of the petition read: “Mount Kenya lacks descent sanitation facilities or they are non-existent in all the camping routes. This means there is no proper disposal of human waste, which is disgustedly evident around the camps. Most affected are the popular spots (Lake Michaelson, Lake Ellis, Mintos Camp) all along the Chogoria Route. Others include Kamweti, Burgret and Timau Route.”

One of the key proponents of the petition is Wandai Gitonga, founder of outdoor experience outfit, Hikemaniak. Gitonga has been up the mountain a record 43 times and counting. The beauty of the mountain, he says, is unequalled as compared to other tall mountains in East Africa, Kilimanjaro included.

The face of the online campaign is a photo depicting the peaks but that also shows tissue paper littering the foreground not far from a water body. Gitonga fears for the health and ecological disaster not only for climbers but for communities living around the mountain.

“There is so much human waste accruing daily yet climbers and local communities have to fetch water downstream. We are looking at a health disaster of enormous proportions as the waste is carried off to the water system,” he says.

The situation is especially dire for climbers with special needs such as ladies whose sanitation needs go beyond just relieving themselves in a toilet. According to Gitonga, the dynamics of climbing such high attitudes do at times change a woman’s monthly cycle with some having to deal with unexpected menses.

“Telling such a lady to find a ‘bush over there’ is very unfortunate,” he says.

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