Lema Peter was the first member of his clan to trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as Mount Meru. His sister is one of the few Tanzanian women to have reached Kilimanjaro's summit (in January 2010). Her trek was led by Erika Bloom, whom Lema met in 2006. A year later Lema and Erika set up Serengeti Pride Safaris.
Lema has completed several courses run by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) as well as a Wilderness First Responder course. He received a 3 month full scholarship from NOLS based on his performance.
I interviewed Lema by phone in February, 2010.
I understand you were born and raised at the foot of Mount Meru. Tell me a little about your family.
I belong to the Meru tribe, and was born and raised in a village at the bottom of Mount Meru. I am the oldest of seven children. Growing up I would sometimes see tourists coming from Arusha and they really interested me. I grew up knowing I wanted to work with tourists one day. I went to secondary school, which was unusual for a family of our size. Normally kids stop at primary school, because it’s expensive to go to secondary school. But I went to a Lutheran Mission school. I walked 4 hours a day to get to and from school. It’s something you do in Tanzania, you know you are lucky to get an education. Once I completed secondary school I knew I wanted to go straight to Guiding School in Arusha. It was still my dream to work with tourists.
Did you climb Mount Meru during this time?
No one from my clan, the Maturo Clan, in the Meru tribe had ever gone up Mount Meru. We woke up looking at it every day, but would never consider going up. It was not allowed. Our clan believed that God lives up there -- if you climb up, you will disturb him and bad things will happen. I never once thought of climbing the mountain.
So what inspired you to climb Kilimanjaro?
I went to Arusha and enrolled in Guiding School. It's a year program and they train you to become a safari guide. They train you in languages -- I took English and French. They teach you hospitality, about wildlife, the environment, and everything you really need to become a safari guide. In my spare time I worked as an apprentice mechanic for a safari company called African Environment. I thought it would be a good idea to know how to fix safari vehicles in case they broke down. I was concerned about making sure I would be able to get tourists from A to B safely. My English was better than the head mechanic, so when Wes, the founder of African Environment would come around to see if the vehicles were fixed, I would help translate his questions into Swahili.
Once I graduated from Guiding School, I tried my luck and asked Wes for a job. He laughed and said I was too young to be trusted with an expensive safari vehicle (I was 19 at the time). But he saw I was enthusiastic, hard working, and smart, so he gave me a chance. He offered me a spot on the next Kilimanjaro trek and said if I did well, he’d train me to be a guide. It came as a bit of a shock. I told him there was no way I would go up the mountain. If God resided at the top of Mount Meru, imagine what lived on the top of Kilimanjaro. We could all see the white stuff on the mountain. And anyway, there was also no way my mother or father would ever allow me to climb the mountain. Well, Wes spent some time telling me it was perfectly safe and that nothing would happen to me or my clan if I went up Mount Kilimanjaro. Us Tanzanians tend to believe what a white man says and so I thought about it and saw I had to give it a chance. I went home to tell my mother I was going to Dar es Salaam for a week to visit some friends. I packed up a bag and left for my first climb.
How was your first trek up Kilimanjaro and what route did you take?
We took the Lemosho Route - Western Breech. I literally ran up the mountain. It was amazing, I did not feel sick, I didn’t get a headache from the altitude. But the one thing that did happen, I totally lost my appetite. I did not eat. Partly excitement, but also I had never eaten western food and that’s what they were giving the tourists. I had never spent a night away from my home. I had never slept in a tent or a sleeping bag. I had also never had a chance to speak to tourists. They kept giving me candy bars, I thought it was the greatest thing. The porters helped me through everything. They told me when to drink, when to eat and when to slow down. I tried to keep up with them the whole way, also to show them I could do it and would make a good guide. I wanted to get up as fast as possible to see the ice, I couldn’t wait to see what that was like. This white peak I’d grown up looking at and never once thought I would see up close. It was pouring with rain that day but it was good.
How did you break the news to your family?
On the way down I was worried about what my family would say but I was also excited because I knew I had done well. I got paid very well, and went home to face my mother. She knew I had lied to her, a friend of mine had told her I had gone up the mountain. She couldn’t believe it at first. But I showed her the money and explained that nothing bad had happened. From then on, if someone borrowed money from me I would say they could pay me back when they earned it by climbing the mountain. To convince the rest of my family that there was no God up there I trained them to become porters. They could see for themselves that nothing bad happens up there and they could earn a good living. Now, my whole clan are working on the mountain as porters. They don’t believe God lives on the top of Mount Meru anymore and I also have my mother’s blessing.
More from Peter Lema - Tips on trekking, preparation, porters, and choosing the right operators.