Cultural Tourism

The Tales of The Land of Kilimanjaro



From ancient Ethiopian emperors to modern US presidents, Kilimanjaro’s majestic snowcapped peak attracts adventurers from all over the world. Shrouded in gray, dark clouds and covered in mist most of the day, Mount Kilimanjaro with a height of 5,895 meters is located some 330 kilometers south of Equator, giving an awesome and magnificent inspiration hundreds of miles away.

The Maasai refer to Kilimanjaro as ol doinyo naibor, “the white mountain” or ngaje ngai, “the house of God.” They believed Kilimanjaro was protected by evil spirits who would freeze anyone who attempted to ascend it. Covered in mist, full of legends and mystery, Mount Kilimanjaro (otherwise known as the roof of Africa) stands to attract tourists from all corners of the world, the reasons behind its nomination to contest for listing in New Seven Wonders of Nature. Every year, over 35,000 people set foot in Tanzania specifically to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kilimanjaro is the leading single and freestanding mountains in the world, and it composed of three independent peaks of Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. The entire mountain area is 4,000 kilometers of the earth surface.

When Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s jewel today, earlier occupants of its slopes took this glorious and glamorous mountain to a place on not going in fear of reprisal from God because it was his almighty seat. And locals today see the dwindling snow as a punishment from God because too many humans attempt to climb it every day. Tourist deaths on the mountain are as well, connected to wrath from God.

The Humans of Kilimanjaro

At the start of the eleventh century, indigenous communities from across Africa arrived in northern Tanzania as part of a succession of migrations. Descendants of various Bantu tribes populated the southern and eastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru and the surroundings of the town of Moshi, establishing themselves as a new populace, The Chagga people.

Now accounting for the third largest ethnic group in the country, the Chagga have remained Bantu-speakers, though their language has a number of dialects related to Kamba – spoken in northeast Kenya – and to other languages spoken in the east, such as Dabida and Pokomo.

Thanks to their successful agricultural methods, including extensive irrigation systems, terracing and continuous organic fertilisation methods, the Chagga have maintained relative wealth. While bananas are their staple, they cultivate various crops including yams, beans, and maize. Internationally, they are best known for Arabica coffee, exported to American and European markets.

Over control of trade, as far back as the accounts go, Chagga chiefdoms were relentlessly at war with one another. Although various alliances and consolidations through were formed, unitary consolidation was not achieved until the German colonial government later enforced it.

After an initial period of welcoming missionaries, travellers, and foreign representatives as they did traders; in the 1880s, when the Chagga gradually lost their autonomy, hostility grew. In 1886, Germany and Britain divided their East African provinces of influence and Kilimanjaro was allocated to the Germans.

When strong resistance to German control manifested itself, Sudanese and Zulu troops were brought in and by the 1890s, the Chagga were crushed. A handful of armed Germans successfully ruled a hundred thousand Chagga, giving cooperating chiefs more power than they could otherwise ever know and hanging those who resisted.

Eventually, warfare came to an end and churches were allocated religious control over different parts of Kilimanjaro and introduced schools and coffee-growing clinics. Thus, a Western religion, Western medicine, Western education, and a cash crop were all imposed on the Chagga.

Volcanic Eruptions

Formed some 750,000 years through volcanic eruptions, Mount Kilimanjaro took several geological changes for 250,000 years, and the present features were formed during the past 500,000 years after a number of upheavals and tremors took place to cause formation of 250 volcanic hills and crater lakes including the magnificent Lake Chala down its slopes.

The last volcanic activity occurred about 200 years ago and created a symmetrical cone of ash around Kibo peak, and since then, Mt. Kilimanjaro was at peace until today, but people who were living on the slopes and observed volcanic eruptions connected this natural phenomenon to punishment from God.


One legend tells how a man named Tone provoked a god, Ruwa, to bring famine upon the land. When local people became angry, forcing him to flee, nobody would protect him but a solitary dweller who had the ability to turn stones into cattle. Though the dweller warned Tone never open the stable of the cattle he did not listen and the cattle escaped. With Tone in pursuit of the fleeing cattle, they produced hills to aid their escape, including Mawenzi and Kibo. Out of exhaustion, Tone finally collapsed on Kibo.

Another legend has it that Kibo and Mawenzi were good neighbours, until Mawenzi played a prank on Kibo, throwing away embers he had received as a gift from Kibo, claiming they had burned out. Kibo eventually got angry and beat Mawenzi badly, explaining why the mountain is so badly degraded and the reason behind Mawenzi’s name as ‘the Scarred’.

Other legends tell of ivory-filled elephant graves on the mountain, and of a cow named Rayli that produces miraculous fat from her tail glands. If a man tries to steal such a gland but is too slow, Rayli will blast a powerful snort to blow the thief down into the plain.

Local tribesmen still believe that mountain dwarfs they call Wakonyingo live in caves beneath Kili’s slopes. The Wakonyingo have oversized heads and prey upon those who bring negative spirits to the mountain. The myth could be based on reality as there is evidence that pygmies once roamed the mountain.

King Menelik I: The Legendary Ascender

According to legend, the first person to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro was King Menelik I, supposedly the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He ruled the Axumite Empire in what is now northern Ethiopia in the 10th century BC, and fought battles in present-day Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. As an old man, returning with the spoils of war, he camped between the peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi, at a height of 4,500 metres (14,760ft). Feeling that death was drawing near, he told his followers that he wished to die as a king. He, his warlords and slaves, laden with jewels and treasure, climbed to the crater, where he died.

The legend relates that one of Menelik’s offspring will return to the mountain, climb Kibo and find the king and his jewels. Among these will be the Seal of Solomon, a ring which will empower the wearer with the wisdom of Solomon. The legend was so firmly believed by the Abyssinian Christians that when The Revd Dr Reusch (a missionary who spent many years in the Kilimanjaro area, and who later became president of the Mountain Club of East Africa) reached the summit in 1926, many were deeply sceptical that he had reached the top as he found no trace of the long-dead king.


Uncounted stories, thousands of myths and legends are told about Mount Kilimanjaro. Locals on the slopes, the Chagga people, are telling us of pygmies said to be no larger than human children, and who dwelt on the mountain’s caves and ravines. These ravines, which have never been explored by tourists, are said to have been inhabited by mountain pygmies who survived by hunting and gathering.

Stories on Mount Kilimanjaro tell of mountain gorillas once lived inside the dense, rainforest surrounding its slopes many years ago. Tales from locals, though no scientific data yet available to ascertain this, have occupied the minds of tourists climbing the mountain today.

Chagga Folklore

Folklores dominate Mount Kilimanjaro as well. The awesome feature of the mountain with its snow on the peak had attracted locals to connect the mountain with heavens, believing that it was the seat of God, glorified by the whitish color of the snow.

During dry seasons in the past, locals blamed the mountain’s demons for taking away the rain, but when the rain was too much, they turned their faces to the mountain, bowing, asking God to forgive them.

Chagga local tribesmen still believe that mountain dwarfs they call Wakonyingo live in caves beneath Kili’s slopes. The Wakonyingo have oversized heads and prey upon those who bring negative spirits to the mountain. The myth could be based on one of the actual Mount Kilimanjaro facts, as there is evidence that pygmies once roamed the mountain.

Rest assured, though, that some dwarf with a big head is not going to hassle you in your tent. Kilimanjaro is a mythical mountain that spews new and old myths from its volcanic core. The myths are part of the mountain’s mystique that we hope will never end.

The Name Puzzle

For the local Chaggas, the name Kilimanjaro does not belong with their history or legend, it does not mean much although it’s the most famous name to foreign visitors or others from far away. They don’t have a collective name for this majestic mountain, they have two separate names. They call the highest peak “Kipoo” or Kibo and the shortest peak “Kimawense” or Mawenzi.

The Maasai people on the very lower slopes never gave a name to this awe-inspiring mountain but the Wakamba people on the Kenyan side named it “Kilima Jeu” and “Kayolaa.”

Germans named the mountain “Kilimandscharos,” though nobody knows where the Germans got the name. Some argue that it could have been a contraption from wrong pronouncement from the Chagga’s expression “Kilemeiroiya,” meaning not easy to climb on.

It is also believed that the present name of the mountain was derived from the Swahili people from Mombasa and other coastal towns who called it “Kilima Njaro,” or mountain of caravans, because they used the mountain as the symbol to determine directions form far away, as their compass.

Despite this naming convention is frequently agreed upon in East Africa, other communities like the Kikuyu and Maasai have their interpretations of what the name means and how it came about.

Some historians also feel that outsiders may have changed the Chagga word to “Kilema kyaro,” which means “difficult journey to Kilimanjaro.” Another theory is that the travelers to the mountain may have asked the Maasai living on the plains what they called the mountain, and the Maasai may have answered that it was the source of water using the word “Ngare” that then evolved to “Njare” or “Njaro.”

Other writers have since suggested that the name means “Shining Mountain,” “White Mountain” or “Mountain of Water.”

Kilimanjaro, unlike other known mountains in the world, has its present name remaining a puzzle to this date. Tourists and other mountain lovers could one day solve this puzzle. Its name remains one of many popular myths that add to its attraction for those wishing to unravel it.

The Earliest Written Records of the Mountain

Although mentioned in African legends, the earliest written records of the mountain date back to the second century when a Greek geographer Ptolemy from Alexandria in Egypt wrote about the land beyond “Opone” and the great snow mountain in Rhapta. Opone, according to Ptolemy, is the coastal part of Somalia and northern coast of Kenya, and Rhapta is the big landmass or the great East African massif where Mount Kilimanjaro is part of this, huge landmass.

The Misconception

Mount Kilimanjaro had been thought to be the source of River Nile and a Mountain of mystery – the mystery being a snow-capped Mountain in Africa. Africa was thought to be a continent of savages, thus stories about the continent were often down played. With colonization came European missionaries, who traveled inland to preach their religion.

The First Outside Sightings and Climb Attempts

1n 1846, Dr. Ludwig Krapf and Johann Rebmann landed at the coast of Kenya and set up a missionary at Rabai, close to the town of Mombasa. In 1849, both Krapf and Rebmann confirmed their sightings of the great Mountain. Rebmann saw the mountain from his camp at Taveta in Kenya. Reports about the mountain were received by the Royal Geographical Society, which prompted a great debate about the accuracy, about the height and possibility of snowcapped mountains in Africa.

In 1861, Richard Thornton attempted the first climb. The Mountain was new to him and had a difficult time penetrating through the second zone. Also the weather was too bad and forced him down. In 1862, Otto Kersten and Baron Von der Decken attempted the climb. They climbed over 15,000 feet but were forced down because of bad weather.

On October 5, 1889 that German Geologist Professor Hans Meyer, Ludwig Purtscheller and local, Lauwo succeeded to reach the Kibo peak, the highest point on the African continent. He named this loftiest spot in Africa Kaiser Wilhelm’s Peak. The success of the expedition was thanks to the establishment of several campsites with food supplies, meaning multiple strikes on the summit were possible without needing to descend too far. After turning round close to the cater rim exhausted, on Purtscheller’s fortieth birthday, they reached the highest summit on the southern rim of the crater. Descending slightly, the team then made several other exploratory campaigns, on the mountain. One to the more technically challenging Mawenzi and one again up Kibo to enter and study the crater. In total, Meyer and Purtscheller spent 16 days above 15,000 feet (4,600 m) during their expedition.

Though these was the first recorded expedition to reach the summit, it’s certainly possible that despite not being recorded, locals were successful prior to this.

Notable Climbers

Prominent and world personalities have climbed the mountain including former United States Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall in 1963, and former US President Jimmy Carter in 1988, apart from other dignitaries.

Retired Tanzanian army, General Mirisho Sarakikya is the known Tanzanian to have climbed the mountain 38 times in his annual pilgrimage to the rooftop of Africa. The General saw this majestic mountain as the only natural laboratory and a therapy for unknown diseases.

“If you manage to reach its peak, then, be assured of your body fitness, you are physically fit. When you have a health problem, the climbing exercise will detect it and you will not reach the top point”, the General said.

The oldest Mount Kilimanjaro climber known today is an 84-year-old American tourist, Mr Richard Byerley from Washington state who has broke the record to become the oldest person to reach the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro recently. Byerley had his name entered the Guinness World Records as the oldest known climber to reach the highest peak in the African continent.

Mount Kilimanjaro Legacy and Reputation

Until today, Mount Kilimanjaro has been a symbol of various national and international activities, business and even politics. Business companies and various social clubs have their registrations bearing Mount Kilimanjaro name to portray their majestic existence.

In 1961, the flag of the newly independent Tanzania was carried up the mountain to be flown on top of the mountain, and the freedom torch was lighted on the peak to stir up political campaign for unity, freedom and fraternity.

This African highest mountain has been listed among twenty-eight leading tourist destinations in the world nominated as candidates for voting into the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World.