I’ve always had a soft spot for Comic Relief, if only because the telethon can actually be quite amusing unlike the deadening schedule-killing slog of Children In Need and the tooth grinding presence of Pudsey Bear.
And a telethon packed with such hideously unfunny skits it makes my cancer treatment of a few years back seem actually quite amusing. But, hey, it’s all in a good cause, so that’s not something I would ever admit to in a public arena, especially not on Social Media.
But Comic Relief…? No, that’s the cool one (I like Sport Relief too).
Ten years ago in 2009 I was inspired by the ascent of Kilimanjaro led by Gary Barlow, also featuring Chris Moyles, Cheryl Cole, Denise Van Outen and other assorted celebs. It was great telly and I donated fifty quid, which is a lot for me as I’m pretty tight when it comes to telethons.
I was also inspired to get off my own arse. I’ve always loved walking and hiking – I’ve been rambling since I was 17 (insert overlong blog related joke here) – but I’m afflicted with crippling vertigo, and thus, much as I love mountains, actual climbing is beyond me. But Kilimanjaro? You can WALK up that one! And it’s enormous. I mean, if Chris Moyles can do it….
I put it on ‘The List’. You know? That list of things you’re never going to do.
Fast forward two years, and I was writing for itv soap Emmerdale when the brilliantly talented series producer Gavin Blyth died suddenly from a rare lymphoma. He was ten years younger than me and with a startling lack of originality I had one of those ‘life is short’ moments when it was time to get out The List and think about actually ticking some stuff off.
Also, as my wife helpfully pointed out, you might not have the knees for it in a few years.
So it came to pass that, later the same year, I headed out to Tanzania as part of an Exodus Travels group to make my own ascent – and to raise money for Lymphoma Research in honour of Gavin.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you Kili isn’t tough. Sure, it’s a walk – with just a tiny bit of scrambling – but if you aren’t a trained climber nor used to altitude, it’s punishing. I had a great time. It was an unforgettable experience. I made some good travelling buddies. I’m not a resilient or brave person so it definitely ranks as my personal best in terms of physical challenges.
Fast Forward another eight years to last night, slumping excitedly on my sofa in front of the 2019 Red Nose Kilimanjaro challenge – this time with luminaries such as Ed Balls, Alexander Armstrong, Dani Dyer, Shirley Ballas et al. It brought a cascade of visceral memories flooding back. When I say ‘I felt their pain’ for once that isn’t a cliché. I can assure anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of this particular lump of rock that their groans, nausea, tears and exhilaration were all completely genuine. It’s all true. I’ve been there and I literally do have the T-shirt. I’ve got a couple actually.
Okay, where to start?
A few weeks ago, MP David Lammy brewed up something of a Twitter storm by laying into Comic Relief, and Stacey Dooley in particular, for perpetuating colonial ‘White Saviour’ stereotypes in relation to the African continent.
I had mixed feelings about this. It struck me that while it is undoubtedly true such an unhelpful narrative exists, it is also true that Comic Relief raises millions of pounds and saves thousands of lives, and that you don’t solve the former by attacking the latter. I admire Mr Lammy hugely so I was disappointed that he didn’t have a more nuanced and constructive critique.
And then I watched the Kili programme.
Ok, it needs to be entertainment telly with a captivating narrative. Brave celebs venture out of their comfort zones to raise hard cash for people who really, really need it. They gasp for breath, they weep, they vomit, but they triumph against nature.
There’s a camera on a drone that sweeps up showing them tiny and lost against the massive, forbidding hulk of the volcano. And trust me on this – it IS a massive forbidding hulk of a volcano. Three of the nine are people of colour so arguably I’m out of order to entitle this blog: ‘The Whitewashing of Kilimanjaro’. So why have I?
Perhaps it should read ‘Airbrushing Kilimanjaro’ or ‘Mystifying/Mythologising Kilimanjaro’.
Hit rewind again to 2011. There are twelve tourist hikers in my Exodus group. We’re not B List celebs, or C or D… or anybody with financial pulling power of any sort. We’re just there to have fun, spend our tourist dollars, and some of us are doing it for charity as well. At the risk of sounding as if I’m in their pay (I’m not!) Exodus is a superb travel company. I’ve journeyed with them seven times, including adventures in the Himalaya and The Inca Trail as well as Kilimanjaro. As far as I can tell, they genuinely try to do things properly. So for our small band of twelve we had a head guide – Naiman – five assistant guides, a head cook, his assistant and around forty ordinary porters. A support staff of forty-eight in total, drawn from the local Tanzanian community. These are important jobs done by great people.
Exodus make huge play of their ethical tourism schtick and it’s easy to be cynical but I’m always impressed. There’s a powerful ethos never to regard the support team as simply service staff – or even worse, ‘servants’. They’re all skilled at what they do with employment rights (there are strict limits on the weight any one porter is permitted to carry) and they have lives of their own, and the tour leader will always encourage everyone to integrate and talk and share life experiences where language allows.
I spent a lot of my Kili hike chatting to the guides and it was clear that these gigs were highly sought after. They’re well paid – especially when you add in the tips – and many of the people I spoke to talked about how a couple of these hikes a year could put a child through education, and all sorts of other things not available to their contemporaries in other jobs. You start as a porter, and develop your language skills and there’s training and apprenticeships to help you work your way up in the lucrative tourism industry if you have those ambitions.
Kili hiking is an industry run by professionals.
And that’s a good thing.
If you’re a hopeless, hapless, helpless white Northern European telly writer on a 19,000 foot rock in the middle of the African landmass, you need professionals around to get you through. In my case it was a six foot two Tanzanian called Anaeli, one of the highly experiences assistant guides. On the final night ascent to Gilman’s Point (the rim of the crater) I was really struggling. Just as I was about to chuck it in, Anaeli appeared out of the darkness, as if by magic, and took my backpack. He was already carrying his own pack – including first aid and an oxygen tank – and being the nice polite, white liberal chap that I am, I was excruciatingly embarrassed, feeling that it was completely wrong to expect someone else to carry my stuff. Perhaps it would be better if I just called it a day? Anaeli shrugged. ‘It’s no problem,’ he said, ‘this is my job. This is what I do.’ He looked me in the eye with a steady gaze. ‘You’re getting to the top,’ he said. ‘I’m going to get you there.’
I’m not religious in any way, but at that moment I thought: ‘This must have been what Jesus was like’ and I fell in love with him there and then and knew it was true. I was going to the top of the mountain because Anaeli said so. He was my Saviour.
So we carried on up the impossibly steep mountainside. The air is so thin, it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. ‘Polé, polé’ as they say in Tanzania. It was minus seventeen degrees centigrade. A few hundred metres up the track we found one of my Exodus travelling companions, Arrvind, crying on a rock (as the Red Nose celebs illustrated last night, you do a lot of crying on Kili) also about to give up and go home. But with a guide to hiker ratio of 1:2 Anaeli came to the rescue again. He took Arvind’s pack as well and offered the same calm, Jesus like reassurance.
We were going to Uhuru together. Me, Arrvind and Anaeli – carrying all three packs (and don’t forget the oxygen, which he insisted we wouldn’t need, but for our safety he carried anyway).
After overcoming my terror of heights I managed the brief scramble over Gilman’s at dawn for a moment’s glorious respite, overlooking Mount Kenya poking through the clouds below.
It’s another hour at least around the rim to Uhuru, where on an average day there’s a queue of people waiting to grab their photo opportunity. Numbers are restricted – you have pay for a pass to climb the mountain – but it’s still like Picadilly Circus when you get there, largely because everyone arrives at pretty much the same time. This picture below is the more truthful one. Me and Arrvind still clinging on to Anaeli for dear life because we knew we’d only got there because of him.
Something the Red Nose doc didn’t show was quite how knackering the descent is. There’s a terrifying near vertical scree run of a good couple of thousand feet, which is nowhere near as much fun as it might sound. Then you have to walk – fast! – for a few hours to make the next camp before sundown. You’ve been up since midnight. I was really flagging by then but a couple of the other guides took me under their wing and chivvied me along, telling me about their experiences working on the 2009 Red Nose team.
There had been over 120 porters and support team for the nine celebs, camera crew and production team – which included at least one make-up artist (!) and, much to the amusement of the guys I spoke to, a personal bodyguard for one of the celebs (who shall remain nameless) who was, according to them, afraid they might be kidnapped on the mountain, and had insisted that they be allowed to bring their own security. To their great credit the guides who told me this were more amused than insulted. They thought it was hysterically funny.
I did try to get them to dish some celebrity dirt, but apart from that titbit of friendly bemusement, they were faultlessly professional and diplomatic. The only thing they would tell me – and upon which they were all agreed – was that Gary Barlow is a genuinely lovely human being and was the one person in the celebrity team who consistently showed an interest in the work and wellbeing of the guides, porters and kitchen team. When I heard this, I realised I could finally come out of the closet – I’ve always loved a bit of Take That.
Back to 2019. Back to the sofa. This time I’m watching the Comic Relief Kili Challenge with informed eyes. I’ve been there and I’m asking: ‘Where are the guides, porters and kitchen staff?’ Ok, so like I say, yes, I know, I know, I know, it needs to be the story of our brave and hardy celebs fighting against the odds – blah blah blah – with their (white, English) Comic Relief medic looking after their wellbeing and NFL guy giving them team talks… That’s the narrative – Europeans and Americans (albeit some with more diverse heritage) taking on Africa… a team of plucky comrades, this band of brothers, this happy few… and the fewer and bandier they appear to be the more cash we’ll give, right? They even put up their own tents, didn’t they?
No. They didn’t. Ok, yes, they might have helped a bit on the first night as depicted, and, all right, I wasn’t there, but there’s no way they put up their own tents any other time. You are just WAY too knackered to do that after a day’s high altitude hiking. In reality you get a nominated tent porter. They take it down in the morning, they carry it to the next camp, shooting up the mountain at full pelt ahead of you, while you breathlessly push one leaden boot in front of the other. Then when you finally get there, your porter is waiting with your tent, and your main pack (you only carry a day bag when you’re walking) – your sleeping bag aired and laid out ready for you on your sleeping mat, as you collapse for an hour’s rest before enjoying a hot and hearty meal cooked to perfection by the amazing kitchen team in the mess tent, erected hours before you even got half way.
Then you get a briefing and pep talk – and medical advice – from the extremely well trained Tanzanian guides. Oh yes, and if you’re really struggling with altitude then you may well pop the odd tab of Diamox. It doesn’t work for everyone, but the medication certainly helped me.
So would it spoil the effect to show this? What is the editorial thinking here? Is it just that it denudes the drama? Is there no value in showing the relationships that can form between the hikers and their very expert local helpers? Does Comic Relief believe we are all so shallow we are only interested in the exchanges between those we sometimes barely recognise from our own disposable culture? Would our European/American chums just look too pathetic if we could see the locals charging up the slopes ahead of them?
What is it that Comic Relief is scared of? Is mystifying the mountain really so important to this narrative? Does Comic Relief believe that if it shows Kilimanjaro as a well managed professional operation it will get in the way of the ‘Aid Narrative’ and less money would be raised?
Or is there a subconscious unwillingness to show the ‘saviour’ halo on the other head?
It would be good to have an honest answer. Perhaps this editorialising – straying dangerously close to the dishonest, patronising and insulting at times – is worthwhile. The ends really do justify the means. When last night’s celebs reached Uhuru, the drone shot showed them with the mountain to themselves – just a couple of camera crew and the head guide looking on – suggesting to me that the Kili authorities had closed the peak for the day. Like I say, it’s normally thronging. But that’s fine. Back in 2011, our head guide told me that Kili bookings had increased by 60% following the 2009 challenge. This is a huge, real world boost to the local economy, and doubtless they will get a similar spike in bookings this time round. I received an email circular about Kili trips from Exodus within five minutes of the programme finishing, so closing the mountain for a day is a cast iron loss leader and that’s on top of the millions that will be raised for good causes.
I passionately believe that it’s mealy mouthed and unhelpful to shun or dismiss projects like the Red Nose Kili challenges – but I also humbly suggest that Comic Relief needs to bloody well grow up and depict the societies they aspire to care for with a lot more honesty.
You need to treat us, the audience, like grown ups – and most importantly of all, treat the people whose hard graft makes stunts like this possible with a lot more respect. You cannot go on marginalising working communities like this. Do this and you will enrich the experience and enrich the narrative for everybody.
Meanwhile, it’s still worth making a donation. I will be.