I’m always one for adventure. And adventure with a purpose? Even better.
That’s how I found myself on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in October 2014 ready to tackle Africa’s tallest peak with a group of twenty-three other Americans.
We had this crazy idea to scale the mountain—at 19,341 feet above sea level—as a way to bring clean water to children and their families in Arusha, Tanzania. Definitely not your average fundraiser.
Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship and development ministry, organized the trip. Our goal was to raise enough money to put in a well, water pump, and storage tank in a community directly improving the quality of life and health outcomes for more than 1,710 children and their families. The community currently accesses water from natural springs contaminated with fecal bacteria.
Each climber, a Compassion sponsor of at least one child in East Africa, committed to raise at least $3,250 for the water project, not including our travel and personal expenses. So far, our team has raised $75,000—enough to install not one but two wells in Arusha.
When I finished graduate school in May 2014, I began training for the climb. The Smoky Mountains and East Tennessee woods provided the perfect backdrop as I prepared for the trek. Or so I thought. I also invited family, friends, and UT colleagues to partner with me in the water project. Their encouragement and support—giving to the water project, hiking with me, listening to me go on and on about the trip—was one of the biggest blessings of this whole adventure. I literally felt their presence with me as I stepped on the mountain.
On the first day of the climb, I chuckled when I realized that our starting point near the village of Nale Monu was 6,500 feet above sea level—which happens to be almost as tall as the highest point of the Smoky Mountains. My East Tennessee hikes gave me great physical conditioning, but I would come to realize that altitude is an even greater challenge.
With a team of eighty-five guides, porters, and cooks from the African Walking Company, we embarked on the six-day trek on a balmy eighty-degree day. We hiked five to nine hours daily and wound our way through a forest, moorlands, up ridges, and a lunar desert. On the afternoon of day four, we arrived at base camp to twenty-degree weather and sleet at 15,500 feet above sea level. By that point, I was a little green with altitude sickness. At midnight, we set out for the Kibo summit. At about 16,500 feet, one of the guides assessed my condition and recommended I return to base camp. So I did.
After we came down the mountain, we visited the community where the well will be installed and met the children and families it would serve. For contrast, we visited another community that had a Compassion-funded well installed the year before. Health outcomes in the latter community have increased dramatically, with fewer water-borne diseases like frequent diarrhea, fewer visits to the doctor, and increases in school attendance. We’re thrilled that we’ll see similar results in our water project community.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done physically and mentally. It was also one of the most incredible. I forged beautiful friendships with strangers, pushed myself beyond what I thought possible, and also learned about my limitations and myself.
The climb pressed home to me just how much I take for granted a basic human right many around the world don’t have—access to clean water.
These days rather than purchase bottled water, I make an extra effort to drink out of a tap no matter where I am. I marvel that it comes out clean. Every time.
Lola Alapo (’14) works in Media Relations in the Office of Communications and Marketing. When she’s not hanging off the side of a mountain, she’s a ninja-in-training and a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo.
Update (3/5/15): The Compassion International team has now raised a total of $105,425 as a result of their trek.