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High School Girls With Pickaxes

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After two days of digging in the dirt, National Geographic Student Madelyn Binning wears a bit of Africa on her smiling face. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Breaking rocks is hard work.

I wish I could speak from a lifetime experience, but in all my years, I only have these two half-days in Tanzania  during which time I personally smashed very hard rocks with iron tools.

As activities go, breaking rocks can hurt something horrible. I still have blisters on both hands, my wrists ache and my back is not so happy. Luckily, the rest of our group was much younger and a little more elastic than I.

Our National Geographic Student Expedition to Tanzania kicked off with our community service in in the village of Maji ya Chai. Our goal? Dig a one-foot-deep trench some one thousand feet, connecting a roadside water pipe to a rural school that would be attached with plumbing. Along with our village hosts, about twenty of us worked our way through the earth, pushing away the soil and rocks inch by inch, scraping deeper and deeper until one of the villagers nodded and said, “Nzuri”–it is ok.

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While Lauren Deutser cheers from behind, Sheila O’Neill pounds the rocky soil, breaking up the rocks buried beneath. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

One the first day, I kept thinking how wonderful this was that all these students from America were gaining such a rich and wonderful experience of hard physical labor. By day two, I decided that all this project really needed was a John Deere backhoe and we’d be done in time for lunch.

Alas, they do not have any spare backhoes in Maji ya Chai, and so we were stuck with out hands and the shovels and pickaxes that we carried.

Though I have dueled with ornery penguins and ran from charging elephants, I have never been part of a voluntary chain gang with a bunch of teenage girls (as well as two very hardworking teenage boys). All of us worked with intensity, interspersed with the occasional water break.

I was incredibly impressed by the students’ resolve not to stop and until the job was done. Whenever one of us grew exhausted and began lagging in our task, another student would step in, grab an axe, and attack the ground with vengeful animosity.

In the beginning of our project, whenever one of the students would dig into a big and stubborn rock, they would yell “Big Rock!” and one of the villagers, leaders, or I would come running to take over, working at the tricky spot for a solid few minutes until the stone came free.

But by day two, the women had taken matters into their own hands. I distinctly remember when Katie emerged from a few minutes of rest and began smashing up stones as if they were bags of tortilla chips.

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National Geographic Student Katie Burns smashes rocks with a pickaxe as part of our community service project in Maji ya Chai, Tanzania. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Sweaty and exhausted, I wiped my face and watched Katie  from the sidelines–wow, that woman can swing an axe! Indeed, my highlight of the day (which we report to one another around the bonfire each night) was watching tiny Katie in the hot pink shirt shattering a rock the size of a large watermelon. (P.S. Don’t mess with Katie.)

The work was hard, yes, but it was fun too because we did it together and our goal was common. The students encouraged one another in the task at hand, and when I began struggling with some of the more impossible subterranean boulders, the girls pulled together and composed this amazing cheer, just for me:

After two days of regular labor, we came out on the other side of the field, where we saw the school that will now have water, thanks to the work that we did together. It was a rewarding moment, albeit brief, as we set down our tools and head back to camp to clean up.

All of us were filthy, with hair made crunchy from the dirt and hands rubbed raw from the rough axe handles–but I doubt any of us will forget the work that we did, or what it feels like to work so hard.

Many years from now, I might open up some water faucet, and along with the easy flow of cold water that I can no longer take for granted, I will see a vision of this parade of happy high school girls–cheering, laughing and swinging pickaxes at giant rocks.

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