DeKALB – Four Northern Illinois University alumni and two faculty members recently took a 19,431-foot climb on Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness and more than $40,000 for educational improvements for girls and boys in Mara, Tanzania.
On the morning of May 18, 13 Tanzania Development Support volunteers headed out to climb the snow-capped volcano – the highest mountain in Africa. Included was James Cohen, one of the NIU faculty members who ventured on the two-week trip to Tanzania. Cohen, an associate professor of ESL/bilingual education who teaches multicultural education and foundations of minority language education, also is a board member for TDS.
Cohen lives in Kenya and said he first learned about TDS through its founder and NIU colleague, Kurt Thurmaier, when he first came to the university 12 years ago.
Cohen said the days-long hike easily was the most difficult physical activity he has ever accomplished in his life.
“Despite exercising religiously for a good two years, the combination of the altitude and hiking for nine to 12 hours a day was very difficult for me,” Cohen said. “Others did not have that difficult of a time, but my body did not like the altitude very much. I always felt winded. Even when resting, my heart would race.”
Taylor Adolphson, an NIU alumna, studied abroad in Tanzania with TDS seven years ago and came back again in May to take part in the journey. She said the trek up to the highest point in Africa – 19,341 feet above sea level – was described to her as a seven-day-long steep hike. As someone who likes hiking and spending time outdoors, Adolphson figured the trek would be in her wheelhouse.
“I did train for it. I felt prepared,” Adolphson said. “Honestly, I don’t know that you could ever be prepared for it, but it was probably one of the most incredible things that I’ll ever do in my life.”
Tanzania Development Support was founded in 2008 by Thurmaier and his wife, Jeanine. Thurmaier, president of TDS, also is the chairman of the public administration department of NIU.
“The main mission of TDS is to provide an opportunity for girls to have an education,” Cohen said. “Girls in Tanzania often are charged with fetching water for the family. By the time they return from the stream or river, or wherever they get the water, it is too late to go to school.
“Moreover, girls also miss school because feminine hygiene products are extremely expensive. So, TDS provides scholarships to these high school girls to attend a boarding school where they do not need to worry about fetching water or having to miss school during their time of the month because the school provides for them the items they need.”
Eric Hill, an English teacher at Larkin High School in Elgin, also was in the TDS group. He said the climb up Kilimanjaro was a great trek and the hardest thing he’s ever done. The final push to the summit began at about 11 p.m. in subfreezing temperatures with gusting winds. Their group summited not long after the sun rose over the horizon.
“It was an incredible night and really, super difficult and challenging, but it was definitely worth it,” Hill said. “I mean, the roof of Africa, it was just an unbelievable view.”
One of the coolest experiences for Adolphson was looking down on the clouds.
“I’ll never take that view for granted again, because you don’t get that. It’s not normal. It’s not common,” Adolphson said. “And one of our campsites, just laying in the tent with the door open you could look, and all you could see was just a layer of clouds.”
The TDS group also stayed a night in the Serengeti, a 12,000-square-mile ecosystem in east-central Africa.
Hill said the Serengeti is beautiful, but the wildlife made it an interesting night of sleep for him.
“Woke up at midnight to go to the bathroom and got back into the tent and then, sure enough, like five minutes later there was a lion, a male lion huffing and making all these noises,” Hill said.
Cohen said in the past, TDS volunteers mainly constructed buildings. They built a library, a girls dormitory, a computer lab and several other spaces.
In 2015, Adolphson helped paint the library and resource center, and when she came back this year she was blown away by the progress.
“The school was incredible,” Adolphson said. “Sometimes I think it’s hard to wrap your head around. Like we see a good thing, we see a good cause, and then we don’t necessarily see the progress that was made. So for me that was awesome to be able to go back and see that.”
Transitioning from bricks to books, volunteers have turned to filling up the library, Cohen said.
“We have now supplied the library with the largest number of Kiswahili books in the nation outside of Dar es Salaam,” he said.