High School Girls With Pickaxes

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.

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)
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.

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)
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.


  1. Natina Harris
    July 6, 2013, 2:55 pm

    Beautiful blog! The young people are pretty resilient, as breaking rocks with any tool sounds daunting to say the least! You are fortunate to have had the opportunity to work alongside such an amazing group! Very sweet video! But I hope your back gets better! You may want to see a physical therapist to be on the safe side. From what mine tell me, things that we did in the past can cause issues later. Take care!

  2. CLE
    July 8, 2013, 11:21 am

    It is wonderful to see the progress NGSE has made in the past year in this village – my daughter helped build a portion of this pipeline last year with 12 other students through NGSE. It was an awesome experience for a 16 yr old high school student pondering who she is, getting ready for the next portion of her life’s journey. I am so happy that NatGeo continues to serve the world in these ways and provides these incredible opportunities for our children.

  3. Tim Napier
    Wagga Wagga Australia
    July 10, 2013, 6:55 am

    Its great to see charity work like this done in a third world country. Its a classic example of what we take for granted, others have to ”slog their guts out for”.
    Girl Power!!!

  4. Kim En Wu
    July 14, 2013, 12:32 am

    I think they must be really strong. the power of teenager girls are reeeaaaallly strong.^^

  5. max
    August 19, 2013, 12:23 pm

    I have a question: it may be rewarding for teenagers, to dig a trench. But why did the fathers of the schoolchildren not dig the trench? They will do that kind of work faster and better.

  6. cheap mac makeup,mac makeup cheap,mac makeup for cheap,cheap mac makeup online,cheap mac makeup wholesale,cheap mac makeup free shipping,mac makeup brushes cheap,cheap mac makeup for sale,cheap mac makeup brushes,buy mac makeup cheap,cheap real mac makeup
    July 24, 2015, 7:28 am
  7. klientol
    September 3, 2015, 6:24 am

    The webpage is the perfect lay to showcase new-fangled harvest, innovative thoughts, obliging armed forces, et cetera. Today, present are probably billions of webpage on the Internet from about the world. The two nearly everyone successful habits to get public to access and seem by the side of one’s webpage are through ads and investigate engines. Just like insertion ads on Tube, newspapers, billboards, etc., public can expend currency to place ads of their webpage on admired WebPages visited habitually by the others. The ads will be alive in hyperlink which when it is clicked, will mechanically straight the web browser to the ads’ website and display the webpage.
    Using the explore engine to through public to your webpage is free excluding requires a little attempt resting on your part. There are three admired look for engines (Bing, Google, and Yahoo) that the wide-ranging community uses to appear meant for information. Search engine employs enormous processor possessions to search billions of WebPages on the Internet to get the information that people query. Basically, the search is conducted in the next sequences:
    1) A uncomplicated software routine called spiderbot is sent elsewhere to the Internet to crawl the webpage sites stored in the search engine’s Doman Name Database (DNdb). To expedite the crawling, quite a lot of spiderbots may live worn by the side of the identical time.
    2) The spiderbot afterward extracts the keywords in the webpage’s HTML source policy. It updates the DNdb with the keywords related with the webpage.
    3) The spiderbot afterward goes to the next webpage site in the DNdb. The process could receive more than a few days to complete every the webpage sites in the DNdb.
    4) Steps 1) to 3) are frequent lying on a usual foundation to make convinced that all the WebPages in the DNdb contain their newest keywords.
    So, in arrange to have your webpage to exist searched, you require to register it with the investigate engine to subsist incorporated in its DNdb. Click on the hyperlink underneath to locate elsewhere how.
    As you type your query in the explore engine’s webpage, it extracts the keywords in the query and starts a search in its DMdb. If supplementary than one game is create, each and every one connected webpage information will live displayed in the orders according to the webpage’s happy and relevance.