Digging Deep

Duke linemen lend muscle to a well project in Ethiopia.


At first, the work didn’t sound too difficult, particularly not for someone like Takoby Cofield. Here’s a young mountain of a man—six feet, four inches tall and 310 pounds of brute force—who plays offensive tackle for the Blue Devils football team. He’s accustomed to tossing around 300-pound defensive linemen every Saturday. How hard would it be to spend a few days in May digging a hole, especially when he had the help of nine of his fellow linemen?

When that hole is in rural Ethiopia—and when that hole is dug with a manual percussion drill—the answer is, pretty tough.

“We were plastered with mud,” recalls Cofield, a rising sophomore. “Being at that altitude—not the heat—was hard. I was surprised—these big, strong football players were tapping out, and the Ethiopians were helping us.” 

But Cofield and nine other members of the Duke football team didn’t travel to Ethiopia just to build their muscles. The twelve-day trip, organized by teammate David Harding Jr., was about building character—about coming together through service and shared experience. “The team bonding far exceeded my expectations,” says Harding, a rising junior and returning starter at guard.

Harding spent many summers digging wells alongside his father, who operates the nonprofit Water Is Life International. David Harding Sr. was born and raised in Ethiopia and has devoted much of his life to international service through Baptist charities. He and his wife, Merrie, started Water Is Life after spending six years raising their family in a town near Amman, Jordan. Much of their work now is focused on Ethiopia, where it’s estimated half of the population doesn’t have access to a sufficient supply of clean water.

The junior Harding hadn’t been able to return to Ethiopia for a summer trip since before coming to Duke. It often isn’t easy for athletes to participate in service travel, as summer workouts and classes typically don’t allow much time away from campus. But as Harding talked with his teammates about his family’s work, his passion became contagious: They wanted in. With help from his parents and others, particularly rising senior center Travis Gibson, Harding began figuring out how to take 3,000 pounds of Duke football brawn to Ethiopia.

Helping hands: Conor Irwin, left, and Dave Harding, right, walk to the well stie with Ethiopian children. [Credit: Merrie Harding]

The logistics were formidable, with passports, visas, immunizations, food, lodging, and other details to work out. He and Gibson spent as much as eight hours a week last  semester planning the trip, which was supported in part by the university. “University and athletic administrators were extremely supportive in making the trip a success,” Harding says.

And so, on May 4, as a solid contingent of their classmates headed to the beach for a prefinals break, Harding and his teammates began a different journey. For some, including  Cofield, it was their first foray outside the U.S. Most had little or no knowledge of Ethiopia’s foods, cultures, and languages. “They speak eighty-nine different languages in Ethiopia,” Merrie Harding said before the trip. “They’ll need to communicate without language, and sports is good for that.” Getting used to the sour-spongy injera bread served with many Ethiopian dishes, however, was another matter.

In addition to digging wells, the team spent a few days visiting orphanages, playing volleyball with kids a fraction of their size. They handed out presents, including hats, balls, and candy. “It was troubling, seeing the type of environment these kids endure on a day-to-day basis,” says Marcus Johnson, an assistant coach with Duke’s strength-and-conditioning program, who joined the players on the trip. “These three- to five-year-old kids are herding sheep and cows, carrying logs. One kid we saw, a hyena tore into him pretty good.”

The experience caused Cofield to reconsider some things in his own life he previously took for granted. “There were a lot of elderly men at some of these places too, and just shaking their hands, having someone acknowledge them, was huge,” he says. “They’d been written off.” 

In retrospect, digging the well may have been the easy part. Choosing a location for a well is as much an art as a science, according to the Hardings. Various signs, such as the presence of subterranean termites, can indicate a good place to dig a well. For this trip, a spot near Ethiopia’s Lake Langano, a four-hour drive south of the capital city of Addis Ababa, had been identified. Players spent three days getting the well operational, opening up a hole to fit a hand-powered pump. In this case, digging meant heaving a galvanized pipe back and forth to drive the hand-powered drill into the ground.

“There was a lot of huffin’ and puffin’,” says Johnson.

Once the well was dug, players hung a plaque reading, “Faith, Family, Future, Football.” Keeping the well running will be an ongoing challenge, says Merrie Harding, who estimates that 50 percent of the wells dug in Ethiopia ultimately fall into disrepair. “The community has to feel ownership of the well,” she says, noting that for Water Is Life, a well is just a starting point for working with a community on better sanitation, such as cooking with clean water and washing hands before eating. “It’s about follow-through.”

And that has Merrie Harding’s son already thinking about next year. “I’d like to do this every summer,” he says, “or maybe turn it into a friendly competition between us and Carolina.”


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