Curt Harris has not only led people on climbing expeditions, he has supported them in reaching the highest heights – literally and figuratively. As you’ll read in this interview with Curt, he has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro five times in the last twenty years, the last two times with AfricAid staff and Kisa Project alumnae as part of the group. The sight of Tanzanian women hiking up Africa’s tallest mountain is unusual and inspiring indeed!
Curt followed a successful career as a banker by fully immersing himself in his local Rotary Club in Evergreen, CO. Since 2000, he has held positions as Club President, International Service Chair, and Legacy Project Chair. He has been involved with fundraising efforts that have raised over $400,000 to support medical facilities in Northern Tanzania. He has a special passion for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA), and helped develop the first Young RYLA program for middle school students. Curt currently serves as District Governor of Rotary International in Northern Colorado, which involves promoting membership growth and engagement among 68 clubs in the region, strategic planning, fundraising, and awarding grants.
Curt and his wife, Barb, have great pride in their three children and five grandchildren. He enjoys climbing, hiking, skiing, and traveling.
For his tremendous commitment to service and lending a hand up the mountain of life, Curt Harris is AfricAid’s Honoree at our Art & Soul event on April 18, 2020. The virtual event will include a live stream from Tanzania.
What keeps drawing you back to Mt. Kilimanjaro?
I have climbed Kilimanjaro five times and I’m planning a sixth, and probably final, climb in October 2020. The first two times, in 2000 and 2003, were fundraising climbs. In 2000, we raised nearly $300,000 for Selian Hospital, just outside of Arusha. In 2003, our group raised about $100,000 used to help build Selian’s sister hospital near downtown Arusha. Rick, Nina, and Ashley Shuyler joined us on that climb in 2003 and they also raised $25,000 for AfricAid with that expedition. That climb was a real jumpstart for AfricAid.
The climb in 2006 was just a pleasure climb with my wife Barb and daughter Lisa. We were in Tanzania on a discovery trip with Operation Bootstrap Africa (OBA, based in Minneapolis, MN), visiting a number of schools in northern Tanzania.
After the third ascent, I thought my climbs of Kilimanjaro were over. However, when I was presented with the opportunity to lead groups that included some of the outstanding young women from AfricAid’s Kisa program, I couldn’t pass up the chance to get to know them and hear each of their unique stories. That’s what keeps bringing me back.
In 2016 and then again in 2018, our climbs included Kisa alumnae or staff. The first trip included Hadija Hassan, Asimwe Suedi, Eligrania Lema, Betina Mollel (Alumna), Elizabeth David (Alumna), and Mike Wright (AfricAid staff at that time). The second climb included Aikande Muro, Eliakunda Kaaya, Theresia Mgoye, Mwajabu Msofe, Magdalena Kitinya, and Martha Msapky (Alumna).
The climb later this year will include four more Kisa alumnae or staff. And we still have a couple of spots open for climbers.
What are some of your lasting memories of Tanzania?
Certainly, the Kilimanjaro climbs and getting to know these outstanding young women is probably at the top of the list.
Barb and I have had the opportunity to attend a couple of Form IV graduations of some secondary school students that we sponsored at the MaaSAE* Girls’ Lutheran Secondary School through OBA. Being able to witness those celebrations and the excitement of the girls and their families for their great achievements and their beliefs in their promising futures stays with you. Along with supporting AfricAid, Barb and I have been sponsoring girls at the MaaSAE school through OBA for almost 20 years.
Getting to know the people and seeing all of the great things that AfricAid and Rotary are doing are some other reasons that I find myself returning to Tanzania. My friend Dr. Mark Jacobson, former director of the Selian and Arusha Lutheran Hospitals, summed it up best, “The greatest risk of infection in Africa is being affected by Africa.” Africa is a special place and I always look forward to my next visit.
Finally, sitting on the veranda at the Tarangire Safari Lodge watching the sunset is one of most favorite places on earth.
*MaaSAE may look unusual… the school supports children from the Maasai tribe. The name comes from Maa, which is the language of the Maasai, while SAE stands for Speakers, Advanced, and Education.
What was it like to have AfricAid staff in your climbing group?
We had five women on our 2016 climb and six on the climb in 2018. You get to know each of them by hearing their stories and the difficult challenges and obstacles they faced as they pursued their dreams. It really gives you a perspective on how much more difficult they have it than we do in the United States. When we Americans train for a climb, we spend hours getting ourselves in condition and try to climb as many high peaks as we can to better handle the altitude.
The Tanzanian women that join us on these climbs can’t do any of that. Any physical training must be wedged in around work and life. And getting acclimated by climbing at altitude just isn’t an option. Of the eleven girls that have climbed, eight attained the summit. Three others experienced acute mountain sickness (AMS) and had to return to lower elevation. (Mount Kilimanjaro is 19,341 feet.) I like to think that the difficulties these girls have overcome during their lives were more challenging than actually climbing the highest mountain in Africa. Unless AMS became an issue, I got the feeling that failure wasn’t an option.
On our 2016 climb, we were strung out all over the route. Usually, team members move at different paces when you have about half the oxygen that you have at sea level. Betina and Hadija were part of our group that got to the summit first. At the top of this blog is a picture of me with them on the summit.
I especially remember that Hadija was always upbeat, always encouraging, and always smiling. She was the ultimate team player. Meet Hadija!
On the 2018 climb, it was amazing that all six of the Americans and five of the six Tanzanian women were on the summit at the same time. During our time together, we got to hear each of the girls’ stories. But they also wanted to hear our stories as well. One of the stories that has stayed with me was Eliakunda’s story. In fact, I have told Ellie’s story during many of my official District Governor visits to Rotary Clubs over the past nine months and used it as an example of what kind of impact a Rotary Club can have. Read Ellie’s account of the climb.
When did you learn about AfricAid?
I first learned about AfricAid when it was still just an idea. Rick and Nina brought Ashley to an Evergreen Rotary Club meeting way back in 2001. Ashley made a short presentation to our club about her desire to form a non-profit organization that would help educate girls in northern Tanzania. Our members liked her presentation and her idea so much they “passed the hat” and raised $800 or $900, which was used to help start AfricAid.
The next I heard about AfricAid was as we were preparing for the 2003 climb. That was back when AfricAid’s main mission was raising money to pay tuition for girls to attend schools and supporting education in remote Losinoni village. After the climb, our group visited the MaaSAE Girls’ School outside of Monduli and Ashley posed for pictures with all of the girls that were in school through AfricAid’s support.
What motivated you to donate to AfricAid the first time?
Easy question. I could say that it was because I knew the people involved and I believed in their mission. But that’s only part of it. My first visits to the MaaSAE Girls’ School showed me the potential of those young women and their drive to improve themselves and make a difference. And I have gotten to know many of the people that have been involved with the Kisa program and I’ve seen how Kisa changes lives and motivates those girls to help improve their local communities as well. The Kisa program doesn’t just help a few young women, it motivates them and gives them the tools to make a bigger difference.
Why are you excited to share with others about AfricAid’s work? What motivates you to give back in general?
The great thing about AfricAid’s Kisa program is that it builds future leaders, leaders who will help improve the lives of countless people. It really is teaching people to help themselves.
As Muhammad Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” I truly believe that and Barb and I have been very fortunate in our lives. That gives us the ability to help others and I believe it only fitting that we should “Pay It Forward.”
Why should other people care about the work that AfricAid is doing?
I believe that you have a responsibility to help others and AfricAid does an exceptional job of giving these girls the tools to help others. There are many people who believe you should only help people in your local community. I understand why they would think that, but I don’t agree with it. There is need throughout the world, a world that seems to be getting smaller every day. For example, all one has to do is look at the spread of the Coronavirus to know that what happens on the other side of the planet can eventually have a dramatic effect on us here in our part of the world. While not as obvious, hunger, poverty, and illiteracy can eventually have an impact too.
On a personal note, it is a wonderful feeling to watch the success of your sponsored Kisa students as they conquer challenges, help their families, and improve their communities. Who knows, maybe a girl you might sponsor may eventually become the first woman Prime Minister of Tanzania!
How do you spend your time when you aren’t adventuring and climbing in the mountains?
For the last couple of years, I’ve been pretty busy preparing to serve this year as the Rotary District Governor. Since the beginning of March, helping to manage Rotary’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has consumed a lot of time as well. It has been time well spent, and I am very glad I did it, but it has taken time away from other activities.
When my District Governor term ends in June, I am hoping to get more time to read books rather than emails. I am also planning to spend a few weeks on a sunny beach and the golf course, followed by backpacking several hundred miles on the Continental Divide Trail and climbing a number of 14’ers in Colorado, as I prepare to climb Kilimanjaro one more time.
AfricAid mentors secondary school girls in Tanzania to complete their education, develop into confident leaders, and transform their own lives and their communities. We equip girls to overcome challenges and reach their full potential because educated girls create lasting positive change. The outcome is proactive, resilient, and socially-responsible girls who secure better jobs, raise healthier families and increase the standing of women in society.
Contributed by: Alecia McClure, AfricAid Blog Coordinator