Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1
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Charity atop Kilimanjaro
 

Peak Experience

Charity Banfield '00 climbs Africa's highest mountain to help AIDS orphans.

by Kimberlyn David '06

When Charity Banfield '00 reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a wave of delirium rushed over her -- in no small part due to the altitude. But the lack of oxygen and the frigid wind were secondary concerns. Standing at 19,335.6 feet, Charity felt triumphant. Not only had she scaled the largest mountain in Africa's Eastern Rift Valley; she had climbed the highest point on the entire continent. Reaching the Tanzanian mountain's peak at 8:00 on a January morning, Charity had only one thought: Anything is possible.

"Anything is possible" is the mantra by which Charity chooses to live. Rather than become overwhelmed or discouraged by the world's social troubles, she seeks to remedy them. If you ask her how one begins to solve humanity's difficulties, she will tell you that tackling such complexities is like meeting the challenge of climbing one of the world's tallest mountains: one step at a time.


Building the elementary school in Ndejje
 

By trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro, Charity stepped closer to her desire to help alleviate social inequalities. Her six-day mountain-scaling journey was a twofold humanitarian mission: increase awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and raise money for the construction of a school for orphaned children in Uganda.

Although HIV/AIDS poses problems for much of the world, Uganda, which borders Kenya and Tanzania, is one of the many countries in Africa hit by the spread of the autoimmune disease. More than half of Uganda's population are children aged 14 or younger, and of them at least a million are orphans of parents who died of AIDS. In Uganda, AIDS is the leading cause of death for people between 15 and 49. The latest United Nations report on AIDS in the country estimates that 78,000 children and adults died from the disease in 2003. Paradoxically, Uganda's population is actually expanding. Yet, as Charity points out, the availability of educational resources for all of the country's children remains unchanged.

The excursion up Mt. Kilimanjaro was arranged by Global Volunteer Network, a New Zealand-based nongovernmental organization that appeals to people who want to "travel with a purpose." Charity first learned about the fund-raising trip through an e-mail message. "I don't know how I got the e-mail -- I usually don't look at forwards," she says. "When I saw Mt. Kilimanjaro in the subject line, I decided to read it. I think most people's response would be, 'Oh, that's crazy!' but mine was, 'Where do I start?' "

Charity had already been planning to travel to South Africa for an intensive symposium on conflict resolution and mediation. Pursuing a master's degree in international education and management at George Washington University, she could not pass up the chance to apply her classroom-based knowledge to a real-life situation. "Even as I began studying international relations while at IC, I tried to figure out a way that I could contribute to improving education for young people around the world," she says. "When I stumbled across this opportunity, it just felt right."

Nineteen others from around the globe shared Charity's vision and enthusiasm. Through sponsorship from family, friends, and community members, Charity and her fellow hikers raised more than $40,000. Not only did the hikers -- who were from Australia, Scotland, and the United States -- collect money for the school, but after their climb they helped with its construction. "They all have a heart for volunteering or giving -- that is what we shared," Charity says about her traveling partners. "We were sore after the climb, but we participated in moving bricks and digging." The elementary school, which is being built in the village of Ndejje with the help of local residents under the direction of the African Child Foundation, is expected to be completed by the end of this year.


Building the elementary school in Ndejje
 

Charity received her master's degree in May. She plans to get involved in the UN Millennium Project Task Force, which focuses on basic education, literacy, and HIV/AIDS. She is thinking of eventually starting her own "travel with a purpose" organization. Her ultimate goal is to make exchange programs an integral part of U.S. education, especially for low-income and urban American students. "Youth development -- that's my passion. I think it's important to have cross-cultural learning -- to build and foster understanding, which is often missing in diplomatic work and foreign policy," she explains. Charity nourished her philosophy as a student at IC, with the encouragement of mentors including assistant professor of politics Peyi Soyinka-Airewele. A planned studies major, she focused on international relations in Africa and Latin America. Through the Ithaca Multicultural Center, Charity created a mentoring program for girls at Ithaca High School. She also helped IC and Cornell students establish the Thakenang School, an Africa-centered weekend learning program for all young children from the Ithaca community.

After graduating from IC and moving to the nation's capital to pursue her graduate studies, Charity remained committed to empowering disadvantaged youth. For two years she worked with Upward Bound, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, assisting D.C.-area high school students with the college application process. "The focus was on first-generation, low-income students," she says.

As a first-generation citizen herself, Charity feels her goal of creating awareness through education takes on extra meaning. Her mother was a native of Kenya, and Charity has traveled to Africa many times to spend time with family. But as she was flying over Tanzania in January, Charity realized this would be different from her previous trips to the continent. "I used the time on the plane to reflect on the main issues of Africa," she says. "I asked myself, How do I play a role? However big or small that role may be, it was my motivator for the climb."

Photos courtesy of Charity Banfield '00

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