Dave Harding spent his first summer in Ethiopia when he was 11 years old.
The grandson of missionaries and the son of an agricultural engineer who sits on the board of a nonprofit that provides water sources to impoverished Ethiopian communities, the Duke offensive lineman helped construct wells in a country where international organizations estimate 76 percent of the population does not have easy access to clean water.
During that summer when he was 11, Harding lived in a shipping container with holes cut out of the side for makeshift windows. Monkeys would jump on the roof.
Harding loved it so much that he spent every summer in the horn of Africa on humanitarian missions before coming to Duke. Once the offseason demands of college football made it impossible for Harding to visit to Ethiopia for extended stretches, the redshirt junior started pitching the idea of a service trip to teammates.
Harding’s vision will become a reality on Friday, when he leaves for Ethiopia for 12 days with 10 of his fellow Duke offensive linemen and a Blue Devils strength coach. While in eastern Africa, the group will try to build a well that provides water for more than 250 people.
“I don’t think this is going to be an easy trip,” Harding said. “I think we’re going to be challenged, mostly mentally and spiritually. To be able to talk that through with each other and be able to experience it is something that no other college offensive line or football team will be able to experience or has experienced in a long time.”
Water for Life International is a nonprofit that tries to increase access to clean water worldwide. The work assigned to Harding and his teammates will be physical, with the pipes possibly having to break through rocks to get to the water level. The group will spend some nights in a hotel with electricity, but others will be spent in more primitive conditions.
If all goes according to plan, there will be a couple of benefits from the trip, the first of which is the team building Harding mentioned. It’s one of the reasons the Blue Devils’ coaching staff was enthusiastic in its support and helped Harding raise the $45,000 necessary to cover expenses.
Marcus Johnson, an assistant with the football team’s strength and conditioning unit, is taking the place of John Latina, Duke’s offensive line coach. Latina planned on going but is expecting a grandchild in the month of May. A former offensive lineman, Johnson said that unit needs to be the closest group on the field in order to be successful.
“We’re going to unknown territory, and only Dave probably knows what’s going on,” he said. “I think it’ll be a mental test for the guys. That’s the biggest thing I see of them getting out of it – that camaraderie and that bonding experience for those guys thing.”
The second benefit is it will give the football players an opportunity to broaden their horizons.
Statistics available on the Duke website indicate that 43 percent of the school’s Class of 2011 studied abroad, but varsity athletes rarely – if ever – get the opportunity to take a semester and study in a new country.
This trip won’t be anything like the average study-abroad experience, but it will give the football players a chance to experience something similar to what other Duke students enjoy.
“I have no idea what to expect,” said Perry Simmons, a redshirt junior from Raleigh’s Sanderson High School. “I’ve never left the country. I think it will be an enriching experience for me, and I think we’ll, as a group, definitely grow closer together.
“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to help other people and give and give back. That’ll be really good.”
After being born in Chapel Hill, Harding moved to Jordan and lived there from ages 6 to 11. He was once fluent in Arabic, but he said he’s rusty and is brushing up through a minor at Duke. His father was born in Ethiopia, and his parents met in Nigeria. After football, Harding would like to work internationally.
“One of the toughest things I’m expecting these guys to experience is just the culture shock,” he said. “Seeing poverty like that – you can’t prepare for it. You can watch the Lion King as many times as you want – you won’t be ready.”
Johnson may be one of the people Harding has to prepare. When asked what he expected from the trip, Johnson said, “Lions, tigers and bears.”
Suffice to say, Harding is anticipating some culture shock.
“The thing that I’m most excited about is to see what these guys think about it and to get them that experience and to be able to share that,” he said. “It’s something that’s been really important in my life, so to expose them – because some of these guys have probably never left the Southeast. To get them out and also to expose the Ethiopians to us – I think it’s going to be a great, great experience on both ends.”