ARUSHA, Tanzania — Tanzania is home to nearly 60 million people, picturesque landscapes, and Africa’s highest peak, but reality can paint a harsher picture for some in rural Tanzania where basic life necessities are hard to come by.
“That time when you actually get to drink water when you’re really thirsty, it’s a game changer, and then you think about these people that literally don’t have it,” Ben Garland, U.S. Air Force Academy grad and San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman, said.
Garland joined Waterboys, an organization that provides clean drinking water to those in need. He traveled to Africa shortly after the 49ers played in Super Bowl LIV. On the trip with Waterboys, Garland saw firsthand how women walk for miles each day, digging holes by hand in hopes of finding water for their families.
“I just imagine how hard it is to dig a hole and then coming up short, and how disheartening that’d be,” he said. “Then you have to return to your family a couple miles away with an empty bucket.”
The water crisis in Tanzania takes a heavy toll. According to waterboys.org, nearly one in five children won’t live past the age of five because of water-related diseases.
“We did some visits to some schools… in the corner of the school you see this concrete basin that is just collecting city runoff and it is clearly contaminated. It’s dirty, it has trash in it and these kids are running around and would come over and just take a drink and that’s their water.”
Waterboys hires Tanzanian based crews to install solar powered wells, and the group raised money to eventually build a well at the school.
“We high-fived, we played soccer, we tried to teach them football,” Garland said about interacting with the kids. “I grabbed a couple kids and just started tossing them in the air, and they loved that. We ran around and played tag and the kids just lit up. You could tell joy just spread like wildfire… We saw the faces and the smiles that you knew you were going to give clean water to, so that really was extra special.”
As a way to raise money for the wells, Garland summited Mount Kilimanjaro with other NFL players and military veterans. As a Colorado native, he’s used to summiting peaks, but trekking up to more than 19,000 feet was a unique experience.
“I think anytime you go through something tough with someone you bond a little bit closer,” he said. “Hearing some of their life stories and challenges, it was a really cool experience, and [I have] new friends for life.”
Since former NFL defensive lineman Chris Long founded the Waterboys initiative in 2015, the program has funded 83 wells, providing clean drinking water to more than 345,000 people.
“It only costs about $8 to provide one person clean water for decades. I think about what I can do with $8. Being able to change someone’s life for years and years, it’s way better than going out to eat for lunch for one day.” Garland said.
In 2017, as a member of the Atlanta Falcons, Garland was selected as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year. He also won the 2018 NFL’s Salute to Service award. He played at Air Force from 2006-09 and still serves in the Colorado Air National Guard.