By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (August 22, 2013) — Covenanter Amy Russell, who graduated from North Park University with the Senior Par Excellence award in 2010, received some advanced lessons in anthropology, zoology, psychology, and ultimately geopolitical realities as she walked 5,000 miles through Africa over the past year and a half.
She hopes more than anything, however, that other people will be moved to generosity as she highlighted the desperate need for clean drinking water in Africa.
A member of Trinity Covenant Church in Manchester, Connecticut, Russell started her trek in January 2012, hoping to hike 7,000 miles. She was forced to end her walk earlier this month due to health problems and political instability in Egypt.
Shortly after she graduated, Russell recalled, “I was sitting at home and the thought came to me, ‘You should walk across Africa.’ ” She decided to use the endeavor as a way to raise awareness and money for water development in Africa through Walking4Water, which she started.
Russell believed God was calling her to make the trip. She enlisted friends to accompany her on the walk. Although several initially signed on, Aaron Tharp, a sometime resident of Jesus People USA Covenant in Chicago, was the only one to walk the entire distance with her.
Marty Yoder of Elkhart, Indiana, drove a support vehicle from South Africa to Mozambique. He lagged behind Russell and Tharp by several days until health problems forced him to return home when the team was in Mozambique.
Though she had made preparations for the journey, shortly after Russell landed in South Africa it became apparent that it would be much more difficult and jarring than she thought.
While searching to buy a support vehicle and supplies, she had to take a train that transported people around Capetown. There was a sign on the waiting platform that warned passengers not to bring AK47s, axes, machetes, and spears onto the train.
“I’m thinking I probably shouldn’t tell Mom,” Russell says laughing.
Russell and Tharp camped or stayed with missionaries or local families as they traveled through South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lesotho, and Swaziland.
Camping posed special challenges, as evidenced one night in Kenya. Russell and Tharp huddled in their tent with a machete because of the lions that roamed nearby. They relocated the tent once, only to hear other ominous sounds. That turned out to be elephants.
“It was a long night,” quips Russell.
Each day, the pair had to find their own water and food. They become living evidence of the imperative for clean water after getting sick several times from drinking brackish water. Russell contracted malaria in Mozambique.
Along the way, the duo encountered different cultures. In one village “we were the first white people they had ever seen,” says Russell.
After the lion incident, the pair hired guides to help them travel through Kenya. In one village the guides led them to sit beneath a tall tree. “The whole village came out and stood around for several hours just looking at us,” Russell says. The villagers provided them shelter that evening.
Russell says the biggest change in her own life was gaining greater clarity of the commonality among people in their desires, hopes, dreams, and frailties, although they might be expressed culturally in vastly different ways.
She also came to a deeper understanding of God’s provision. “It may have been something true in my head, but it became much more real. Day after day God met our needs. When you’re at the end of a day and totally exhausted and not sure where you’re going to stay—for someone to come along and provide for you was really something.”
Russell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business and economics with a concentration in nonprofit management at North Park, had the opportunity to see the impacts of providing assistance. “I definitely learned a lot about international aid and what it looks like on the ground and how it can be effective—and not.” The best aid focuses on training and giving opportunity to local people to become self-sufficient, she says.
Various media outlets wrote about the walk, but one especially surprised her. National Geographic Traveler magazine named her Traveler of the Year in 2012 and featured her in an extended article.
Russell and Tharp had to make the difficult decision to end the walk 2,000 miles early due to the violence in Egypt and difficulty of getting passage through Sudan. Tharp also had suffered a leg injury that made it difficult to continue.
Yet it was only after a crowd in an Ethiopian village threw rocks at them that they made the decision to end the walk. After they were safely beyond the village, Russell says, “I just hit sort of a breaking point and had a meltdown on the side of the road,”
She adds, “I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be anymore,” explaining that she had wanted to be kind to everyone no matter the situation and had succeeded for 5,000 miles. “I couldn’t do that anymore.”
Russell says she still is disappointed about not being able to finish and wishes she could have raised more than the $10,000 that has come in so far and which will be funneled through Walking4Water to Charity: Water, a New York-based nonprofit that gives 100 percent of its donations to clean water projects. All of the money Russell raised is going to Charity: Water.
Russell says she is thankful for the support team of classmates and other friends who made her journey possible by raising funds and publicizing the walk. They have set up a website for people to continue giving this month in honor of Russell’s birthday, which was August 9.
She says she has suffered little cultural shock after coming home. “My whole last 18 months has been adjusting to different cultures.”
Russell’s determination to help others goes back much further. She participated in her congregation’s first mission trip (to Florida) while in seventh grade even though some members wondered if she was too young. She worked with a ministry to the poor in Appalachia, spent a semester teaching English as a Second Language in Mexico, and served as president of North Park’s chapter of the anti-trafficking organization International Justice Mission.
Russell says she grew up with a passion for mission and pursuing justice because of the influence of her church and youth leaders at Trinity Covenant. “It’s an amazing church,” she says. “I could brag on them forever.”
Russell is currently spending several weeks in Chicago, which was home for four years while she attended North Park and where many friends still live. Soon after she returned, Russell went shopping with friends, walking for several hours among the numerous stores in downtown Chicago.
“I got tired!” she says.
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