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Poverty, Infrastructure and the Power of a Footbridge

2012 January 12

From Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World

chapter 18

Infrastructure (from Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary): “the underlying foundation or basic framework; the system of public works of a country, state, or region; the resources required for an activity.” Prosperous societies require infrastructure

Infrastructure provides access to the services, commodities, and income opportunities that sustain and enhance life for the poor. Roads and bridges lead to schools, to health care, to markets for buying and selling. The poorest areas around the world are also those that are most remote and isolated from the resources we use and take for granted every day.

The massive gap in infrastructure between developing and rich nations perpetuates cycles of poverty by forcing the poor to expend massive amounts of time and energy simply to survive.

Imagine spending hours every morning carrying a barrel and walking miles to the only reliable source of clean drinking water in the village. Imagine walking back carrying a full barrel of water on your back or your head.


©2007 Paul Jeffrey/ACT-Caritas, Courtesy of Photoshare

  • Imagine a 3-hour walk to and from the nearest clinic to get modern medicine for your sick child – rather than hopping in your car for a quick trip to Walmart or Walgreens.
  • Imagine not knowing how to give that medication to your suffering child because you never attended the nearest school, half a day’s walk away, so you cannot read the label.
  • Imagine your children walking 2 hours to and from school each day. Imagine wondering if they will have to wade across a 3-foot rushing stream to get home today because it rained heavily in the afternoon, and water now runs over their path.
  • Imagine saying goodbye to your husband as he leaves for the two-week expedition that is required to haul a harvested crop to market.
  • Imagine watching helplessly as your wife lies wasting away in bed dying, possibly from malaria or AIDS or from a simple infected wound that went untreated and infected her bloodstream. Imagine having no medicine, no doctor, no hospital, no comfort within reach.

These are daily realities for the extreme poor.


Medical emergencies in the middle of nowhere

The following story is true.

Little Bamchamlak is 6 years old, and she has accidentally knocked over a pot of scalding water, which burns her severely on her entire arm and upper chest. If Bamchamlak were Bianca, and instead of living in the remote Mauksane village in Gonder, Ethiopia, she lived in Detroit or Houston or Boston, she would be rushed to the hospital immediately and provided intensive care for her burns until she was fully recovered. Instead, the moment that Bamchamlak knocks over the pot of boiling water begins a days-long journey – not to a hospital, but to her Aunt’s village, as her family has no money to get medical treatment, and anyway, there is no hospital within a 2-day walk. Perhaps the Aunt will be able to provide some help. So Bamchamlak, with her severe burns, and her father begin their trek, which takes 2 days to walk, then 2 days by bus, then another day walking.

But to make that trek Bamchamlak needs to be transported across a broken bridge – by rope. Men line up on either side of the 240-foot long bridge, which spans the Blue Nile 50 feet below, and hold a rope across the 20 feet of missing bridge separates them. People, animals, and parcels are tethered to the rope and pulled across the divide by the men. With her burns, Bamchamlak cannot be tethered directly, so she is placed in a large sack, which is tied to the rope and pulled across. After the terrifying crossing there are still days of travel to reach her Aunt’s village.

Unfortunately, Bamchamlak’s aunt is unable to do much for her burns, so the little girl makes the reverse trek home. Over time, scar tissues pulls her chest and upper arm together while her lower arm is locked in a 90 degree angle. She is unable to extend her arm at all. Now, Bamchamlak will be considered a burden to her family and in her village where women conduct a great deal of physical labor in and out of their homes. In her current state, in her remote village in Ethiopia, Bamchamlak is considered severely handicapped. Her lifelong prospects have been made bleaker than they were at her birth.

Bamchamlak’s is a true story, but with a much happier ending than one might expect. Lack of infrastructure, combined with grinding poverty, turned Bamchamlak’s burn into a potentially lifelong grave disability. Fortunately for Bamchamlak, a group of determined westerners were headed her way to fix that broken bridge. Along the way, they also managed to fix Bamchamlak’s broken body.


Bridges to Prosperity

Changing Lives One Bridge at a Time

In September 2004, National Public Radio aired a story about senior citizens retiring to countries in Central America in order to stretch their retirement nest eggs. The reporter interviewed a woman who had moved with her husband to Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, where she said, “Our Social Security is much more than enough to live quite well here.” The reporter described the retirees’ $100,000 two-bedroom bungalow situated near a clubhouse, pool, and the ocean.

The woman then described the luxuries she and her husband could afford in their adopted country that would be far out of reach in the U.S. Her comments were staggering and unforgettable: “Good heavens, you can get a maid for less than $3 a day really. I mean, it’s marvelous. We have one three times a week. She didn’t come today because, evidently, we had a rain the night before. They could not swim through the river. During the dry season, they can just practically walk across. During the wet season, they actually swim across.”

Later in the interview, the retiree mentioned that her housing development funds a local health clinic; still, I’ve never forgotten the image conjured by her description of her maid swimming across the river, potentially risking her life as the river is sometimes too dangerous to cross, to a job paying less than $3 per day. I’ve never stopped thinking about building a bridge across that river.

In international dollars, or at “purchasing price parity,” which equalizes the currencies of different nations in order to provide a true picture of the relative strength of world economies and levels of poverty, Nicaragua’s gross national income per capita was $3,580 in 2005. That means the average Nicaraguan lived on what $3,580 could purchase in goods and services here in the U.S. that year. Imagine living for a year in the U.S. on $3,580. This is desperate poverty.


NPR story – part 2

Fifteen months after I heard the story about retirees in Nicaragua, I was listening to Worldview, a program concerning global affairs that airs on my local public radio station. That day, the show’s host, Jerome McDonnell, was interviewing Ken Frantz about his organization, Bridges to Prosperity, and its construction of footbridges in remote areas of developing countries.

At some point during the interview, as Ken was describing the many ways a footbridge transforms the prospects for local residents, I had the proverbial light bulb moment. I distinctly remember thinking, “Of course, a footbridge!” I also thought about that maid swimming across the river in Nicaragua to her low-paying job.

It occurred to me at that moment that there must be innumerable such projects, technologies, services, etc., – those that inspire that “aha!” that comes when simple logic meets ingenuity, when a big problem meets its match in a single determined and creative mind. I started investigating. I found irrigation pumps, backpacks full of food, low energy light bulbs, llamas, and asthma vans. I determined that these projects relied on everyday donors like me. I quit my job and started to write.

It turns out that Ken Frantz, the founder of Bridges to Prosperity, had a similar moment.

Bridging the infrastructure gap

*The info about Bridges to Prosperity here was published in 1999. For updated info about their accomplishments, go to

In March, 2001, Ken Frantz was killing time in a waiting room of a Ford dealership while one of the trucks belonging to his construction company was being serviced. He picked up a December 2000 copy of National Geographic, and it fell open to a picture that brought Ken’s life as he’d known it to a halt and his life’s mission into laser focus.

The photo was taken by Nevada Wier who had accompanied author Virginia Morrell on a rafting expedition down the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The photo showed the sheer guts and determination that people living in the world’s most remote areas must display on any given day just to survive.

Photo courtesy of Bridges to Prosperity


“I looked at the photo once, twice, three times,” Ken recalls, “and it came to me: What I want to do is repair that bridge.” With 30+ years of experience in construction and development along with his own business, Ken knew he had the resources to do it.

In another twist of fate, Ken’s brother, Forrest, had also seen the photo and had the same inspiration. Within just a couple of months, Ken and Forrest made an initial surveying trek to the Sebara Dildiy bridge in Ethiopia.


How desperation and determination cross a broken bridge

The following story of a man crossing the Sebara Dildiy bridge was reported in the August 2008 issue of the Rotarian, which has provided generous support to Bridges to Prosperity.[i]

Life here, where most families barely survive on less than US$1 a day, revolves around the market. A good day could bring in enough money to allow a child to go school. But most children stay home to shepherd animals and chase monkeys away from small vegetable plots. Homes are mud huts with dirt floors.

Barefoot and tired from a 20-mile trek, the young Ethiopian farmer nimbly descends a line of steep cliffs and jagged black rocks leading to the Blue Nile’s edge. When he finally reaches the base of a bridge nestled deep inside a gorge, he lets out an exhausted sigh. He sets down his heavy basket of fresh bananas, bound for sale at the market, and waits.

The Sebara Dildiy looms before him. Only one person can cross the Blue Nile’s broken bridge at a time, making long waits common. Eight men – four on each side of the missing span– tend a yellow rope stretched across the opening. After 20 minutes, the banana merchant slips a loop around his torso. Carefully, he eases himself off the edge of the bridge and for several minutes hangs dangerously, 50 feet above the fast-moving river, as the men pull him across inch by inch. About 50 people cross safely on this day. Falling from the rope–as one man did not long before – means almost certain death. The merchant gathers his goods, which are pulled across the river after him, and begins hiking the last 26 miles to the market on the other side of the bridge.

According to Bridges to Prosperity, at the time of this crossing the men who operated the rope shared a charge of 26¢ (or 3 Ethiopian Birr) per man to cross, a huge portion of the traveler’s daily wages, which at approximately $1.75 per day must support his entire family. Goats and donkeys are taken across upside down, their hooves tethered to the rope. Larger animals, such as cows and oxen, cannot be transported across with the rope.

When Ken Frantz traveled to the Amhara region in north central Ethiopia, he described Bamchamlak’s tiny village near the broken bridge in his journal. It portrays the poverty that drives residents to make such a treacherous crossing over the river:

Maksane village (area called Maksanet): On the top of a small hill that rises about 100 feet above the surrounding terrain. No electricity, no telephone, no running water (people walk 2+ km to find water in wet season; probably 5 km in dry season), no vehicles….just donkeys. No post office, no nothing…only grass hut homes. No post office, no nothing…only grass hut homes. I would guess size of village and surrounding area at 800 people, but this could be on low side. No one in Maksane has an address to receive mail. There are no roads, but possible to get to by 4 wheel drive from Iste. Just wide trail that is impassable during wet season. No community building.  There seems to be a small field for children play and football of sorts. There is also broken grinding wheel powered by one cylinder diesel that is community owned…but is has been broken for years. Corn and other grains requiring grinding must be sent to Arota by donkey.

As you can see, in addition to a broken bridge, the village has no infrastructure of any kind, imprisoning its residents in centuries of cyclical poverty.


Hope arrives

Sunday, February 10, 2002

“11 months have gone by since I first saw the National Geographic photo of the broken bridge.  After 10 months of preparation, I am headed to fix what I said I would fix, the 360 year old Broken Bridge on the Blue Nile.” From Ken Frantz’s journal

Less than a year after picking up that copy of National Geographic, having acquired the financing, materials, and technology needed for the project, Ken was overseeing construction of a steel truss to span the bridge’s gap. The task required 25,000 pounds of steel, cement, and equipment, which were trekked 26 miles to the building site on the backs of donkeys. With the help of hundreds of volunteers from local villages, the bridge was in place and in business just 10 days later.

Following the completion of the bridge repair, Ken made the following comments at a gathering to celebrate. The Nile River is called the Abai River in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. It separates two districts within Amhara named Gonder and Gojjam.

“We meet here today to retire an old and very tired rope.  A rope that has done its best to do the impossible.  Was the impossible the thousands and thousands of people the rope carried to safety on the opposite shore?  No it was not.  Was the impossible the thousands and thousands of kilos of teff, animal hides, and coffee carried across?  No it was not.  The rope did much more than that …….it kept hope alive that someday the bridge would be fixed.  I know this to be true, you see, for it was the rope that caused the famous photo to be taken and put in the worlds largest magazine, and……it was I that saw the picture of the rope and the hope it represented…….and it was the rope and the people on either end that stirred my heart to act……and that is why my friends that we came here to help.  We came to retire this great rope of hope.

But, this rope is only one very small part of the story of this bridge.

The story as you know, started some 360 years ago when this bridge was first built.  After serving Gonder and Gojjam well for 300 years, the bridge eventually fell into disrepair, and was hence ordered repaired by Emporer Menelik in 1900.  The works were headed by a man named Haile Maskal.  Both Ras Hailu of Gojjam, Ras Mangasha of Damot, and Ras Gugsa of Gonder sent men to help rebuild the bridge.  Some of the elders in Gonder and Gojjam told me stories passed down from their grandfathers of this great endeavor.   Hence, it is to them that any dedication of this bridge must be made….for without all of your grandfathers efforts to raise and repair the bridge in 1900, this bridge would be nothing but a memory.

Then, about 65 years ago, there was a desperate struggle on this bridge.  As the Italian Army of Mussolini came pouring south out of Eritrea into Gojjam and Gonder, a small group of Ethiopian patriots huddled together not far from here to decide the fate of this bridge.  Should they risk leaving the bridge standing so as to benefit the armies of their enemy?  Or, should they break the bridge so as to force the Italian armies to remain split on either side of the Abai?  The leader of this group of patriots, Fitaurari Tamrit must have known the seriousness of the decision he was about to make…..he must have known that if he decided to severe the bridge, it would take years for the bridge to be repaired again.  But these were desperate times, and desperate times warranted desperate actions.

So, with many men, he started the terrible job of destroying this bridge…..but, not destroying it in anger, but rather in the hope that by doing so, it might help rid his homeland of the foreign invaders.  So stone by stone, with the point of the farm plow, the patriots took the middle span apart, trying desperately to save what they could to allow the bridge to be repaired later.  Just when it looked like their efforts to surgically sever the bridge were going to succeed, a terrible thing happened.  Under the weight of all of the men working on the paper-thin arch, the entire center archway collapsed into the Abai, killing 40 men and their leader, Fitaurari.  Did this happen because God was angry about the war being brought to the Abai River?  Yes, I think God was mad about the war, but not mad at Fitaurari.  I don’t know why Fitaurari had to die.

There is, however, one thing that we can all be certain about:  The Sebara Dildiy has been broken for too long.  For too long have the people of the two great provinces of Gojjam and Gonder been separated.  For too long have families been separated.  For too long has the trading between the villages on either side suffered.  For too long has crossing the Abai evoked fear among those forced to cross by the rope.  And……for too long has hope and promise been kept waiting. So let us celebrate, for we shall wait no longer!”

Pride and gratitude in the midst of extreme poverty

Ken was incredibly moved by the dignity and graciousness of the villagers. Here, he writes of their expressions of gratitude.

During the celebration, individual people continue to bring me gifts of eggs…yes eggs.  Think of the poorest person you can imagine, one with children suffering from malnutrition, a small hut, a 2 acre farm they till by hand, and torn clothes. These people are bringing me eggs. All thank me, and then give me one egg at a time.  I don’t casually send off the gift to others.  I help with each egg.  By the end of the day, I am given more than 120 eggs.

More than 450,000 people live in the area surrounding the Sebara Dildiy bridge repaired by Bridges to Prosperity. Ken estimates the bridge provides 50-100 crossings per hour.

Bridges – to health, work, education…hope

Bridges to Prosperity believes that building pedestrian bridges should be a primary effort in helping developing countries eradicate extreme poverty. It certainly makes sense. We’ve already discussed the urgent needs to address hunger, health, and education in order to end extreme poverty; however, for millions of the poorest people around the world, a bridge is desperately needed to access the very services and opportunities we’ve examined. 

Bridges to Prosperity’s mission is to “empower poor African, Asian, and South American rural communities through footbridge building, thereby advancing personal responsibility, community public works, economic prosperity, and access to schools, clinics, jobs, and markets.” It estimates footbridges are needed in 50 developing countries and that bridges would improve prospects for 1 billion people.


Efficient, effective and rippling methodology

The following two elements are the keys to Bridges to Prosperity’s ability to operate as a very lean enterprise while creating tremendous impact: Bridges to Prosperity does not construct footbridges for villagers; it teaches them to build and maintain their own bridges, and some of these newly inducted engineers go on to ripple their work throughout the country. Secondly, board members and volunteers with a shared passion for empowering others donate their time, energy, expertise, and personal financial commitments.

Bridges to Prosperity employs only 3 staff: two are located in countries with active bridge building projects, and a director of operations works in the U.S. A 20-member board of directors and volunteers conduct the rest of the organization’s activities – dozens of individuals bringing a vast array of skills to the projects. Many are engineers, Rotarians, and folks in the construction business.

Bridges to Prosperity staff and volunteers construct demonstration bridges that provide training to future builders. Those who are trained as “lead engineers” go on to other regions to initiate bridge-building projects and train additional engineers, thereby growing the number of bridges constructed exponentially and creating a wide variety of future economic opportunities for local residents including supplying and hauling materials and providing labor.

In order to maximize its impact, the organization spends 2 years in-country providing training and building partnerships with public and private entities that increase the country’s internal capacity to build, maintain, and repair bridges once Bridges to Prosperity moves to another country. By the time they leave, the organization has created a vast pool of stakeholders and future bridge builders.

Funding comes from individual donations, Rotary Clubs, the Rotary Foundation, and corporate sponsorship, such as the well-known New York engineering firm, PB (Parsons Brinckerhoff). Bridges to Prosperity does an outstanding job of leveraging its small annual budget ($188,426 in total revenues for 2006) to obtain additional funding to build bridges. Its 2-year budget to build 8 additional bridges in Ethiopia (following the Sebara Dildiy repair) and train 2 lead engineers to continue the work was $215,268. By the end of 2008, Bridges to Prosperity had constructed 55 bridges in 12 countries and developed newer, more cost-efficient bridge technologies significantly reducing their costs per bridge.

In 2008, a footbridge in Latin America cost $335/meter to build, and $450/meter in Africa – costs in Africa being higher due to high tariffs, lack of competition, high costs of materials, and poor distribution systems. In a Bridges to Prosperity building project, these costs are born in approximately equal shares by Bridges to Prosperity, the local villages, and other NGO and government partners. Villages contribute all of the labor (typically about 500 man/woman days) and all locally available materials, such as stone, sand and often the wood for decking.


A plan to put itself out of business

Its recently launched “2020 Plan” will result in projects in 20 countries with 200 lead engineers trained by the year 2020 – increasing Bridges to Prosperity’s worldwide footbridge construction to 250 per year, touching the lives of 20 million people. The ultimate goal of the 2020 Plan is to put Bridges to Prosperity out of business, having empowered government bodies, companies, NGOs, engineers and villagers such that its initiation and direction of projects is no longer needed.


Building bridges creates bang for the buck

There it is. A plan to provide 20 million of the world’s poorest people with access to schools, health care, and markets. Each bridge linking the most destitute and isolated people to three of the most crucial keys to prosperity. The rippling effects of this plan are monumental. The ripple of your donation will be the same.

Bridges to Prosperity teaches villagers how to construct low-cost, simple, safe bridges that communities and/or local governments can build and maintain. There are several compelling ways to consider the costs/benefits of a single bridge. The following project illustrates this.

In May 2007, Bridges to Prosperity taught local villagers how to construct a suspended bridge across the Santo Cruz River near the village of Mezapata in Peru. For years, villagers in Mezapata have harvested coffee beans considered some of the world’s best; however, the work is labor intensive and residents sell their product for only 5% of the final cost to the customer who purchases it in a U.S. grocery store. Villagers earn approximately $2.70 per day – not enough to meet the basic necessities of life and certainly not enough to provide a safety net for times when the price for the beans drops or the harvest is poor. In addition, villagers were spending precious wages to repair the poorly constructed wooden bridge each time it was washed away by floods and preventing them from accessing their work, health care and education.

Enter Bridges to Prosperity, which helped villagers construct a 55 meter (180 foot) suspended bridge across the Santo Cruz. The bridge will withstand the annual floods and should reliably serve the community for a minimum of 20 years. The bridge will serve approximately 3,000 people who live on either side. At a cost of $335/meter, the bridge cost $18,425 to construct.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that the title of this book is Give a Little! As a potential donor, you may be thinking that your small contribution won’t go far in helping to build a bridge. The key is to consider the cost of the bridge to an individual user. When broken out this way, you’ll see that a small contribution provides many, many crossings over an $18,000 bridge.

For instance, if you divide $18,425 by 3,000 beneficiaries, the cost is only $6.14 per person for the lifetime of the bridge.

If you amortize this amount over 20 years, the cost is 31¢ per person/year, an incredibly small investment in providing access to the tools to escape poverty!

You can also consider the cost per crossing: if the bridge is crossed 50 times per day (a conservative estimate), the cost per crossing is $18,425 / 20 years / 18,250 crossings per year = 5¢ per crossing! Do you remember that the men pulling travelers across the Sebara Dildiy charged 38¢ per crossing and that this consumed approximately 22% of a traveler’s entire wages for a day? Finally, Bridges to Prosperity estimates that the boost in economic productivity resulting from one of its bridges pays for its construction within 6—12 months.

Need I say more? This is a cost-effective, high-return project that you can support with an affordable donation and help profoundly change lives.


Epilogue: Banchamlak at 12 years old

Despite her devastating injury, Banchamlak’s story has a happy ending. A member of the Bridges to Prosperity crew met Banchamlak in 2002 and arranged for her to have surgery to release the “contractures” caused by her burns, allowing her to use her arm and shoulder again. Banchamlak is now in high school. Life is not easy – she struggles to pay school fees that allow her to stay in a dormitory during the week, as the high school is a 3-hour walk from her village. Still Banchamlak’s prospects for a better life are greatly improved by the bridge that brought hope.


You can contact Bridges to Prosperity and make a donation on its website:

Or by mailing a check to:

Bridges to Prosperity, Inc.

5007 C-126 Victory Blvd.

Yorktown, Virginia 23693


Tel: (757) 234-6230

Fax: (757) 234-0523

[i]. The Rotarian, “Bridging Worlds,” August 2008.


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