From Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World
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.
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.
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.
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
[i]. The Rotarian, “Bridging Worlds,” August 2008.