The Bridging the Gap Africa team has been complete for a couple of days, ever since its founder, Harmon Parker, joined Nate Bloss and Sylvester Ouko here. Even though the preliminary work has been grueling, the Karimu volunteers have not shied away from it. Harmon, who comes across immediately as a straight talker, tells us that he has never seen any other group of volunteers labor so willingly or so hard. This is a great accolade, considering that Bridging the Gap has already built something like fifty bridges in Kenya.
Marianne and I had not understood why, ever since Nate and Sylvester began directing the work, five days ago, they, and then Harmon, insisted on paying a handful of the villagers for their labor. We assumed the villagers would be willing to work for free to build something that would benefit all of them; we had even received assurances from the mayor and the village council that they could turn out plenty of volunteer workers. Every year, men and women—and even children—from the village work without pay as they help the Karimu volunteers make improvements to Ufani Primary School and Ayalagaya Secondary School.
At breakfast this morning, Harmon explained that it was not a lack of villagers who were willing to volunteer that has made Bridging the Gap dependent on paid workers. Harmon, Nate, and Sylvester need at least some paid workers whom they can drive hard, as Karimu never has to do. If a Karimu trip ends with the construction of a classroom or a teachers’ house unfinished, we can leave knowing that the villagers will complete the project in their own time. But the more specialized construction by Bridging the Gap Africa requires the engineering skills of Harmon, Nate, and Sylvester. They must be present to supervise, or else the new bridge that gets put up will be more dangerous than the old one it replaces. So they cannot rely fully on volunteers, who have no obligation to keep working if they feel they’re being pushed too hard in order to finish a job quickly.
Even so, we find that some of the villagers show up at the bridge site to work for no money. These include our friend Josephus. Bridging the Gap pays him to stand watch over the building materials throughout the night, and then he comes back in the afternoon to volunteer. Because today is the last day in the village for the Karimu volunteers, and yesterday was their last day of work, there will now be less foot traffic over the old bridge, and therefore less need for the emergency repairs of which Josephus had taken charge.
The trucks had been able to deliver the construction materials only to one side of the river, where the ground starts out fairly high and immediately slopes sharply uphill toward Ayalagaya Secondary School, half an hour’s walk away. Much of the lower ground on the flood side, a ten-minute walk from Ufani Primary School, remains saturated, two months after the end of the rainy season. As the tons of sand and gravel that had to be passed, bucket by bucket, from the high side to the low side to build a support-pillar there took a toll on the old bridge, Josephus was ready. When a plank failed, he would go to work with his machete on the tree that had been felled to clear a path for the new bridge.
Our volunteers probably hoped for longer breaks, and wished that Josephus would not fashion new planks and hammer them into place so eagerly. They were out of luck because passion follows this man around no matter what he does—something that our son, Peter, knows very well. Peter was a Karimu volunteer in 2009, right after a four-month immersion in Kigali had left him fluent in Kinyarwanda. That experience seemed to help him outstrip all of our other volunteers in the acquisition of Swahili. The pleasure that Peter took in the traditional Iraqw dances, which Josephus leads, gave the two of them a lot to talk about. Now, every year, at his first glimpse of Marianne and me when we arrive in the village, the joy in his eyes fades a little bit when we must tell him that, no, once again Peter has not come along with us.
During the current trip, we have often seen Josephus wearing the tee shirt that we brought him last year on Peter’s behalf. It shows a cartoon bear displaying a map of California—obviously a fine place for a bear to live, on the evidence of this one’s easy body language. We have pointed out to Josephus where we live now, in Southern California, and where we used to live, closer to San Francisco. California is about sixteen hundred kilometers from north to south, I’ve said to him, still pointing, and we moved six hundred kilometers south to get from there to there. I have no idea what impression this makes on someone who has never traveled farther than thirteen miles from the village where he was born, to the regional capital, Babati—and, at that, only a handful of times.
Although neither of us is Peter, Marianne and I will do. This year, Josephus renewed the offer that he has made every year since 2011: stay in this village instead of going back to California, and I will build a house for you. We tell him that we cannot stay in Dareda Kati because all four of our children live in California. This makes sense to him, since he has several children of his own whom he loves. Still, he reminds us, some African men live apart from their families for months at a time so that they can work and earn money. He hopes we will be persuaded by the force of this argument while he walks with one of us on either side of him. The intense pressure of his hands, wrapped around our hands, delivers its own kind of eloquent speech.
We also saw Josephus’s passion when two Masai men and their wives danced with us several days back. I worried that he would feel upstaged by these guests who belonged to East Africa’s most famous tribe. But he could restrain neither the smile on his face nor the spontaneous motion of his compact, wiry body as he studied the four Masai dancers (who would be reduced to three whenever one of the men, Lucas Loonjilalo, took a call on his cell phone). Here was a chance to learn some new moves. As soon as Josephus was satisfied that he could keep up with our much taller and darker visitors, he joined them, and the smile on his bronze face widened.
The Masai reciprocated by trying one of the Iraqw dances. Marianne and I call it the “butt dance”: bent over from the waist so that your upper body stays parallel to the ground, you thrust your buttocks as far back as you can and synchronize your leaps to a frenzied drumbeat. It’s not a little sexual, and the Masai women, Paulina and Rhoda, found it hilarious.
Due to their relative height, the Masai may not be cut out for the butt dance, which the shorter Iraqw have mastered. In fairness, though, Paulina and Rhoda and Lucas and the other man, Martin, did all right.