Our volunteers took today off from their hard work on the Ufani School teachers’ house so that they could break ground on the new bridge. Most of the volunteers walked to the bridge site, but I rode there with two of the adult volunteers, Jon Mills and his wife, Brandi Davis, in the four-wheel-drive truck carrying the bridge materials that had been delayed by several days before they reached us.
We stood in back on top of a couple of hundred feet of tightly coiled steel cable. The parts of the ride that involved climbing or descending steep, heavily rutted red-dirt paths—often dodging the acacia needles that, most of the time, only giraffes can touch—had us holding our breath as we savored the kind of thrill-ride we would never try to get away with in the U.S. In Africa, this does not even provoke a second look by the police.
Our ride seemed like the soul of prudence next to what one of the villagers did after we arrived at the bridge site. A big tree stood obdurately in the way of the lengthened span that the new bridge would require. The tree required cutting down, and three villagers stepped forward. Two of them took turns swinging an axe. They worked, as the villagers always do here, without pausing to rest or to drink water. There were two of them to divide the work, however, so they would have considered it easy.
About thirty feet up, a colossal branch, set parallel to the ground, snaked toward the old bridge that we want to replace. With the sun poised at a certain angle, the shade from that branch would have given relief to people crossing the bridge on a hot day. But we now saw the branch in another light: when the tree came down, the weight of the branch would drag it toward the old bridge, destroying it prematurely. The old bridge needs to stay until the new one is ready, not only so the villagers can continue crossing the river, but to support construction of the new bridge.
The inconvenient branch gave the third villager something to do. In battered flip-flops like the ones we often see worn by construction workers here, he shinnied up the tree until he had reached the doomed branch. Then he assaulted it furiously with his machete. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the severed branch dropped harmlessly onto the river bank. A few minutes later, the amputee tree also toppled, well clear of where the bridge construction would take place.
One of the Bridging the Gap Africa engineers directing the construction, Nate Bloss, had looked tense as he watched the airborne villager attack the branch. Once the man had returned safely to earth, Nate told a story about a bridge he had built in another village, in Kenya. The story reminded me of how lucky Karimu is to work with the people of Dareda Kati, who are always willing to do their share of labor. The bridge in the village in Kenya, Nate said, has needed a single wooden plank to be replaced for the last year or more, but nobody there has been willing to do the job. If the people of Dareda Kati ever get to that point, I thought, Karimu will have to walk away.