This afternoon’s work on the new bridge supplied plenty of evidence of why the village needs it so badly. I saw an old woman make it across the existing bridge only because Etelle Stephan, one of our high school volunteers, supported her for the walk. The crude wooden planks give a convincing imitation of the village’s frequently undulating footpath surfaces. But the planks are also spaced unevenly, and the whole bridge sways from side to side beneath the weight of even a single user.
Without Etelle’s help, this old woman might have turned back, or suffered the fate of an aunt of the former mayor, Christopher Awe. On her way to the big Catholic church near the town center, in 2010, so that she could attend the Christmas Eve Mass, she fell from the bridge and drowned. Her neighbors had advised her not to attempt the walk by herself after dark; God would forgive her for missing the service, they promised. But the villagers are not easily dissuaded from going to church.
At the end of the day, after most of the volunteers had left the construction site, an old man making the crossing put his foot down just short of one of the planks. I’m not sure whether his strength or his eyesight failed him. Although he pitched forward onto the bridge, we were relieved to see that, despite his embarrassment—amplified by the need to be helped to his feet—he was uninjured.
These incidents turned the conversation, as some of us walked back through the village toward the dinner waiting for us, to the old man that all of Africa is watching now. If Nelson Mandela dies in the next month, Jessica Beagent, one of the Inspire Worldwide leaders looking after the Karimu volunteers, may be in Mvezo, the village of his birth, when it happens. Jess will leave us one day early in order to manage another volunteer project in South Africa, so she worries that the ongoing focus on Mandela will be a distraction.
We have our own Mandela along for this trip: Winnie Wong, a high school volunteer from China. Sifaeli Kaaya, the local farmer who is our lead translator, insists on calling Winnie “Mandela.” This is Sifaeli’s joke, but also an honor, and Winnie’s hard work has certainly earned her some recognition.
Winnie has come here with three other Chinese high school girls, all of them good workers and all of them artistically talented. I was happy to see them get a day off from physical labor when Dr. Susan Hughmanick asked them to create posters for the safe-birth class that she has planned for the local midwives. The posters pleased Susan so much that she wants to have the girls show them off to all of the volunteers before our trip ends.
Susan may not have accounted for the embarrassment that Winnie and the others will feel when they stand up in front of us to display their intimately gynecological drawings. Or else Susan knows that the girls, who are not tall, can hide behind the posters, which are.