Ahh Africa, wonderful and beautiful Africa! It was so great to return to Kenya this past summer after having been gone for 25 years. You see, I was born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire at the time) and attended high school at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya from 1986 to 1990. Since then, life in America has been a whirlwind of college and getting two degrees, meeting and marrying the love of my life, building a career as a structural engineer designing bridges, having and raising four wonderful and amazing kids, and yet still knowing my heart was in Africa and why I became an engineer.
In 2013, that ache and desire to serve in Africa was still there and even more prominent. I always thought doctors or dentist had the perfect career for helping those less fortunate and never thought I could find a way to use my knowledge, experience, and skills as a bridge engineer, but all that was about to change.
I came across a story about an organization called Bridging the Gap Africa (BtGA), a non-profit building footbridges in rural parts of Kenya, so I researched the organization and couldn’t believe my eyes. Harmon Parker, the same Harmon Parker who had ventured to the heart of the Congo in 1985 to build my family’s home using his mason skills, is the founder and director of BtGA. I knew this was my opportunity and where I could help, so I immediately reached out to Harmon and sure enough they needed help and would love to have me on board for a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) currently being formed. Not only could I bring knowledge about bridge engineering, but also about living in and loving Africa and its people and culture.
After a year and a half of serving on the TAC I would continue to tell Harmon “I’ve got to find a way to come and help you build a bridge.” Sure enough, that dream became a reality at the beginning of 2015. My wife, Holly, and I purchased airline tickets, got our passports and vaccines, and began to make plans with Harmon and his wife, Teri. We would leave on June 12 and be in Kenya for 2 ½ weeks. Harmon had perfectly planned a bridge build near Kitale, in the northwest part of Kenya, and I would help complete the Mbururu bridge over the Nzoia River and be there for the opening celebration with the local communities. An entire bridge build can take 6 weeks or more, so the BtGA crew needed to go ahead and construct the cable anchors and towers.
Once Holly and I arrived in Nairobi it was like I had never left. Sure, some things had changed in Nairobi, but it still had the same sights, sounds, and smells that I remembered from so many years ago. Harmon and I flew out 2 days later, landed in Kitale, checked in to our hotel, changed, and immediately went to the bridge site to begin work. The initial plan had been for me to help with getting the cables across the bridge, setting sag, and then installing the hangers and walking surface. Rain had forced Harmon and crew to go ahead and set the cables to ensure we had time to get everything else done prior to the opening celebration.
With the cables in place and prefabricated hangers and precut walking surface boards on site, we immediately began installing and launching the superstructure. I did get to help with tightening the bolts for the cable grips with a torque wrench since that hadn’t yet been completed. This may sound like an easy task, but trust me, it quickly wore me out. Thankfully, BtGA’s American field engineer at the time, Eric Bonet, is a young guy and had more stamina than me. While the BtGA field crew continued to install and launch the superstructure, we decided to use the BtGA “yacht” to cross the Nzoia River to tighten the cable grip bolts on the other side. Let’s just say two guys in a makeshift raft comprised of two barrels makes for a rather hairy and wet experience where one thinks they may go for a swim fully dressed. I survived and we completed the bridge on time for the celebration three days later.
There are a couple of memories that really stand out from my trip. First, the bridge build immediately drew crowds and mostly children with huge smiles on their faces who were on their way home from school and so curious to see what was going on. It wasn’t just about seeing three mzungus (white man), but the anticipation of a lifesaving bridge that would allow them quick and safe access to their school, to their gardens, to the medical clinic, or to the local market of the neighboring village. I loved watching Harmon engage with the kids, speak their language, and get down on their level with funny sounds to make them smile. The kids were also part of the opening celebration through song and dance, one of the unique qualities of Africa, so it was great to see them there from start to finish.
It is great to know I’m part of helping save the lives of the future generation of Africa. There was a humble and genuine gratefulness from the local politicians, chiefs, elders, communities, and bridge committees on either side of the river in charge of maintenance and oversight for years to come. I can’t tell you the number of times we heard “Thank you, thank you. We are so grateful for what you have done. Please continue to help us.”
Once the bridge was opened, there was no end to the smiling faces and excitement at being able to so easily cross the river with no fear of drowning. This is why we do what we do and I’m so grateful to be part of a life changing organization.