Returning for her second trip to Yerer, Ethiopia in two years, Susan Wilcox found herself asking, “Why? Why am I doing this?”
After all, it’s a hard trip to a difficult part of the world, 8,000 miles from home and anything but direct. Sixteen hours flying, originating in Minneapolis to Addis Ababa; another hour by taxi to traditional-style lodgings in Debre Zeit; then another 50-minute ride by land cruiser over extremely rough terrain, including crossing three irrigation trenches, to arrive at a hot, dry, high elevation construction job site with no power tools or equipment, volunteer work crews and significant language barriers.
“We drove out to the bridge site, and there we saw Deressa, the deaf and mute man who was storing all our building supplies in his shed,” remembers Susan. The minute he saw us, he came and hugged us, and thanked us for coming. That’s when I knew: That’s why we’re doing this.”
“This” refers to the Wadecha bridge project: an all-volunteer effort to build a cable suspension bridge across the treacherous Wadecha river. The need was clear: Each year, in the rainy season several people die attempting to cross the swollen river in order to attend school, go to market, or receive health care. The bridge is a connector to a better life.
Getting it built was another matter. Located deep in the horn of Africa, some 30 miles east of Addis Ababa, Yerer is home to some 20,000 people, scattered in small villages of 100-1,000. Though not far from the city, the region is remote, isolated by lack of roads and other infrastructure. Comforts such as running water and electricity are not available here. It is region of dung homes, subsistence farming and extreme poverty. Many families eat only three or four days a week.
The bridge project was organized by the Holistic Ministry of the Children of the Horn of Africa (HMCHA), a Minnesota-based nonprofit founded by Ethiopian-born Megersa Kumbi. HMCHA primarily works in partnership with American and Ethiopian faith-based groups to provide basic literacy and nutrition to children and their families in the Horn of Africa through sponsorships. In 2011, HMCHA learned of the need for the bridge, and took up the goal of building it with volunteer labor.
Two engineers took on the challenge of designing a cable-supported plank bridge to cross the 120-foot span, and in November of 2012 a group traveled to the site to begin building the project, working alongside members of the community with the aid of an interpreter. They made a start, but were unable to finish the bridge.
One of the volunteers on that trip was Cindy Johnson. She told her friend Susan Wilcox about the unfinished bridge, and Susan approached her brother, Kraus-Anderson Chairman Bruce Engelsma, about the possibility of reaching out to KAers to get the job done. From April 22-May 3, 2013 Susan joined KA employees Terry Coleman, Steve Johnson, Amber Jacobsen and Diane Duguay in traveling with the HMCHA group to spend their vacations doing manual labor: hauling infill, heavy bags of cement and buckets of water, mixing and pouring concrete, cutting planks and drilling holes with hand tools.
For those of us used to the efficiency of modern construction, consider the weight of the challenges: There’s no electricity at the bridge site, so that means no power tools or equipment. Any tools or equipment brought in from abroad are subject to heavy tariffs, or subject to disappear completely enroute to their owners. Some equipment might be available to rent in Addis—if you can find it. Wilcox recalls traveling into the city one day on a search for supplies in a hardware store lit by candlelight. Finishing the pier work required moving an 800-pound cement mixer by human muscle alone from one river bank to the other.
It takes a special combination of construction expertise, fortitude, patience and muscle to take on this project; and the KAers were well suited to the job. Both Project Superintendent Terry Coleman and General Superintendent Steve Johnson were familiar with African culture and the rigors of travel. Terry has made several trips to Ethiopia, having adopted two children from there, and speaks some Amharic. Steve has traveled to Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa on hunting trips, and saw the bridge project as a way to give something back to Africa. While her role as Director of Employee Relations and Diversity is usually an office job, Diane Duguay had performed construction labor on a previous mission project in Mexico; and Project Assistant Amber Jacobsen has on-site construction management and construction labor experience, including handling tools and pouring concrete. As the only member of the KA contingent with no first-hand experience on a jobsite, Susan did her share of the heavy lifting- hauling rocks, tarring cable, shoveling cement, and running to Addis for supplies.
During the 2013 trip, the team completed most of the concrete and stone work; and cut and drilled boards for the planking. Then, with the rainy season looming, it was time to go back home. The bridge remained unfinished for another year, and another five people died attempting to cross. One left a widow and five children.
“We needed to finish it,” said Steve Johnson.
This spring, Steve Johnson and Susan Wilcox returned to the site, joining 18 other American volunteers with the local crews to finish the bridge. Over 10 days, the team spent 3 full days just lifting the heavy cables up and clamping them into place. They then set the planking, finishing the bridge decking. The piers were then infilled with field stone and a concrete cap was poured to make the bridge approach stable. Then the side fences were erected and bolted. The final step was to decorate the bridge with colorful ties and flags for the celebration. On May 2, 2014, three years after construction was begun, the village celebrated the completion of the bridge.
An estimated 600 people a day are expected to cross the completed bridge to school, to market, and to healthcare and needed supplies. To a better, healthier future.