Building bridges in Malawi

My sister Bev has been working in Malawi for the last week, and sent me back this lovely story about a man with a mission.

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Today I was reminded of the children’s story about the troll and the goats and the bridge. The bridge I encountered was a rickety wood-and-rope structure suspended over a river. But the keeper of this crossing wasn’t an ugly, mean-spirited little man like the troll. He was a round-faced, cheerful entrepreneurial Malawian whose initiative makes the daily life of many easier while making him a fortune.

This crossing is in Old Town, Lilongwe – in sight of the road with the formal bridge built many years ago to enable the neverending stream of locals to move between the business section and the frenzied informal market district. Most are on foot, sweating in the heat, carrying bags, children or bulging sacks of flour and food.

The home-made structure offers a convenient shortcut through the market stalls to the formal shopping area. It shortens the walking time by at least 10 minutes – considerable when you’re burdened by a heavy load or in a hurry to get home.

The cheerful man built the bridge himself. He sits at one end under a reed shelter each day, collecting the equivalent of 60c from each person who passes as they step on to or off his bridge. And the people – many of them so poor they’d sell the shoes off their feet for a good meal – happily pay for the privilege of being able to use the bridge.

I wonder for how long and how many times this man walked over the original bridge before he glanced upriver and came on the idea of erecting an alternative, more convenient crossing himself, and charging every person who used it – a pretty bold move by anyone’s thinking, and an unusual opportunity that could probably only happen in Africa, without the local authorities smashing it down because it’s illegal or taking it over to profit from it themselves.

And then how did he gather the materials to build it – did he have to borrow the money to buy the poles, wood and rope? And what about physically erecting the structure so that it was safe and stable enough to entice foot traffic and withstand extensive use and the rainy season? Did he get the advice of someone who understands construction? Did he summon the help of family and friends with the promise of payment once it was complete and the passing started?

What an amazing show of individual thinking in an impoverished town where the humble majority lack the resources, education or time to do anything but find basic work and survive until the next pay packet.

I heard that, before this ingenious man undertook this amazing feat, people used to offer to carry others and their belongings across the river for 60c a time.

It’s been several years now that hundreds pass by the keeper of the bridge every day. I worked out that he probably earns the equivalent of R7 000 a month – an unfathomable fortune in a place like Lilongwe.

And I’m willing to bet a thousand quachas (that’s about R30) that, every now and then, a goat gets to cross over it too.

A side note: Have you ever been in an unfamiliar place and heard someone call your name? I was walking through the market district yesterday when I heard my name being called in a Malawian accent – it sounded more like ‘Baaaff’ than ‘Bev’, but I was almost certain it was my name. I stopped and listened more carefully, and there it was again, in amongst the sound of masses of people interacting, the hum of traffic and incessant hooters, the spread of informal vendors, a lonely preacher belting out a sermon on a loudhailer and the incessant beat of African music. For a few seconds I was gobsmacked. Who could possibly know me here? And then I glanced down and saw a gathering of goats tied together, laid down on the sidewalk, clearly awaiting their fate. It was the last desperate plea of one of them that I’d heard.

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3 comments on “Building bridges in Malawi

  1. brigitte reader says:

    What a lovely story. Many more bridges should be built to connect a lot of people and nations.

  2. Jude says:

    Love your story, Baaaaff!

  3. Jacqui M says:

    Beautifully written; I felt challenged … how many bridges have we made in OUR lives to enable those around us to find a better way of living; to make a change in OUR lives, which makes theirs that much safer and happier, and inspires them to build for others.

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