How I Learned to Appreciate I-40

Israel Nelson - Senegal

April 10, 2013

“First in roads; Last in education” is a tongue in cheek saying I heard a lot growing up in North Carolina. While the saying refers more to the disparity in taxes doled out by the North Carolina State Government, as a result, many North Carolinians (myself included) grew up thinking that spending money on roads was a waste of money.

This isn’t a political blog post, nor is it a critique of public spending in North Carolina. No, this is a blog post about The Bridge and how it made me learn to appreciate I-40.

When I first started working with Trees for the Future, I went around the Kédougou region with my advisor doing surveys on the farms that Trees for the Future operated on. Questions like “Do you own cattle?” and “What are some of the problems that impede your ability to plant?” were asked of all the farmers in order to better see what the NGO could do for the farmers in order to increase plant yield. These questions were generally well received and answers were given in a very nice, non-sarcastic manner. However, whenever we reached question number 19, “Are there problems with the road to town?,” the farmer would generally start laughing and motion for the next question or, as the farmer at Dar El Salaam told me with an incredulous look, “Didn’t you already see the answer to that on your way in?”

He had a point. In order to get to Dar El-Salaam, you have to get on the road to Dindefello (which is an entirely dirt road), turn off onto a tiny side road that’s riddled with potholes and rocks, and just when the rocks begin to disappear, you see the most terrifying part of your journey; The Bridge. The first time I reached “The Bridge,” my mouth hung open in shock. The only way to get to Dar El Salaam is to cross a pretty fast rushing part of Gambia, vehicle and all, on a bridge completely comprised of handmade ropes and sticks. Saying “The Bridge” is rickety is possibly the understatement of the century. Saying “The Bridge” was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen is more accurate. Luckily, there are always small children near “The Bridge” who are willing to hold your hand if you’re too scared to cross, and on most days, the villagers in Dar El-Salaam replace the sticks that have broken and fallen through. (If it’s recently rained though, don’t count on the bridge being complete. You’ll have to jump over the gaps and leave your vehicle behind.) All in all, it’s approximately 20km (14 miles) to Dar El-Salaam from Kédougou.  It takes an hour to complete the trip due to the problems with the road.

Here’s the big problem:  that’s not even the worst of the roads in the Kédougou region. Not even close.  The road to Dindefello and the side roads are considered pretty good for a rural setting in this area. The potholes are plenty, and there’s no pavement, but hey, at least it’s not on a 45 degree incline, like in the Fungolimbe area! And at least there are roads! I went to several villages where the final part of the trip was spent walking a few kilometers through a field. No path, no trail, no anything. This might not seem like too big of a deal. So it’s a little hard to get to these villages, sure. But the villagers are happy!

Well, sure. Many villagers are extremely happy with their way of life. A lot of the farmers I talked to told me Kédougou was “too big and full of crazy people” and questioned my sanity for living there. (Kédougou has 12K people, for the record.) But without roads, getting adequate health care is a problem. Most rural villages are lucky if they have any sort of health care in their village; most villagers have to go to a neighboring small town to get even basic health care. And without decent roads, that’s extremely difficult. And what if you have a medical emergency? Traveling to Kédougou (the only city with a hospital in the region) is made extremely difficult if you have to transport a sick person down a mountain by hand.  And education is made really difficult when your elementary school is located halfway up a mountain, like for the children in the Bedik Villages located near Ibel. (Can you imagine climbing over boulders to get to class in the morning?)

Before I left Dar El-Salaam, I asked the farmer we had interviewed if the bridge had ever broken.  His response: “No. We built the bridge ourselves, and we all know how to find sticks to repair the holes in the bridge. We know which sticks can hold the weight of a motorcycle, and we know how to tie them together so they stay strong.”  I left Dar El-Salaam with a stronger appreciation of the infrastructure that makes my life so much easier in the United States, and a greater admiration of the people who, when presented with the lack of infrastructure in the region, were able to craft a solution out of materials found in their village.

Israel Nelson