Building Footbridges in Kenya

Matthew Bowser (far right) on a BtGA footbridge in Kenya
Matthew Bowser (far right) on a BtGA footbridge in Kenya

MMM’s Matt Bowser, Project Engineer, Bridge Engineering is involved with Bridging the Gap Africa (BtGA), an initiative that builds pedestrian footbridges to help marginalized communities across sub-Saharan Africa; you may have read previous posts about what the group is accomplishing. This time around we wanted to see what impact Matt’s time in Kenya had on him personally.

Matt first learned about the work being done by BtGA when he was reading an article published in the Bridge Design & Engineering magazine titled “Leap of Faith”. Through the magazine’s website Matt contacted BtGA, and expressed his interest to become involved with the project. BtGA responded indicating there was a need for engineering services. Seeing what a great opportunity this was, Matt prepared a proposal asking if MMM would consider becoming part of the initiative as a corporate sponsor. His proposal was approved, and MMM’s involvement began with a memorable and impactful project.

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From the very first moments after arrival he knew this trip would be interesting. Upon landing, the hatch to the aircraft wouldn’t open, and everyone onboard was stuck waiting on the tarmac for two hours before they could exit. Matt was then told that his baggage had been redirected to Amsterdam, which would have been fine if it didn’t contain some important bridge parts. After two days in Nairobi, getting used to waking up to chickens, goats, mosquito nets, and shaking scorpions out of his boots, Matt made his way to the sites.

His entire trip spanned two weeks. In the first week he spent a few days at one bridge that was near completion. During this time he educated himself on how the bridges were constructed and met the people involved. From there, his journey took him to two other sites where he completed surveys and preliminary design work. In this time he became familiar with the term T.I.A or “this is Africa”. He learned that you had to be prepared to work with the unexpected; nothing went according to plan, so you always needed a ‘Plan B’ or even a ‘Plan C’.

The biggest impression made on Matt during this time wasn’t the work itself, something which he was familiar; it was the stories and interactions he had with the people he met. On one site survey, which took about a day to complete, Matt spoke with a local farmer who owned a very productive farm; so productive, in fact, that it produced enough for his family, village, and more. The farmer was unable to take his product to a market located just on the other side of the river; it was far too dangerous for him to cross. With no means of distribution for the extra yield from the crops, he would end up composting it. He told Matt how much he was looking forward to the bridge being completed, and then he would finally be able to bring his extra product to the market. The ability to cross the river safely would have a profound economic impact on his family, and his community.

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Matt also spoke with others who said having these bridges would impact their access to healthcare and education. One person stated since it was difficult for medical attention to get to villages or for people to get to a doctor, surviving malaria was difficult. Malaria is a disease that can be managed easily with the right access to help and medicine, having these bridges would have a major impact on the health of villages. Equally impressive is that, in the few short years after the first bridges were built, enrollment in local schools has increased 250%. Now that children are able to cross the rivers safely, they have the opportunity for a solid education and a brighter future.

This trip was inspiring, and a privilege for Matt to experience. He has learned how a community’s future can change drastically from the building of these bridges, and the access given to them for basic needs such as healthcare, education, and economic growth. Matt is proud to have MMM support such an important cause.

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In the near future Matt also has plans for his own fundraiser, “My walking challenge”. His goal is to walk, plus wade or swim through the Grand River the 5km each way to his office in Kitchener. He is hoping he can help to raise awareness in others as to what it’s like to travel this way daily. If you would like more information on either Bridging the Gap, or Matt’s own fundraiser he can be reached at bowserm@mmm.ca.