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The afternoon sun angled into Ethiopia's Blue Nile gorge, casting the shadows of a seemingly never-ending line of mountainous peaks onto the steep cliffs rising from the river's edge.
Two men, barefoot and wearing little more than a look of concern, emerged from the shadows. Gingerly but swiftly, they made their way down the slope.
Each man balanced on his shoulders one end of a stretcher fashioned out of thin timbers and stretched animal skin. They had walked nonstop for dozens of miles, carrying a woman who had fallen suddenly ill in a village in Ethiopia's northern Amhara state. To get to the nearest hospital, they faced another eight hours on foot.
When they reached the bottom of this particular slope, though, they stopped. They stared. They looked at each other with surprise.
Before them was the Sebara Dildiy, a nearly 400-year-old stone bridge, arguably the most famous in the country.
Sebara Dildiy means "broken bridge" in Amharic, Ethiopia's national language, and broken was how they expected to find it.
Until that afternoon, the center span that once towered about 50 feet over the Blue Nile's rushing and deadly waters was missing. To cross, travelers had clung to a yellow rope, while four or five men pulled them to the opposite side.
It's scary and dangerous. Falling — as many people have done — is an almost-guaranteed death.
Before arriving at the gorge, the men with the stretcher trembled with the belief that they would have to tie the ill woman to the rope.
But with guidance from a young engineer from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, and money from an American in York County, farmers and priests had labored all morning with rocks, eucalyptus logs and heavy cable to build a temporary replacement for the missing span. The men with the stretcher were among the first travelers to use it.
When they reached the far side, one of the men turned to a worker and asked whether the bridge repair would still be in place when they returned.
"We hope," the worker hollered over the sound of rushing water.
"Will a permanent bridge be built?"
"We hope. We think the American is coming back."
A CALL TO ETHIOPIAOn a spring day in 2001, Ken Frantz was killing time in the customer lounge at a Newport News Ford dealer, waiting for his truck to be serviced. He picked up a months-old copy of National Geographic. One photo caught his attention: a picture of an old bridge supported by stone arches. The center span was missing.
Frantz stared at the photo and felt his life come into focus.
He studied political science in college, but after graduating, he landed a construction job on the Alaska pipeline.
"My father had five boys, and we built homes during the summer to raise money for college," Frantz said. "At 4 years old, I was pounding nails."
After years of working on the pipeline, Frantz moved to California, where he started a construction company "that was very fast-paced. We were building an average of 400 apartment units a year."
In 1992, wanting to raise children near his wife's Newport News family, Frantz moved to Virginia.
"I always wanted to buy an island," he said. "I found one on the York River in Gloucester." He bought the island, put up a home and built a bridge.
Working from that home on what was dubbed Cuba Island, Frantz started developing Founder's Mill, about 300 homes in north Gloucester. When that project was nearing completion — and he was again confronting the question "What next?" — Frantz began to wonder about his purpose in life.
"When you start thinking about why you're here," he said, "you start listening to your heart and being ready to hear or see something."
When Frantz picked up the National Geographic, "it literally fell open," he said, to a photo of the Sebara Dildiy.
He stared in awe at the image of a man dangling from a rope over a rushing river.
"It struck me like a lightning bolt," he said. "This was what I was here for. I was supposed to go fix this bridge."
ETHIOPIAN PATRIOTSYitbarek Mamo, a historian and guide, pointed to a rough sketch of the Sebara Dildiy on a map of Ethiopia hanging in the lobby of the national museum in Addis Ababa.
The bridge might be in the country's remote northern highland region — secluded 26 miles from the nearest town, in a spot where steep terrain makes it accessible only by foot — but most educated Ethiopians know its story:
In the mid-1600s, descendants of Portuguese soldiers who helped Ethiopia fight in the Christian-Islamic wars centuries before built the Sebara Dildiy out of stone, sand, lime and egg whites.
The crossing was intended to allow pedestrians and donkeys to travel between the regions of Gonder and Gojjam.
Both regions are part of the Amhara state, which borders Sudan.
The bridge remained usable until the 1930s, when Ethiopia found itself in the path of Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who wanted to colonize the whole of the Horn of Africa.
By 1935, he'd taken present-day Eritrea and Somalia. In October of that year, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. In the rural highlands, the Italians "slaughtered our ox, skinned them and took the hides," said Envrie Tebeje, a village elder who lives near the stone bridge.
Ethiopian resistance fighters in the villages surrounding the Sebara Dildiy banded together. They couldn't defeat the Italians, but they could slow them down.
Because the next-closest crossing to the Sebara Dildiy was nearly 100 miles away, 50 Ethiopians went to the 230-foot-long bridge and — using modest farm tools — chiseled at the stone in an attempt to collapse the decking between the center arches.
The span did collapse — sooner than the Ethiopians anticipated. It carried them to their deaths in the waters below.
"The Italians still made it across," Envrie said. "They used a rope, just like we do today."
The Italians occupied the region until Britain came to Ethiopia's aid at the onset of World War II.
The bridge remained broken.
BRIDGES TO PROSPERITYFrantz made his first trip to Ethiopia shortly after seeing the photo in the National Geographic.
"It's extreme culture shock," he said. "Your emotions are all over the place. You question your faith. You wonder how you can possibly make a difference. You cry a lot, which is good — it helps you heal and understand."
It helped Frantz understand that "I am not going to end poverty in Ethiopia."
According to the U.S Agency for International Development, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world: 170th out of 177 on the U.N. 2004 Human Development Index.
Since 1991, the agency has poured $2.85 billion into Ethiopia. Still, 75 percent of Ethiopians subsist on less than $1 a day.
"The poverty and vulnerability of Ethiopia's people is also reflected in the inadequate health and education systems and poor access to basic services," the agency reports.
Frantz, though, vowed during that first trip to at least "end poverty for some people in Ethiopia" — and to fix the broken bridge.
Largely with his own money, Frantz purchased a lightweight steel-truss bridge to straddle over the open span.
After six months of fabrication, two months of organizing ways to get the 25,000 pounds of gear — 250 mule loads — hauled into the gorge and 10 days of construction, in early 2002 — for the first time in nearly 70 years — villagers walked across the broken bridge.
And Frantz realized that one bridge wasn't going to be enough. He estimates that 500,000 pedestrian footbridges are needed in the developing world: "If you think that the U.S has 580,000 bridges, all we're saying is the whole world needs the same number ... we already have."
Frantz started his own charity, Bridges to Prosperity, for the Sebara Dildiy project. He expanded the nonprofit on the theory that because bridges act as economic engines, "extreme poverty can be eliminated one bridge at a time."
In late 2002, Bridges to Prosperity partnered with Helvetas, a Swiss nonprofit that's one of the few other bridge-building charities in the world.
"We thought it would be silly to reinvent the wheel," Frantz said. "We approached them to train us with the idea that we would start populating the world with their seeds."
Helvetas worked for several decades to perfect a pedestrian footbridge that's affordable to build and economical for poor villagers to maintain. Helvetas workers also designed a system where they used the construction of the bridges to teach people new skills.
In Nepal, where the Swiss group's bridge building is most active, people trained by Helvetas build their own bridges.
After the training, Bridges to Prosperity returned to Ethiopia and started its first in-country program. Bridges to Prosperity will work in a country for two years. A staff of one or two live in the country, locate and prepare the bridge sites. Then, with the help of volunteers, they build bridges, while teaching locals how to do it themselves.
"Why build one bridge when you can teach people to build thousands?" Frantz asks.
Frantz, a Rotarian, obtains a large part of his money from Rotary Clubs — including many in Hampton Roads — whose donations are matched by the Rotary Foundation. The Newport News, Warwick, Gloucester and Gloucester Point clubs go a step further and help manage the projects that they financially support.
Private donors and corporate sponsors also contribute. This month, Parsons Brinckerhoff donated $25,000. The New York-based bridge design company worked on the Coleman and James River bridges, which connect the Peninsula to Gloucester and Isle of Wight counties, respectively.
Bridges to Prosperity's staff is small: Only five people are employed worldwide. Frantz relies heavily on volunteers and, more recently, college engineering students. At the moment, Bridges to Prosperity has student volunteers from Georgia Tech, the University of Notre Dame, Princeton University and Virginia Tech.
When the two years is up, Bridges to Prosperity partners with another humanitarian group that's permanently based in the country to carry on the mission. Employees and volunteers may leave, but Bridges to Prosperity continues to financially support the programs that they leave behind.
When time came for Bridges to Prosperity to move on from Ethiopia, Helvetas was just starting a program there.
"It was kind of weird because here is the organization that taught us, and here we were, … handing off the reins," Frantz said.
There are now 13 new bridges in Ethiopia. Four more are being built by Helvetas, which expects that number to grow exponentially in coming years.
Thanks to a large grant from the British government's international aid agency, Helvetas is shifting its focus to training — among other groups — members of the Ethiopian Rural Roads Authority to build their own bridges, then pass the skills on to yet more Ethiopians.
Bridges to Prosperity has also started programs in Peru and Honduras. It's providing technical and financial support to bridge projects in Sudan, Rwanda and Sri Lanka, as well as partnering with an Alabama church to do work in Bolivia. Next year, Bridges to Prosperity will start programs in Zambia and Uganda.
By this year's end, Bridges to Prosperity will have built more than 40 bridges.
"In another two years, we are going to pass the 100 mark," Frantz said.
A NEW COLLAPSEAfter Frantz repaired the Sebara Dildiy in 2002, Banchamlek Tadele felt the pressure of extreme poverty lift from her shoulders.
The 18-year-old Banchamlek became one of 1,000 people using the bridge each day. She crossed to go to market to buy alcohol. Reselling liquor in her own village helped her raise money to attend school.
The bridge links more than 500,000 people in the Gonder and Gojjam regions. The Gojjam region is closer to major cities and better health care. It's also home to the largest market near the bridge.
Because the Gonder side is far from the market, and life revolves around the market, people there are poorer.
Whereas many homes on the Gojjam side benefit from metal roofs, for example, those on the Gonder side are thatched. Metal roofs are more expensive to purchase but don't require yearly maintenance and allow families to collect fresh rainwater.
On the Gonder side, children's clothes are tattered. Flies circle their noses, eyes and mouths. Their legs are caked with dirt.
Few children on either side know their age. Parents keep their birth date a secret to sidestep the government mandate to send children to school. Keeping them home longer allows more time to work for the family.
Some children guard the crops from monkeys, which villagers say steal the food.
Antihun Fanta, a 35-year-old farmer and father of six, wants his children to get an education, he said through an interpreter. "But it is hard to send them because they also shepherd the animals. But if I do not send them, the government can take my sheep."
The bridge repair helped increase trade, Antihun said, the benefits of which eventually trickled into people's pockets.
Until 2005 — when the steel span vanished.
Some people suspected the men who manned the rope. They were paid 3 Ethiopian birr, about 38 cents, per traveler.
Others blamed the July 2005 flood that rushed through the Blue Nile gorge, likely sweeping the steel bridge away.
The surrounding villages banded together and attempted a makeshift repair, but their span was unstable and couldn't accommodate animals.
Without pack animals like donkeys to carry goods to market, women suffered. While men labor in the fields with wooden plows and antiquated farm tools, women keep house and trek to market. They balance loads on their heads, strap food and bundles of logs on their backs, and often walk hunched over from the weight.
Women who don't sell their goods at market ditch the unsold items on the side of the road to spare their bodies on the hike home.
Frantz returned to the Sebara Dildiy in 2006 to teach the villagers how to strengthen a bridge repair with cable and stone. But that repair also disappeared, and by this fall, people were again using the rope to cross the gap.
"One person washed away last year from falling from the rope," said Envrie, the village elder.
Without the bridge, Banchamlek traded her business of selling alcohol for selling less-lucrative tea and bread. "My parents have become very poor," she said.
Her family's home is a round hut built on the edge of a small plot of farmland. Skinny logs frame walls made of mud. A cone-shaped thatch roof shelters dirt floors.
Fires burn inside, the smoke helping to ward off the flies circling animal dung left by the cattle, donkeys and goats that roam from hut to hut.
Banchamlek's problems go deeper than her living situation. The shy, petite young woman has made it to grade 10. Because she was burned badly as a child and forced to cross the broken bridge by a rope to get to medical care, she dreams of becoming a doctor.
The nearest high school is a three-hour walk from her village, so Banchamlek pays 15 birr a month, about $2, to rent a dormitory room during the week.
Tea and bread sales barely pay the fee. Now, because more than 1,000 students study in the school's eight classrooms, school officials are adding a one-time fee of 35 birr to help pay for a new building.
The school might be the only building in town with glass windows, but students sit on cinder blocks. Lessons are written on small blackboards. Ripped paperback books are shared by three students.
"How can I teach like this?" one teacher said he frequently wondered. "What good can I do?"
"Our country is known for poverty, HIV and drought," said Endris Sufian, a 22-year-old college student studying to be a teacher. "If young ones change themselves through education, the country will change."
Banchamlek fears that her only change will be having to quit school.
ENDING THE CYCLEPartly because of his love for the people of Ethiopia and partly because of his desire to keep a promise that he made six years ago, Frantz has dropped plans to permanently repair the broken bridge.
In Ethiopia, heavy rains fall from late summer to early autumn. The water fills the Blue Nile, which — when it meets the White Nile in Sudan — contributes 85 percent of the water and sediment that flows into Egypt's fertile Nile Basin.
For the people who live around the broken bridge, heavy rains mean flooding that will likely wash away any repair.
"It's like your first child," Frantz said. "I'll never forget those people. I will never abandon them. If that whole canyon collapsed, I'd be back there building a new bridge."
From Rotary Clubs in Gloucester, Gloucester Point, Falls Church and Bahir Dar — the city closest to the broken bridge — Frantz has raised enough money to pay for a new crossing that will be built upriver on higher ground.
To help prepare for that permanent bridge, Frantz sent word to Mebratu Abebaw, a 27-year-old Ethiopian engineer who was among the first trained by Bridges to Prosperity.
This fall, Mebratu made the two-day hike to the bridge to survey the new site and repair the Sebara Dildiy using the cable-and-log technique that Frantz taught in 2006.
The repair needs to last only until late 2008, when the new bridge is supposed to be finished. But the repair alone generated enough hope to get the local villagers believing in a better life.
Word spread quickly when Mebratu arrived. Farmers put down their plows and came to help by the dozens.
They used the hated yellow rope to pull large logs across the open gap. They walked barefoot into nearby woods with homemade axes — rough L-shaped pieces of wood with metal blades stuck into the tip — and emerged with enough timber to build a bridge base.
Local militiamen laid down their AK-47s and picked up hammers. The sounds of nails piercing timber overpowered the rush of water below. They labored for two long days.
And just when the repair was strong enough to walk across, two men arrived carrying a stretcher.
The workers took a break from the hot African sun angling into the gorge and made way. They watched as the men carried an ailing woman to the side of the river that has medical care.
Before Mebratu left, villagers who remembered Ken Frantz by name asked when he would return. There's no official date, Mebratu explained. Frantz is still organizing the spring construction.
But he will be back.
Local government leaders are preparing for his 2008 arrival by assigning men to clear a path to the new crossing, collect local stone and sand, and be ready to haul all the needed equipment to the gorge.
Men have volunteered by the dozens to help. They can't help but be ready and eager, said Belay Bewuketu, a 30-year-old vice chairman of a village near the bridge.
"A bridge and a road," Belay said. "If that is constructed, we will be a country just like America."
Bridging the gap: First of two parts Stephanie Heinatztraveled to Ethiopia on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship awarded by the International Center for Journalists. The fellowship is sponsored by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Coming tomorrow: The military fights terrorism in the Horn of Africa with humanitarian aid.
Learn more about the organization For more information about Bridges to Prosperity, visit www.bridgestoprosperity.org.