By: Bobbi Aboe Smith In an unlikely alliance, a group of American women and Nigerians are protecting children from crocodile and snake infested waters. The children of Enugwu, Nigeria, wade the Eze River to get to school. During the 5 month rainy season, though, they cannot cross the enlarged torrent at all, so they stay home. This results in a lack of consistent education, a pressing problem in an already underprivileged area. This situation was a call to action for The Worldwide Organization for Women (WOW). WOW’s efforts to connect women and unite their influence for good focuses on 3 areas: advocacy, education and humanitarian activities.
The organization has consultative status to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and members worldwide work to create a safer, better world for women and their families. Together with Dr. Todd Stong, a retired civil engineer from the Army Corps of Engineers, they began a quest to help the people of this Nigerian village build a permanent means of safely crossing the river. The cooperative and combined efforts of all involved would end up bridging more than just dangerous waters. While traveling to the World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, WOW members became acquainted with Carol Ugochukwu, a delegate from Nigeria to the same conference. Their friendship led to a visit to Ugochukwu’s home village, Urumabian in Ozubulu town, by WOW representatives in 2003 and again in March, 2005. The purpose of the visits was to observe literacy, micro-credit, child-care and nutritional programs that had been instituted by Carol in her role as leader of WOW-Africa, founded in 1999.
Observing village life, Afton Beutler, then Director of Humanitarian Projects, and currently WOW representative to the United Nations-Geneva asked the community elders what they would need the most for their village. “They took me to the Eze River,” Beutler said. “As we all stood on the banks, they explained that their people couldn’t cross the river in the rainy season.” They detailed the many problems this created for the villagers, including lack of employment options, restriction from health care, limited opportunities for the children’s education and the trading of goods. Their request: help with the construction of a bridge.
“I told them we would try,” said Beutler. “That night there were cries of joy, praising God, as the village crier told the news of a bridge being built over the river. They, of course, thought it could be done immediately.” This was in 2003. The first task was to find an engineer who would give them a bid, spearhead the work, and live in a high-risk, remote location for 2-3 months—and all for free. Ugochukwu was asked to find an engineer in Nigeria to prepare an estimate. The bid came back at what seemed like an impossible amount–$300,000.00. A WOW committee member recalled reading about a retired engineer who was available for humanitarian work in third world countries at no cost for his labor. Through an unlikely series of events and coincidences over the next several months, Lori Wilkinson, Bridge Committee Chairman, found that same engineer, Dr. Todd Stong. He told her he would be available in November, 2005, to take the job. After dimensions of the river and site conditions were sent to him, he estimated the cost. “The challenges included the need to design a bridge of over 200 ft. in length to carry a truck, to be built with 30-50 unskilled laborers by hand, with no construction equipment, and to fit WOW’s budget, which was less than 10% of that expected for such a structure,” Stong said. He believed it could be done. WOW began fundraising. Nina Palmer, past president of WOW said they approached friends and family for help with the funding. A plea for help was made to attendees of WOW’s conference in Sept. of 2004. Many people donated and money began to accumulate. Much more was needed, though, and NuSkin, a Utah corporation, provided a grant of $17,500.00. The project could go forward. The details of Stong’s journey to Enugwu show the perils he faced. “We sewed the money for the project into our clothing, traveled by daylight, and paid off numerous ‘police’ roadblocks,” Stong said. “Robberies are common, especially for foreigners.” Upon arriving in the village, work to clear the vegetation from both banks of the river began, and it was discovered that the river bed was wider than previously estimated. Dr. Stong was dismayed when he found that the measurements of the needed bridge span were underestimated by more than half. His $35,000.00 bid was going to be stretched to its limits and beyond.
Dr. Stong welcomed the volunteers from the villages and began to train them in the skills required. To start and finish the bridge within a 3 month span of time he would need a significant amount of manpower. The state governor graciously offered some funds to provide the volunteer work force of 25 men with a token wage. Modern machines and technology are not an option in rural Nigeria, especially on such a limited budget. Instead, Dr. Stong took with him the minimal tools required. “When I showed the local government official, and later the governor, my engineering tools—a 500 foot roll of nylon cord, a 4” line level and a tape measure—they were amazed,” Stong said. “The tools for the men in building this bridge were equally simple—shovels, picks and head pans.”
The increased scope of the bridge would require 150 tons of excavation, 170 tons of concrete and 47 tons of timber placement, all completed through manual labor, but “it would be straight and level”, according to Stong. Additional problems surfaced as the work went forward. Crocodiles and snakes became a minor issue as they tended to move upstream with the noise of construction. The oppressive heat and humidity caused Dr Stong to lose 26 lb. in the first 2 months. Delays in obtaining basic materials sometimes slowed the project down for several weeks at a time. Good things happened, too. The men gained confidence as they learned new skills. The women were proud of the men and often brought food for the workers. Dr. Stong said. “Hope began to grow as the bridge grew. The local government saw our progress and came through with some funds for bull-dozer help on the adjoining roads.” During delays and at night, Dr. Stong rarely rested. He tackled other projects in the area for the villages and churches. These included plans for a water supply, rebuilding of other bridges, and even the design of a ferry to cross trucks and people over a wide river several states to the north. Dr. Stong and WOW had determined an objective that all designs, construction concepts, devices crafted for substituting manual labor for powered machines, and the administrative agreements developed by this project be freely offered to any and all other interested communities. As the weeks passed, the structure grew. Forty concrete pillars topped with steel columns emerged from the swamp. 350 lb. timbers were bolted between pillars and then came the equally massive beams that would lie beneath the wheels of the autos soon to pass overhead. Finally came the deck planks, railings and treadways.
The last bridge built in this area had taken three years to complete, but had washed out completely over 30 years before. The story of this bridge being accomplished in less than three months by volunteers with no construction experience or equipment soon reached Dr. Chris Ngige, the Governor of Anambra State. He came to the river with a TV crew to publicize this amazing enterprise. He praised the ingenuity and leadership of Dr. Stong, the generosity of WOW, and congratulated the workers for their amazing speed, obvious skill, and willingness to volunteer. “The pride of the local villagers could not have been higher,” Stong said. Dr. Stong returned home in mid- January.
The last shipment of heavy timbers from the distant forest was still delayed and family matters required his presence in the U.S. Local timber supplies were exhausted, requiring a hazardous journey to a remote area near the border of Nigeria and Cameroon. The men purchased large standing trees, cut them by hand, and hauled the logs back to the bridge site. After the timber arrived, the men finished the bridge on their own with Dr Stong consulting with his crew via e-mail. The men remain anxious to be given the chance to do another bridge project, one that Dr. Stong designed and bid for them before his departure. This new job will not only provide the villagers with an opportunity to make use of their new skills but will also offer a full wage. Dr. Stong is once again leaving for central Mexico to begin more water-related engineering work. He is in his tenth year of providing humanitarian services at no cost. The end result of the labor of many men, the unselfish work of Dr. Stong, and the dedicated faith and fundraising of WOW members is that economic improvement, better health and consistent education will soon be benefiting the families of Enugwu. Susan Dayton, former president of WOW, says, “We have helped the women, men and children from this remote village know that anything is possible.” And now the children will be able to attend school all year round—without worry about what may be lurking in the water.