If not now – When?

Travels around the world (with Beth and Chris)

Beautiful Souls of Kenya

There is a magnetism about Kenya. The achingly beautiful landscapes, the tremendous blue skies and dramatic weather, the astounding animals that allow us to observe, the ever distinctive acacia tree (it is possible to find a leopard literally hanging out in an acacia tree), the symbiosis of the natural Mara, the beautiful souls of the Kenya we have come to know; all of these urgently beckon us…

So we returned to Kenya, to the Mara. Our mission was, with the young, good-natured, easy going, civil engineer Bobby Reese, to build two more Bridging the Gap Africa bridges. Harmon has requested us because he knows that Chris is a stickler for details; he will build a bridge for Mara Plains Camp that is as perfect as humanly possible – in other words, “dead nuts”. Chris does not disappoint.

We came to Mara Plains for “round two” on a strict deadline; the camp has been closed since March because of damage due to massive flash flooding. There are many repairs, shoring up river edges via enormous rock gabions, polishing, and of course replacing two of the three bridges that have been destroyed in the flood (the third bridge that we completed just 4 months ago withstood the raging waters and was only slightly damaged when a large tree landed on it). The bridges are crucial for the camp. We witness Harmon reminding David Stogdale, the director of Great Plains, time and time again of this fact – as if we, and everyone else on the project, aren’t already fully aware; but such is the friendly bantering of the long time friendship between these two men.

During the six plus weeks we are here, we again experience the sights, sounds, smells of being in the Mara. The animals patterns are different because of the season, as well as the abundant rains which have caused the plains to be wet and green in the beginning of the project. There are large herds of elephants, females with their calves or sometimes the lone bull, looking for love – we see, and sometimes hear them close to the camp as well as each time we drive for supplies, on airstrip pickups, or on rescue missions (lorries that need to be pushed/pulled out of the mud). There are always many twitchy wide-eyed gazelles, Wildebeest are non-existent (they are still in Tanzania) until the end of the six weeks when we spot a small few, and zebras are not as close-by or plentiful. We are constantly aware of the lumbering, guffawing hippos in the river below us, and become keenly respectful of how quick (and “un-lumbering”) they really are after Chris gets charged by one who is cornered on the deck of one of the tents (Chris came sprinting up the path to our tent, dove in, and when he eventually caught his breath told me “I saw death!” – this all after I was warned not to come out of the tent…); that’s one scary-assed animal. We also encounter the beautiful and regal lions many times as they look and blink, sit with their front paws curled under, yawn, and scan the landscape around them as the cubs romp; there are also the lion noises we hear from our tent most nights that give away their proximity. There are short-legged hyenas, gawky giraffes, awkward ostriches, sly silvery monogamous jackals, cheeky vervet monkeys, an enormous troop of raucous baboons, the sleepy scaly crocodile. Rounding all of this out, we cannot forget to mention the blood-sucking mosquitoes, stinging tsetse flies, scampering bugs, and snakes (I may have seen a black mamba and a spitting cobra). To be honest, none of this will ever get stale for me (well, maybe I don’t need the bug and snake encounters…). The Kenyan bush is magnificent!


But back to the bridge, or as Harmon would say “get back to work, you’ve got bridges to build!”. And so we dig, pour, shovel, haul, nail, screw, weld, paint, inspect, and coordinate for just over six weeks. It is our Bridging the Gap Africa team (in no particular order) that we come to know and care for that makes this project happen, these Americans and Kenyans coming together to be a bridge to a better world.

Here is Bobby Reese. He is the civil engineer and designer of our 30 meter suspension bridges. Everyone loves Bobby. Nothing rattles this guy. He speaks Swahili, laughs easily, and has a big appetite for such a lean guy! It is a true pleasure to collaborate and create these bridges with Bobby!

This is Chris Leibfried or Baba Derek. He is all about the details – and being on time!! Chris has not yet mastered Swahili (with the exception of about 4 words), and is an excellent engineer through and through. He dives right in with hammer, level, tape measure in hand; he tries to teach the guys new, better, and more precise techniques. He has studied the prints so thoroughly that he has them memorized; he awakens before the sun rises, thinking about every bridge detail that will be part of that day’s process. Chris will not settle for anything half-assed; the guys come to appreciate his need for perfection in building this magnificent bridge we will be proud of because of it.


Freddy and Richard are the conjoined BtGA duo. They come as a pair. Freddy has a stern demeanor and barks orders at the Maasai guys, but I can usually get a smile out of him. Freddy translates English into Swahili for us when Bobby is away. He keeps the group together. Richard smiles easily – except when he is not working next to Freddy; he is cool in his yellow sunglasses, is good with a welder, and likes to climb.


Geoffrey and Gordon are also a BtGA twosome. Geoffrey is a master at stone work. He tells me one day, after we have tweaked the heavy rock work multiple times “it is good when you correct me!”. Geoffrey has a quiet and gentle disposition; he gets the widest grin when I tell him how much Harmon and the camp VIP’s especially appreciate his stone work. Gordon is an excellent carpenter and has also learned a lot about masonry from Geoffrey. Gordon is intelligent. We talk about his carpentry work (when he’s not on a bridge project), his family, and how he manages his “banking” with goats, as is the way in this culture.

This is Lepapa, our inventory control guy. He loves that he uses one of the walkie talkies to keep communication among the teams at both bridges; he takes his job very seriously and is, indeed, very good at it. He runs equipment back and forth and does manual labor. He is the liaison between the wzungu and the non-English speaking guys – letting me know when someone has a backache, wants to go into town for a haircut, or needs to see family. Lepapa reports to us when there is a family or individual crisis with one of the team (and there are several of these situations throughout the six weeks). Lepapa walks about 2 hours (one way) to go to his family and after one of these visits, brings Chris and me beaded bracelets his wife has made for us. He openly teaches me about Maasai customs and traditions. He loves his wife and is supporting her to finish one last exam (that she missed because of the birth of their second son) in order to become a nurse.

Alex Koshal worked with us on Tent 4 bridge a few months ago, and we have no hesitation about having him part of the main bridge team. When we need a person to fetch a piece of equipment, Koshal literally runs for it. We put him in charge of the painting projects, and his pride was apparent – you can see it his huge smile. Koshal loved to quiz me on Swahili words.

Mike Pesi is a character that the group ends up nurturing. He is quiet and speaks barely any English (I think I scare him – or at least the prospect of trying to understand me scares him – because I sometimes see him walk in the opposite direction when he spots me). Mike Pesi has a bit of bad luck –  needing a tetanus shot after stepping on a nail (after hours); later on a pre-dawn motorcycle ride back to camp after an overnight family visit, he crashes into a zebra and then gets kicked by that same zebra. When Mike Pesi returns to work, we assign him to light (albeit essential) work and everyone, especially Lepapa watches out for him.

These guys are Lenjir, Cliff, Josephat, Sananga, and Alex Kibet. They are work horses – so strong and willing to do any work we ask of them. They never complain.

We have our leader, the BtGA founder, and big cheese, Harmon Parker. He is all about the bridges, as you would expect….. Harmon brings an intense passion to the bridge site – Africa and bridges are his life. He will bark out orders in one minute, and then in the next will be laughing uncontrollably about a silly inside joke. He calls everyone a hotterite! His contrasts keep everyone hopping. We would not be here if it weren’t for Harmon.


And, here I am. I am known as Mama Derek, or sometimes just Mama. This is a sign of respect that the guys give to me. I learn each of their Christian names, and then their Maasai names. Sometimes I inspect the work, measure, and place boards. I do payroll – so they like me!! I also hand out orange tablets (ibuprofen), apply band aids and ointment when called for (Harmon keeps threatening to have me wear a nurse’s cap). I try to keep everyone organized and happy. I learn about their families. They teach me Swahili words. Chris says I’m the glue that holds us together. I get very choked up at the end of the project when I tell them (with Bobby translating) how much I appreciate their hard work, and that I will miss each and every one of them. It is not an exaggeration when I say that every single one of these guys has literally lent me his hand, at one time or another, on this project.


This has been a great team.

MPC Main Bridge - Campside



Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest

It is before sunrise as we set off from the scenic Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge for the hour drive to the Rushaga Gate of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Our goal is to find the critically endangered mountain gorillas. We are traveling on an unpaved and (according to Google Maps) an “unknown road”. This is not an uncommon occurrence for us; these are the roads where you see the real countryside – it is rough, it is raw, mountainous, and breathtakingly beautiful. Chris and I converse with the other woman in our trekking group, Kat, who is a chatty young Australian mother living in Kigale, Rwanda. The hour goes by quickly.

We meet the rest of our trekking group. Steven is the ranger who gives us a short briefing about the trek itself and the gorilla family we will be visiting – Mishaya Gorilla Group. He explains that  in order to safely allow human visitation, some of the fewer than 800 remaining gorillas in the world have been habituated – they have slowly been exposed to humans and have been deemed comfortable enough with our presence so as not to feel threatened and therefore become aggressive. Benson is our able porter who (thankfully) carries our backpack full of rain ponchos, bug spray, our lunch, and lots of water. Two trackers will precede us to locate our gorillas and communicate with Steven to guide us to the gorillas. Bringing up the rear is a UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Force) soldier armed with an AK-47 in case we encounter poachers…err, I mean elephants (either one is dangerous and conceivably will be scared off by a shot into the air).

I look down at my watch. I have heard that it can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 6 hours to reach the gorillas (and an encounter is not even guaranteed). About an hour and a half into the trek, conversation becomes non-existent as we head up a steep (it might have even been vertical!) incline. The “path” is thickly vegetated and slippery. At times, we are walking on a dense mat of vines and freshly macheted branches and leaves, several inches off the forest floor. I am hoisting myself up using vines and if I falter at all, Benson grabs me by the wrist to boost me the rest of the way. I use a bamboo walking stick to give myself traction on the downward portions of the trail. We use stepping stones to keep our feet relatively dry from the small streams along the way, but occasionally our feet get suctioned into the mud anyway. It is often difficult to see the person who is hiking just a few feet in front of you. My glasses are steamy and wet with humid condensation, sweat, and rain; my ponytail is dripping. I ask for rest stops as my heart is pounding from exertion and altitude. We are deep in the aptly named Impenetrable Forest; Chris and I realize that this may be the most physically challenging experience of our lives.

Eventually we stop so Steven can get an update from the trackers; “they have found the gorillas, but they are still moving. We will take a “shortcut” (those are MY air quotes!) to try and intercept them. We should be there within an hour”. After trekking a total of 3 ½ hours, Steven tells us to leave our walking sticks and backpacks with our porters. We have reached the gorillas!

I follow a tracker down over some vines, as he is making soft grunting noises, and then get a glimpse of silver. I feel myself breathing hard and feel so excited that I literally get tears in my eyes. The massive Silverback patriarch is right there. Chris and Kat are right behind me as we try to avoid the hill of stinging ants. We follow the 400 pound Silverback down the hill with a hint of trepidation and respectful distance until he stops in a brushy area to munch on some leaves. As we swat the few vicious ants that have made it up our pant legs, we spot a young gorilla climbing a thin branch; he twirls toward us as if if he’s momentarily pole dancing. The branch bends under his weight; he jumps down and scampers off. We freeze in place when we suddenly hear a loud scream as a medium sized female several feet up the hill from us stands up and bolts past us. Eventually we settle in with the Silverback about 7 or 8 feet from us as he snaps twigs, chews leaves and occasionally, and somewhat disinterestedly, looks our way; after he has had his fill, he rolls onto the ground, closes his eyes and has his post-meal nap (we can hear an occasional snore). As he rests, the baby and baby momma gorillas are close to him. The baby climbs aboard his Silverback daddy to play, eat, groom, and pound his young chest.

In a short hour, it is time to leave the gorillas; I want to savor one last moment with these beautiful creatures that have a human quality to their faces, so I linger and feel grateful. We trek an hour back to our car wet, muddy, satisfied. The incredible Ugandan mountain gorillas have shared part of their day in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with these fortunate human beings.


We’ve Bridged the Gap!

Last week Beth and I flew back into the bush to put the finishing touches on the Mara Plains Bridge in Kenya, and to say our final goodbyes to everyone at the camp.

The gap……

has been bridged!

It’s been an incredible experience for both of us, and we’re proud to be part of the Bridging the Gap Africa team.

As a famous bridge builder we know often says, “Bridges are beautiful things!”

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