How to cross a river with dry feet

The brightly dressed men on horseback caught my attention first, but then I saw the man leading a camel to the front of the stage.

I was in Ndioum, in northern Senegal, where the Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye and U.S. Ambassador Lewis Lukens were celebrating the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new bridge built with MCC investments. This is part of MCC’s rehabilitation of two national roads that will create reliable, cost-effective and time-saving means of transporting locally produced agricultural products, as well as stimulate domestic and trans-border traffic and commerce.

The sun was high overhead the Sahel, and there was dust in the air.

Few projects are as breathtaking as the construction of a bridge: Where once rural farmers and their families struggled to cross a swollen river to access schools, hospitals and other services, soon they’ll simply walk across a new bridge. Revolutionary! But the most revolutionary changes are sometimes the simplest: The Ndioum Bridge will not only link one of Senegal’s richest agricultural areas to the mainland, but it also will link the people of the area known as the Ile à Morphile to the rest of their country. It’s a riverine island, with branches of the Senegal River flowing around both sides of the island’s fertile fields.

In finally providing the people of Ndioum with a bridge, MCC is helping fulfill a promise made to the people of Ndioum more than 40 years ago.

It’s a promise the people have waited patiently to see become a reality. The horsemen and the camel herder weren’t elaborate props for the event; they were residents of Ndioum with their steeds, turned out in their finest traditional clothing to witness the groundbreaking and express their gratitude for the work and perseverance that led to overcoming Ndioum’s isolation after so many years.

It’s easy to lose perspective in the paperwork of making these projects a reality: the reports, the collaborative process, the endless email, the calendars and contracts, and the elaborate, technical terms of reference. But then you look up, and hundreds and hundreds of people have come out under the hot noonday sun in a swoon of emotion to express their gratitude for the project, and you realize that it’s not just a project and some deadlines. It’s a bit of infrastructure that is going to revolutionize the lives of Senegal’s poorest.

In two short years, the people of Ndioum won’t need to wait for the wooden canoe to take them across the river, won’t need to worry about flash floods roiling the river’s muddy surface and won’t need to worry if they need a doctor in the middle of the night.

That’s revolutionary. And that’s why we’re here.