It was unlike any bridge I'd ever seen. Instead of a majestic arching up and over, concrete suspended hundreds of feet over some wide open expanse of water, it was a cobblestone concoction of non-uniformly shaped rocks anchored into a foundation that plunged down and through a small sandy ravine before climbing awkwardly up the other side. In the middle of nowhere West Africa, these curiously strange “paved,” horribly rocky, bumpy portions of a road which perhaps more truly resembled a dirt trail intrigued me. That most travelers never actually used these sections was obvious; the well-worn, sandy dirt trails off to either side of the bridge covered with traces of footprints, cattle and goat tracks, the thin ribbon of bicycle wheels or the wide band left by a donkey cart, as well as the occasional tires of a four by four vehicle testified loudly to that fact.
“Daddy,” a voice piped up from the back seat, “why do they call these bridges when they never even leave the ground?”
I listened for his answer, thankful that I can usually count on one of our kids to ask the questions I don’t want to sound silly enough to ask myself. “Why don’t you come out here with me again sometime later this summer, once the rains have started,” he replied – only a bit distracted as we were meeting head on a group of several remarkably thin cattle, not to mention the goats and sheep scattered throughout the larger animals.
“Cool!” that voice replied, followed by a chorus of “Me toos!” which rang out behind us as several children expressed their interest in accompanying Daddy on an adventure. I silently made a mental note that I also wanted to be along for that trip.
So a few months later, we once again made the same trek. It looked a totally different land: fields of millet and sorghum everywhere, acacia trees blooming, butterflies and brightly colored birds flitting all around. No longer was it a dusty, brown and orange, wide open and scorched desert landscape. The rains had brought abundant green and startling growth, taller than most of our children and which closed in on that dirt trail so that in many places, there was only room for one vehicle to pass (not that we actually saw any other vehicles). As we approached where I thought I remembered that strange bridge to be, I saw nothing… until we came to the edge of the ravine. It was now filled with running water… and no sign of a road or a trail. I grabbed the arm rest; my husband plunged down into the water, which was much deeper than I expected. Looking in the rearview mirror, I could see that it covered the tires of the truck we were driving. Roller coaster squeals and screams erupted in the back seat. “That, kiddos,” stated my husband, “is an underwater bridge. People don’t always have the resources or the abilities to build bridges like you are used to seeing them - up and over. So instead they make the path down and through sure and solid so that we can drive right through the water without losing our way on sandy ground.”
And isn’t that so like the Lord? I’d much prefer a bridge that takes me up and over, where I can rely on what I can see. While I’m not found of high places, especially if I've got a bunch of little ones tagging along, it seems safer, more secure and a lot less messy than plunging down and through, on an underwater bridge that I can’t see but have to trust is still there and in good repair. Yet it is those underwater bridge times that, in retrospect, I can most clearly see Him preparing, persuading, pointing the way, path finding, providing, protecting, pleasing…
“Oh bless our God, you peoples! And make the voice of His praise to be heard, who keeps our soul among the living, and does not allow our feet to be moved. For You, O God, have tested us; You have refined us as silver is refined. You brought us into the net; You laid affliction on our backs. You have caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; but You brought us out to rich fulfillment.” (Psalm 66:8-12, NKJV)
(Unedited post from the archives- original was in August, 2008)
Millet and peanut field, photo from hobotraveler.
Road construction by villagers - the road to Lilato; photo taken by Catholic Relief Services.
Ladies getting ready to ford water, right beside one of these underwater bridges, photo taken by Dan.