BACK TO SCHOOL IS MORE THAN JUST POLISHED SHOES
Packed lunchboxes in the fridge overnight, freshly-ironed uniforms, a sparkly new stationery set and an abundance of nervous excitement; with two young girls, this is what back to school means in our house. For me, it means getting back into the school drop-off and pick-up routine, coordinating schedules and meeting new teachers. It’s a mix of pride and relief, especially after a long December break! But it’s not the same story for everyone…
Many construction sites are remote and I’m always amazed at the string of little children in their neat uniforms with heavy bags trudging along the roadside. A lucky few have an older sibling to hold their hands but a great deal are left to fend for themselves – many as young as six or seven, or even younger! My girls are lucky to be safely bundled into a car and driven to and from school every day. This is not the case for many school learners who have to navigate miles and miles of treacherous roadways by foot, come rain or shine, to get their education.
This year, as I get my girls ready for 2019, I’m reminded of these lonely figures I have so often seen braving their daily commute. I’m sure they’re just as anxious as my girls to meet their new teachers and friends. But more than that, these little ones are anxious about their journey to school – whether they’ll get soaking wet or be lucky enough to catch a lift from a passing car. I’ve never met the parents of the school children I’ve watched skirting the edge of a busy motorway, dodging traffic or traipsing up and down a muddy river embankment, but I do remember a project where we did something to help…
Walking the walk
We were appointed to build a R35 million, 130-metre long bridge over a significant river in Durban. The main purpose of the bridge was to provide an additional route to King Shaka International Airport, but the true social impact of the project was far greater than additional car lanes over a river.
The existing road bridge had no capacity for pedestrians, despite the hundreds of people who used it daily. While our project’s design included pedestrian sidewalks on the new and existing bridge, we noticed there was no provision for foot traffic either side of the bridge. Pedestrians still had to navigate a muddy embankment at the end of the bridge and cross a tributary stream to reach their final destination. The stream varied in level - and hygiene quality! - and proved difficult for an adult to cross, let alone a fully-laden scholar.
This improvised shortcut through dirty water was a kilometre shorter than the alternative route, which continues along the unprotected shoulder of the busy roadway up a steep hill. But, despite the dangerous path and poor hygiene posed by the shortcut, it was the preferred option and well-trodden.
Talking the talk
We proposed to use some of the excess contingency money not spent on the project to build steps down the steep embankment and a timber pedestrian bridge over the stream. There were engineering and administrative challenges in getting this approved by our client, however the social benefit to the community far outweighed these issues and thankfully sanity prevailed. The local community was ecstatic! Personally this small timber bridge was the highlight of the project, and I didn’t expect to be so impacted by those children – even years later as I get ready for another school run.
Now with the Matric results of December behind us, I like to think about the next generation of engineers and building professionals who will be entering their final school year in 2019. Do they know what social impact they can make in South Africa? Have they seen first-hand how a simple pedestrian bridge can change lives?
At every opportunity we try host groups of school children on our projects and I hope this encourages scholars towards STEM subjects in some way. It’s not about having a certain job title or abbreviations behind your name; it’s about creating a sustainable future in South
Africa which starts with having the right education, training and mentorship.
So here’s to our scholars and their educators, may 2019 be your best year yet! Good luck; we’re rooting for you and we hope to have you visit one of our sites soon!
To find out more about the project mentioned in this blog, or any other project in our archives, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!