144 Hours in Ethiopia: Mr. Solomon

ROAD FROM NEGELE BORENA, Ethiopia (Dec. 7, 2011) - A family walks along the road from Negele Borena, Ethiopia, December 7. Thanks to the recent completion of a bridge spanning a river in Negele Borena, families like this will be able to cross the water safely. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton) CJTF-HOA Photo ROAD FROM NEGELE BORENA, Ethiopia (Dec. 7, 2011) - A family walks along the road from Negele Borena, Ethiopia, December 7. Thanks to the recent completion of a bridge spanning a river in Negele Borena, families like this will be able to cross the water safely. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton)
ROAD FROM NEGELE BORENA, Ethiopia (Dec. 7, 2011) - Two girls, carrying books, walk to school along the road from Negele Borena, Ethiopia, December 7. The recently completed bridge in Negele Borena will provide safe passage over the river, which runs through the town. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton)

CJTF-HOA Photo

ROAD FROM NEGELE BORENA, Ethiopia (Dec. 7, 2011) - Two girls, carrying books, walk to school along the road from Negele Borena, Ethiopia, December 7. The recently completed bridge in Negele Borena will provide safe passage over the river, which runs through the town. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton)

Editor's Note: During a recent trip to Ethiopia, U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton experienced rural areas outside the country's capitol as he travelled to Negele Borena by car. Negele Borena is the site of the only bridge in Ethiopia built by Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa. It spans a dangerous river, which claims the lives of roughly three people every year. The completed bridge will allow the local people and livestock to cross the river without fear of being swept away by its strong currents during the rainy season.

The long car ride to Negele Borena afforded Denton the opportunity to see a people very different from the stereotypical images most Americans have of Ethiopians. He described the journey as a discovery of the soul of its people.

This is the third part of a four-part series: 144 Hours in Ethiopia.

With the dedication come and gone, life in Negele Borena, Ethiopia returned to normal. But the memories of the recently dedicated bridge will remain vivid for a very long time.

The images of smiling children and appreciative townsfolk waving from the bridge were forever etched into my memory as we drove away from the town, December 7.

Less than 24 hours ago, Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa officially turned over control and responsibility of the Negele Borena bridge to the people of the town. The bridge was built to provide safe passage for pedestrians and livestock crossing the river below. An average of three people each year are swept away by the water as it rises during the rainy season.

The river does not discriminate - its victims have been men, women and sometimes children. Negele Borena boasts a diverse, but small, close-knit population of various ages and ethnicities. Whenever the river decides to take someone, their death is known and mourned by everyone in the village. For someone who has lived in Negele Borena many years, the weight of losing friends and neighbors must be crushing. I thought about who might feel the pain of loss the most severely in the town.

I thought about Mr. Solomon.

In such a small and intimate town, everyone in Negele Borena has heard of or interacted with the man known only as Mr. Solomon.

Mr. Soloman is a retired sergeant major from the Ethiopian Army and has lived in the town for more than 20 years. During his time in Negele, Mr. Solomon has become a successful businessman, owning restaurants, hotels and the only car in town. Everyone knows Mr. Solomon and he knows everyone as well.

He has lived in Negele Borena for a long time, helping it grow and develop, said Adissu Wedhao, local national employed at the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia. Mr. Solomon is as much a part of the town as it is a part of him.

In the short time I had stayed in Negele Borena I had seen Mr. Solomon everywhere, interacting with everyone. A man of few words, his love for the town was apparent through his actions.

The evening of the bridge dedication, he held a banquet for sailors from U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 and soldiers from the U.S. Army 1st Battalion 161st Field Artillery, who stayed in his hotel during their time in Negele Borena.

"What you have done means a lot to me," he said to the service members, his face not betraying any emotion. "You have come here and helped this town so much. Thank you."

Once or twice, during the banquet, I caught him glancing at the children who were helping prepare and serve the food. For the first time, I saw him smile - as a father would smile at his children. Even though Mr. Solomon did not articulate his feelings with words, his expression spoke volumes.

They are safe, he seemed to communicate. We will remember this; Africa will remember.

The sight of school children running to class, wearing uniforms and carrying books gave life to Mr. Solomon's words as we departed Negele Borena for the last time. Children just like them have been killed by the river; the bridge has allowed future generations to cross safely.

As the distance increased, so did a revelation regarding the bridge. To Mr. Solomon, who has been a pillar of his community for many years, the bridge was more than steel and bolts. It was a symbol of the future.

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