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PHOTOS: Living Tree Bridges In A Land Of Clouds

by Prasenjeet Yadav

A single Ficus elastica tree forms the backbone of this unique double-decker bridge near the village of Nongriat, Meghalaya.

It was a cloudy monsoon afternoon, and I had been trailing my guide Bah Drong for over an hour. Despite the slight but persistent drizzle, Bah Drong marched along unfazed, his seasoned calf muscles carrying him swiftly along the rough, mountainous trail. I had to hurry to avoid falling behind. Every now and then, he turned to offer encouragement with a few words of broken English and a mouth full of betel nut seeds: “Little more!”

It would take us another full hour to find what I had come to see: a being that was both intrinsically natural and intrinsically engineered, a jing kieng jri, a living bridge made out of tree roots. The word comes from the local (phonetic) language called Khasi.

I was in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, which translates to “abode of the clouds.” Here, at the foot of the Himalayas lie the Garo and Khasi ranges, which endow the landscape with undulating hills, deep valleys and fast-flowing rivers. Every monsoon season, rain-laden winds sweep up from the Bay of Bengal, breaking open upon this mountainous terrain and creating what’s widely considered to be the wettest region in the world. On average, this area receives between 32 and 45 feet of rainfall a year.

These hills are home to the Khasi people, a mountain tribe that, for centuries, have made this harsh landscape its own. The residents’ primary occupation is farming, often supplemented by fishing, growing betel palm, fermenting rice beer, and distilling spirits from rice or millet. Some villages have concrete houses, but most locals prefer traditional bamboo dwellings, slightly elevated from the ground so water can flow under them.

During the dry season, the community’s focus is split between farming and preparation for the rainy season.

When the rains begin, usually in June, they continue for four to five months, and life slows down to a standstill. This is a time for staying indoors and socializing. With the advent of electricity, board games have been replaced by mobile phones and television, but drinking beer and telling stories haven’t lost their charm.

Far removed from the populous cities, the villages that dot these hills are remote and sparsely inhabited. Over the centuries, the Khasis have learned to adapt to the specific challenges this landscape creates. They have learned to delicately mold the landscape into a form they can inhabit.

There is perhaps nothing else that exemplifies this more than the jing kieng jri.

When I think back to my own arduous trek across this hillscape, I begin to comprehend how much the geography of this place is characterized by isolation and disconnectedness. Even today, most of these villages do not have road access. A trip to the closest town might require climbing down into valleys and crossing flooding rivers to reach another village. 

But crossing these rivers isn’t possible without a bridge. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, that it was the need for connectedness that provided the first guiding impulse for these ancient experiments in bioengineering. Tree bridges are structures that are literally rooted in the terrain and that thrive under the relentless pressures of the wettest land in the world.

The raw materials for building these bridges are rubber fig trees (Ficus elastica). That’s because they are very elastic, and they put out aerial roots. First, an ideal location on the river is identified for the bridge, and then people go into the forest and find healthy F. elastica saplings to replant on either side of the river.

After a wait of 10 to 15 years, the trees are old enough to put out aerial roots, which the bridge builders then coax across the river with the help of bamboo scaffolding. This scaffolding doubles as a temporary way for pedestrians to cross the river while the bridge is under construction. Over the years, the aerial roots are pulled and woven to meet the tree on the other side of the river. The roots are tied with one another and eventually they merge by a process of fusion known as anastomosis.

Once the tree has reached a certain level of maturity, it adds more roots to the network, which the local people weave into the bridge. After the entire network of roots has sufficiently matured, the bridge reaches a critical strength capable of supporting pedestrians.

This is the standard method used in root-bridge building. But after exploring and photographing over 25 such structures and speaking with those who use them most, I came to realize that there is no one way to construct or grow these bridges and that no two bridges look exactly alike. I found bridges in their very early stages of development and some that were centuries old. 

In the early stages of growth, there is more maintenance as villagers guide and tie new roots into the existing bridge. Sometimes they’ll build bamboo handrails to prevent people from falling off. In addition, the villagers will stuff fallen leaves inside the gaps of the root network so they may decompose into humus and provide nutrition for the bridge.

The more I learned, the more I realized how conventional vocabulary related to building and construction simply did not seem adequate to describe this process. As I walked across my first jing kieng jri, my mind darted this way and that, trying to find a comparable experience. No, it did not feel like crossing a concrete bridge. No, it did not feel like climbing a tree. Instead, it felt like a fairy tale come to life. And perhaps, in a way, that’s what it is.

In a place where concrete bridges are unlikely to survive even a few decades because of earthquakes, landslides and floods, these bridges grow stronger, more robust and resilient with age. They do not require revenue to build, only time.

What’s more, the root bridges don’t just support humans who cross over them. Studies suggest that a single F. elastica tree can potentially support up to a few hundred living species — birds, insects, sometimes mammals and vegetation like moss. The trees themselves are ecosystems, constantly interacting with their living and nonliving surroundings.

Exploring and photographing these bridges wasn’t easy. The mountains were never-ending, and the villages remote. Except for a few areas frequented by tourists, gaining access to faraway villages took time and planning. Even once I reached a village, getting to a root bridge was always a difficult task. As most bridges lie in valleys, reaching them usually required treacherous treks up and down hills for hours on end, often along damaged and slippery trails, with torrential rainfall for company. All this while carrying heavy camera gear that had to be kept dry. It was a lesson in endurance.

While documenting different aspects of these bridges, I was keen to photograph them in a unique light. The idea was to isolate these monumental bridges from the rainforest background that engulfs them. I was certain of only one thing: illuminating my subject with multiple fixed-light sources was not an option, as it would require ferrying much equipment to such a remote location and might also disturb the bridge ecosystem with constant bright light.

After extensive research and advice from a photographer friend Anand Varma, I settled on a age-old technique known as light painting.

Essentially, with an exposure time of approximately few minutes, I would hold the portable light source as I walked the length and breadth of the bridge, aiming light at some areas and letting others go dark for the photograph. In addition, I put fixed lighting in specific places, sometimes behind the bridge, to add layers of highlights, bringing certain branches and elements of the bridge into focus.

After many nights, I began to get a sense of what to illuminate and what to leave in shadow, which bridges would benefit from the ambient light of the moon and which would retain their mystery without it. When I showed my results to my friends from the villages, they often couldn’t believe they were looking at their very own bridges.

How 6 Problem-Solvers Tackled Pandemic Challenges In Their Neighborhoods

Left: Tech entrepreneur Ruchit Garg is helping farmers connect to customers in India. Center: A mariachi band brings music and joy to the streets of Colombia during lockdown. Right: Designer Rhea Shah created an affordable cardboard bed for health facilities in India.

Cardboard beds. Urban farms. Roving mariachi bands.

These are some of the ways that regular folks are solving problems and spreading happiness during the pandemic.

The solutions aren’t perfect — public health experts have some critiques and suggestions. But at the same time, they applaud the ingenuity and positive vibes.

Read the stories of six grassroots change-makers — then nominate your own at the bottom of this story.

Urban farmer gives greens to the poor

Left: Urban farmer Victor Edalia (in white shirt) with three beneficiaries of his free veggies (left to right): Sheila Musimbi, a single mom; Celine Oinga, who comes from a family of 9 siblings; and Jackline Oyamo, jobless due to the pandemic. Right: Edalia uses modern urban farming methods, including this spiral planter that holds up to 100 seedlings.

In April, Jackline Oyamo, 31, was laid off from her job as an electronic sales assistant at a shop in Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. The curfews to control the pandemic meant fewer customers – and staff cutbacks. “After losing my job, it was extremely difficult to keep feeding myself after I exhausted my small savings,” she says.

But Oyamo is able to get fresh produce for free from Victor Edalia, a 30-year-old urban farmer in her neighborhood. Last November, Edalia, who works as a driver by day, converted a trash dump site in the slum into an urban garden. He signed an agreement with a local chief to use the land. Now, the plot, about a quarter of an acre, grows vegetables such as kale, onions and spinach.

Edalia originally started the farm to boost his income. The idea was to sell vegetables to hotels. But once the pandemic hit, he changed the plan. He wanted to find a way to “give back,” he says.

So throughout the pandemic, Edalia has been providing free supplies of vegetables to 10 needy families and individuals in Kibera. They include young people who lost their jobs in the pandemic, like Oyamo, as well as single mothers and families with households of more than seven people. They can drop by the farm up to three times a week to pick up a supply of vegetables.

“I saw needy families get food donations, mostly comprising of dry foods but without any vegetables,” says Edalia.

Oyamo says the veggies supplement other food donations she receives from charities and people in the community.

Moses Omondi, team leader of Adopt a Family, a local nonprofit that’s been providing dry food donations – like maize flour — to 500 families in Kibera, thinks Edalia’s program is promising.

Providing veggies to families who receive food packs – “I think it’s a pretty smart approach,” he says. “In addition to supporting struggling families during these tough times that face starvation while at home, it helps to reduce anxiety and helplessness of a Kibera family.”

Thomas Bwire is a digital and radio journalist from Kibera, Kenya. 

App maker helps churches go virtual

Houses of worship had to close their doors because of the pandemic. And even now, with some reopening, there may be limits on how many congregants are allowed in.

Nnamdi Udeh, 29, a tech entrepreneur in Nigeria, came up with OSanctus, an app that offers some solutions: easy access to virtual worshipping options and a reservations system so there won’t be crowding at reopened churches. 

Churches can use the app to stream mass online and share community announcements. Parishioners can book a virtual consultation with a priest — and send in a digital donation. And in Nigeria, where houses of worship have capped attendance at 50% of capacity, folks can use the app to register for a spot instead of showing up to church in the hope of being let in.

“It helps the priests manage their time schedule, know how many persons they are expecting on a particular day, all the appointments and masses booked and other activities that they want,” says Udeh.

Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Abraar Karan says indoor churches are high risk. “There is singing usually and close face-to-face contact between participants. While the app is probably trying to reduce crowding outside the church, it is unclear if it will achieve that.” 

But, he adds, “if the church is going to open either way, the app could help ensure that only a certain number of people come at a time.”

So far, it’s been helpful to parishioners. “It is user-friendly and helps us to resolve church registration issues. Parishioners can easily access the parish office and we can also reach out to them,” says Father Paul Akin-Otiko, a pastor at a Catholic-run chaplaincy. “It came in handy during this pandemic.”

The app runs in six parishes in Lagos and has been downloaded about 500 times. It is now under trial in other parishes across the country. But it’s not 100% altruistic. As everyone struggles to earn a living in these times, the app maker plans to charge the churches an annual fee, based on the size of the parish. 

Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow on Investigative Reporting at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Designer makes recyclable cardboard beds for patients

Left: Designer Rhea Shah, right, and her colleagues assemble a cardboard bed at her family’s paper factory in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Right: Shah poses for a photo with family members and colleagues who helped manufacture the cardboard bed.

As the coronavirus surges in India, authorities are converting dozens of convention centers in major cities into temporary COVID-19 wards, some equipped with rather unusual beds — made entirely of cardboard.

The beds can be assembled in minutes and hold a load of more than 400 pounds. They’re made of tough corrugated cardboard that’s been chemically treated to make it waterproof, so they can be sprayed with disinfectant and wiped clean. They cost about $13 each – roughly half the price of the cheapest metal beds, says architect and designer Rhea Shah, who specializes in urban resilience.

Shah came up with the concept for the bed while under lockdown at her family’s home in western India.

“I was grappling with helplessness, thinking about what I could do with my talent and the resources available,” Shah says.

Her family runs a paper factory and is selling the beds at cost, without profit. They’ve shipped about 15,000 units to isolation wards set up by the Indian Navy, government hospitals and a school in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum – a recent COVID-19 hotspot.

“The cardboard bed was really a great help because it can be disposed of easily,” says city official Kiran Dighavkar, who oversees Dharavi. Once they are no longer needed, they can be recycled.

Dighavkar says it wasn’t economical to buy thousands of metal beds, which would only be used during the peak of the pandemic.

Cardboard furniture isn’t new. Cardboard desks and beds are popular in Europebecause they’re recyclable. With the high death toll from COVID-19 in Latin America, designers there have come up with cardboard beds that turn into coffins.

Other Indian manufacturers are adapting Shah’s design. One company supplied 10,000 cardboard beds to a makeshift hospital in New Delhi, one of the largest COVID-19 facilities in the world.

“It’s heartwarming to know that in spaces where it was most needed, it was useful,” says Shah.

Sushmita Pathak is a producer for NPR India. 

‘Commander Safeguard’ brings COVID-19 messages to remote areas

Left: Rehmat Ali Dost makes an announcement at the village of Kushum in the Upper Chitral district of Pakistan. Right: Using a loudspeaker, Dost shares information about COVID-19 in the village of Rech Torkhow.

Rehmat Ali Jaffar Dost, 43, is known as “Commander Safeguard” for his clean-up and anti-littering campaigns in Chitral, a remote district of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. Now he’s adding to his agenda: informing citizens about COVID-19.

In the area where Dost lives, fewer than 20% of residents have basic 2G internet and there are still some villages with no electricity, according to the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, a nonprofit operating in rural parts of Pakistan. And government officials and nonprofit organizations have been slow to spread crucial COVID-19 messaging to remote areas of the country. But the virus itself is spreading. In the district of Upper Chitral, with a population of nearly 200,000, there are more than 110 confirmed cases.

On March 17, Dost went on a 40-day journey across the Upper Chitral region to share information about the pandemic. He borrowed a friend’s car and covered other expenses with the help of friends and donations. Dost is the founder of Chitral Heritage and Environment Protection Society, a student volunteer organization.

In open spaces, Dost organized small group meetings with community members and leaders to answer questions and bust rumors and misconceptions. “A majority of the people did not know what a virus was,” he says, “and some thought people in developing countries are already immune to every kind of virus.”

“In order to respond with concrete and factual information, I have involved community leaders, religious clerics, educated people and health professionals [to answer their questions],” adds Dost.

Dost also trained people to sew their own face masks, which he learned how to do by watching YouTube videos.

In some parts of Upper Chitral, he was not able to meet face-to-face interactions with women. “Chitral is highly divided in terms of religious sects and extremely conservative,” he says So, he came up with a solution. Standing in the street, he uses “a loudspeaker to reach out to Chitrali sisters and mothers,” politely requesting that people stay home, wear masks, don’t shake hands and wash their hands.

Government officials such as Shah Saud, deputy commissioner of Upper Chitral, is grateful for Dost’s involvement. “We totally support and appreciate this initiative. Volunteers like Rehmat Ali can help stop or slow down the spread of this contagious disease.”

Benazir Samad is a lead multimedia journalist at Voice of America’s Pakistan desk in Washington, D.C.

Roving mariachi musicians uplift locked-down neighbors

Left: Since lockdown, the band has been going out to busk in different neighborhoods. Right: Antonio Cartagena, an accordion player in a mariachi group meets his bandmates on the street in Medelli­n, Colombia.

Medellin’s mariachi and folk music bands are usually booked up with performances at parties, weddings and birthdays. But since mandatory stay-home orders were enforced on March 20, they have been out of work.

Equipped with masks, some Colombian musical groups are helping others and themselves by walking the streets and busking.

These public mini-concerts cheer up the city’s residents stuck at home.

Jairo Muriel, 56, has seen four live performances outside his apartment in Bello, a suburb of Medellin. “It’s really enjoyable,” he says. People come out on their balconies to savor the music and sing along.

Then they lower tips in a basket. “People are very good to us. They help us,” says Antonio Cartagena, 66, an accordion player from a mariachi band.

The money is far from normal wages. Depending on how successful a band is, an 8- to 10-piece group can earn up to $1,100 to divvy up for one night’s work. Cartagena says his share of the daily tips in the pandemic is $13 on average. Although it’s not much, he says it’s enough for him to buy food for his family each day.

Not everyone likes the music. Muriel has heard at least one person in the surrounding buildings telling the groups to move along. But the bands, he says, “don’t stay very long, they’re not annoying.”

And the city’s secretary for culture Lina Gaviria is a fan. Entertainment can “transmit a message of hope during these difficult times,” she says.

Sophie Foggin is a journalist based in Medellin, Colombia, covering politics, human rights, history and justice in Latin America. 

Tech entrepreneur connects farmers to customers

Left: Ruchit Garg, founder of the Harvesting Farmer Network, and a farmer near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, in 2018. Right: Garg on a tractor during a visit with farmers.

In early April, Justin Stephen, a 36-year-old farmer from Udhagamandalam, a town nestled in south India’s Niligiri mountains, was distressed.

As India’s lockdown came into effect on the midnight of March 25, the prime season for harvesting avocados was just beginning. Every month, from February to September, the trees on Stephen’s two-acre farmlands yielded a rich harvest of roughly 4,000 avocados. The fruit stays fresh only three days after being picked. So getting the produce to market as quickly as possible is a priority.

Even in previous years, Stephen had difficulty connecting with key retail markets in Indian cities and transporting the avocados on time because his farm, bordering a jungle, wasn’t as accessible. There wasn’t a reliable network of trucks to transport the products. And transport costs were high.

Now, with lockdown restrictions on travel, getting his avocados to market “seemed impossible,” he says. 

In mid-April, when he was staring at mounting financial losses and crop wastage, a friend suggested that he contact Harvesting Farmer Network (HFN), a website run by Ruchit Garg, a tech entrepreneur. Garg runs a tech company called Harvesting, which uses satellite data and artificial intelligence to identify, measure and monitor cropland. 

When social media erupted with videos of distraught farmers flinging produce into rivers and onto streets, frustrated and unable to sell because of the pandemic travel restrictions, Garg’s heart went out to them. “I could feel their pain. I knew I had to do something,” he says. 

Garg launched HFN on April 12 to address some of the farmers’ challenges. With many shops being shut down, some farmers only lacked customers. Farmers can join HFN free of charge and display their fresh produce to customers across India. If a customer is interested in buying, they place their order on the site. 

Once farmers receive their orders, they can coordinate deliveries to the customers themselves. For farmers unable to arrange for transport, Garg has arranged for buses and lorries and HFN vehicles to transport produce from the farms to the customers. 

So far, he says that HFN has helped deliver over one million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables from over 2,000 farmers to customers across the country. 

Stephen’s avocados have been popular on HFN. In a single day, he delivered about 3,600 avocados, and some of his delighted customers tweeted their thanks. “I was overjoyed that people appreciated my fresh produce, and that I could connect with customers in these difficult times.”

So far, he’s sold nearly 15,000 avocados. “In a country hit by COVID, we found kindness and a way to look to the future with hope,” he says.

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India, who has written for The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t.