When Even Toothpicks Are Too Expensive


Since talking about my experiences with toothpick bridges on the website, I get questions from all over the world. The resulting dialog can be short or engaging. When I got an email from Shirley N. in South Africa about a poor child my sons age in a shanty near her business, I was intrigued.

Themba, who lives in a makeshift, sort of 'squatter', camp still gets to school enough to be exposed to the toothpick bridge challenge. The rules of the contest are not the issue here as much as the goal of exploring the concepts. Giving the kids a chance to get hands-on learning.

It is a good reminder of how useful this problem can be. Even the cost of toothpicks were too great, at $3 a box, so match sticks, which are probably better suited for construction were used. Great choice, although Shirley's own son suggested setting it on fire when completed! Hey, I remember making toothpick structures ( free form) and watching them burn in the fireplace. It was fun.

Keeping up with the Johannesbergs

If the bridge exercise were the main issue, life would be just great. All across the world we have nothing better to do than to teach our youngsters about math and engineering concepts and better the lore as world occupants in peaceful and harmonious existence.

Squatter Camp

Okay, reality could be no further from itself. The fact that human beings can live in such makeshift conditions and still get to school at all is a wonder. Imagine living in a space made out of packing materials --in a community with perhaps 100,000 people eating corn meal, chicken feet,and wild spinach. With haphazard infrastucture and no plumbing, essencials such as water, food, and even energy are carried in and out.

I am no expert on Africa, I have never been, but the internet gives us glimpses of all sorts of things. Shirley has supplied us with anecdotal factual vignettes of her close up view. It can give you a better appreciation for what we have, most of us. Let alone the relatively slight differences among middle class americans. Be thankful for a shower and clean sheets, I guess.

Back to the Bridge

After giving Shirley some suggestions to relay to Themba, he got started on a design. For the most part, the toothpicks/matches formed a solid base on either side, and a road surface with a built up beam. The beginnings of trusses were started in these pictures and I gave some suggestions for strengthening them.

They may not have been finished, but I suggested tying the tops of their triangular beginnings of trusses. Also, an 'X' brace will help counteract any twisting if the bridge is tested.

It looks like Themba and his friend started cleaning off the match heads to make better building sticks. This is how the exercise helps one get 'hands-on' learning.

Shirley, it turns out, helps run a business with her husband -- a sort of community level utility. They sell battery charges and portable fuel. Another area of interest of mine, energy. In the area where Themba lives, energy is carried home by the children instead of hooked up directly. The structures are too temporary. This is a whole different story for another time.

After all, this is just a little story about a boy and his assignment. A generous woman who can, and does, help them.

It makes me think about connections in the world. What effect does it have on the human race to have a dialog between people so far apart? I know we are just now scratching the surface of an amazing new realm of computing and understanding. Business and world economies.

The more fortunate ones have a cart

Carrying home a car battery

The pervasiveness of American culture. My son immediately picked out the Spiderman outfit the little boy is wearing in the picture.

Notice how neatly dressed these young girls are. As humans,we adjust to adversity. Those batteries are heavy, yet there is a smile on her face. People live and grow in all situations. We find human dignity everywhere. Perhaps moreso under trying conditions, where it is needed most.