BuroHappold’s Eleanor Davies reports on her experience working with Bridges to Prosperity and architects Price & Myers on a new suspended footbridge in Gasiza, Rwanda. The project was possible thanks to a Happold Foundation Travel Scholarship and BuroHappold’s Share Our Skills programme.
Last year, I was one of five BuroHappold engineers lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to travel to Gasiza, Rwanda to build a suspended footbridge, in collaboration with Price & Myers, a structural engineering consultancy based in London, and Bridges to Prosperity.
We were all inspired to get involved when we realised the impact that a footbridge can have on people’s lives. Sat here in the UK, where I can see four river crossings from my office window, it is easy to forget the dangers that a river, can pose. Furthermore, when was the last time you couldn’t get to work, school or the shops because the river was in flood?
Bridges to Prosperity are an NGO set up in 2001 as a reaction to the lengths people will but should not have to go to cross such a river. This was highlighted in the photo below in the National Geographic magazine and picked up on by founder Ken Frantz. Within three months, Ken had donated time, money and materials to support the inaugural B2P project. This first project, Sebara Dildi, repaired the bridge crossing along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and represents a vision that continues to inspire a new generation of bridge builders today. The Sebara Dildi project also established the guiding principles that Bridges to Prosperity have followed consistently for more than fifteen years and through the construction of over 200 bridges: build to educate, innovate and inspire.
Since then, Bridges to Prosperity have built over 200 bridges across the world. They support bridge building across the world, offering technical, financial, training and other programme assistance. However, there are five countries in which Bridges to Prosperity have country programs. Here, they have permanent program managers, engineers and trained masons to enable them to work with local governments to maximise the impact of the bridges built.
Recently, Bridges to Prosperity have developed an Industry Partnership program, whereby companies can sponsor a bridge in one of the five countries with a country program. The company also sends out ten engineers to help with the bridge construction. Often, two companies join together to cover the corporate sponsorship costs and send five engineers each.
This is where we come in. After years of discussion, Edmund Metters finally persuaded BuroHappold to sponsor half of a bridge. Now we just needed another company to join with. Thankfully, Price & Myers were also keen and so in August, we found out we were off to Rwanda…in three months’ time. The race was on to fundraise for and plan the construction of the bridge. With tremendous support from many, including the Happold Foundation, we smashed both.
Here, I must mention Carmel Lennon, our Construction Manager from Price & Myers. The construction plan, which Carmel developed before we left the UK, was just the start of her tireless efforts to organise the rabble into a slick bridge-building machine. David Derby (P&M), our health and safety manager, also developed the health and safety plan for the trip and without Tom Eckhart (BH), our logistics manager, we might never have arrived in the right place, let alone with enough money etc.
Rwanda is a small country in Central East Africa, known as ‘the land of a thousand hills’ and rightly so! Many of its 6 million odd inhabitants farm the fertile volcanic hills that cover the country. A range of crops grow in this tropical environment, including bananas, coffee and cassava. Since the genocide in 1994, the country has become one of the most progressive in Africa, and is looking to become the technology hub of East Africa.
We were working in Gasiza, to the north of the capital Kigali. The bridge was to connect two sectors, Muhondo and Rwinkuba. It crossed the River Cyacika in a location where up until now, there has been no bridge to connect the two sides of the well-trodden path between villages. Therefore, people have endangered, and indeed lost, their lives during the rainy season to get to market, school or healthcare centres. The only alternative is a 3 km, or 2 hour, diversion to cross the nearest log bridge for vehicles. It is estimated that the bridge will directly benefit 7,000 local community members.
More specifically, the following services would become far more accessible with a new footbridge:
- The Muhondo sector health centre
- The Rwinkuba sector larger Ruli Hospital with more advanced equipment and trained staff to deal with serious illness
- The Muhondo bi-weekly market and the main Kigali-Ruhengeri road; goods sold closer to this road make 50-100 Rwandan francs (5-10 pence)/kg more
- The Muhondo vocational school; currently 9 teachers and 12 students from Rwinkuba must cross the river to attend
- A secondary school in Muhondo: this is currently not used by any students from Rwinkuba due to the difficulty in crossing the river in rainy season despite the nearest secondary school in Rwinkuba being further away
Before we knew it, November 5th was upon us. As ready as we would ever be, we checked our bags in at Heathrow, complete with circular saw, automatic drill and countless other smaller tools and pieces of kit for use on the build. Despite our initial concerns, apparently circular saws are acceptable items to be taken on a plane. It was to be another 40 odd hours of travel later, taking in some bone-rattling roads, the Kigali Genocide Memorial and endless stunning scenery before we reached site. Months of imagining does not come close to sheer beauty of the place…and the scale of the task ahead of us. We had less than two weeks, assuming the weather was kind to us, to construct a 59 m span suspended footbridge.
The nearest vehicular access to the site was a ten-minute walk away…down a steep, muddy slope. Our awe at the local workforce began when we reached site, and saw the pile of 300 tonnes of rock for backfill that had already made it down. Their tireless strength and enthusiasm continued to amaze and inspire us for the next fortnight, as we worked side by side to shift said 300 tonnes of rock, along with countless other pieces of the jigsaw that would fit together to make the bridge.
Other than shifting rock, the first two jobs were to set the cable sag, to ensure all four cables (two deck, two handrail) were of the same sag, as determined by an optimum balance between cable tension pulling on the anchors and slope that bridge users would have to walk down and up to use the bridge. This was done by winching the cables one-by-one up by hand then gradually releasing them until a person looking through an auto-level on the far bank said stop. The cables were then clamped into position. Let’s just say this is easier said than done. It was our first task and therefore we hadn’t all quite figured out the best way of working together, with Evariste (the local engineer) and with Alan (the bridge designer, who we were very fortunate to have accompanying us on his second ever build despite having lost count of how many he has designed).
Whilst this was going on, the rest of us were busy building two other bridges that were initially laughed at, but would become pivotal to the success of the project and our backs remaining injury-free: the pre-fab bench. This was made up of two planks of timber, each supported in three places by local tree trunks hacked down by machete. In fact, the bench was so well-used that it subsequently had to be laterally braced, such was the weight it had to bear.
The pre-fab itself consisted of several tasks to make ready all components of the bridge except the cables and fencing. These were all ably coordinated by Sean Dean.
Cross beams to span between deck cables were first sanded then painted. Timber nailer boards had to be cut, covered in diesel for weather protection and screwed to the cross beams. This sounds fairly straightforward until you run out of screws and the only ones that can be found locally, with a delay of half a day whilst somebody goes to find some, are of a larger diameter, so have to be threaded as closely as a needle and thread, with a drill that keeps overheating and some dodgy power tool cabling…
Meanwhile, yet another team was cutting and bending rebar for the hangers, to share the load evenly between deck and handrail cables. Credit must go to David Derby (P&M) who bent every single one of 118 hangers, eagerly watched by his fans.
With the pre-fab team flying and the sag set, the cross beam assemblies could be launched, half from each tower. This was in anticipation of decking from both abutments. However, a lack of functional power tools meant that decking was only done from one side in the end. This led to some tricky manoeuvring of crossbeams to get them to the required 1 m spacing. In hindsight, we would have launched all crossbeams from one side.
59 m long, 5 planks wide, screwed into a crossbeam every metre through pre-drilled holes…what could possibly go wrong? An hour and 1 m of deck later, it could be better put as what could go right? First, the battery drills refused to play ball and screw into the timber nailer boards. This meant we had no choice but to pre-drill and thus double the time taken to secure each plank, along with the doubling of potential fall hazards…Luckily, we had two cord drills, so out came the generator…cue a tangle of wires and safety harnesses…our Safety Manager chose a great day to head out to Kigali to stock up on food.
With a system established and both drills running, the next challenge was the drill bit repeatedly coming loose from the drill. As predicted, it wasn’t long before a drill bit ended up in the river. And no, I was not one of the sheepish guilty party. The duct tape followed soon after. Somehow, we managed not to lose a decking plank.
With the tools mastered, now came to the difficult part, the strategy for advance. Military precision does not come close. I did not realise it took so many engineers to decide how to screw some wood together. We settled on leading with the middle plank, which would be secured to each crossbeam in turn, once these had been set out exactly 1m ahead of the previous one. The outer four planks were then secured by those following behind. After a slow but steady start to establish strategy, the decking team who took over from us flew across the bridge, stopped only by the rain.
The following day, the new team up on deck got into a groove and flew across. Ed’s seven year dream of building a footbridge took a huge step towards reality as he screwed in the final central plank. The two sides were now connected.
Those following to secure the outer planks soon caught up and the bridge was walkable.
With the deck completed, the approaches needed sorting. That meant shifting the last of the 300 tonnes of rock down the hill, across to the abutment and up inside the abutment to the final resting place. This process had been ongoing throughout the other works, but a final push was needed to finish this seemingly never-ending task. I still cannot quite comprehend how we managed it. All I can say is my core is now (or was upon finishing the bridge) far stronger than it has ever been.
With the rocks in place and covered by a fine layer of gravel, there was the small matter of two concrete slabs to move, mix and lay by hand. The slab for the western abutment, at 20 cubic metres, the largest that Bridges to Prosperity has ever built in Rwanda, was a mammoth job that consumed the entire workforce and extras, totalling around 30 people, for a whole day. Again, I don’t know how we managed it, and how my arms didn’t fall off after a day of weightlifting.
All that was left was to secure the hangers and fencing either side of the deck.
And then the moment we had all been waiting for. The celebration. The kids who had shared the progress of the bridge over the past fortnight with us seemed to have a sixth sense. They had been gathering throughout the day and their ranks must have swelled to around 50. We could hold back the tide no longer.
An official celebration was to follow, but first, what better way of testing our construction team spirit than to challenge the locals to a game of football? Little did we realise that we were going to be playing the actual village team in front of 200 people complete with a referee and two linesmen, or that we were expected to play a full 90 minutes at an altitude of 1600 m…turns out building a bridge was the easy part. Blood, sweat and tears later, a screamer from Evariste and a late penalty from Sean ensured that it was a deserving 3-3 draw. Fittingly, our team spirit and flexibility to swap local and UK construction workers on and off proved a match for the established village side.
And so, it seemed like it was over before it had even begun. We achieved what we set out to, and yet as always, the things that will stick with me are so much more than just the bridge. The way we were welcomed into the community, the true integration of the local construction workers, BuroHappold and Price & Myers engineers, the fact that people with so little are so happy with what they have and so unmaterialistic. During the build, we worked with members of the communities on both sides of the river. The bridge had clearly brought them together in a way that had not been possible before. The same goes for the kids who would come from either side every day to play and see the bridge progress.
Wherever you go, it is always the coming together of people from all walks of life that provides the most joy. In the end, we are all a lot more similar than we are different, and our interest in cultural differences can bring us together. The bridges that we have built on this trip are more than just physical and with any luck, we hope they will last nearly as long as the river crossing itself.