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While many were making their escapes to sunnier climes this summer, our team of 10 Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) volunteers was heading to Budende in Rwanda, for a once in a lifetime experience.

Through our industry partnership programme with B2P, we teamed up with Tony Gee & Partners to each send five volunteers to build a much-needed bridge in a remote community, which is cut off from essential services such as schools, markets and healthcare when their local river floods in the rainy season.

This is our second bridge build.

Why bridges?
A single bridge can have profound impacts. Studies in rural communities throughout the world have demonstrated the power of a bridge to effect far-reaching change for entire communities.

• 50% increase in income for rural families
• 24% increase in healthcare visits
• 60% increase in literacy for women
• 200% increase in school attendance for girls

Before setting off
As well as all the preparation for the build and the trip that goes into a project of this nature, the team has to spend some of their time fundraising to cover the cost of their flights and in-country expenses, such as car hire, food and accommodation. About £1300 per volunteer tends to be about enough but our teams for the past two years have chosen to raise this collectively, which all helps with the team building ethos for people who have only just met.

This year the main fundraising activity was a sponsored climb of the Glyderau section of the Welsh 3000s, which entails scaling five peaks all over 3,000 feet high, all in one day. They succeeded, despite it being one of the hottest weekends of the year in late June.

Together with £6,000 received from the ICE Quest Travel Award, the team smashed their fundraising target raising £15,350 in all. The balance beyond reimbursement for their costs incurred, is retained by B2P to contribute to future projects.

The construction experience

A video that shows the bridge under construction is available to view in our film archive.

It took two days to travel from the UK to the team’s accommodation in a village nearby the build location. The site was not accessible by vehicles and all equipment had to be manually transferred down a steep, uneven path. Having arrived, the team then had less than two weeks to complete the construction of a 58m suspension bridge.

Each day began with a safety briefing with the team, B2P project managers and community members who were to assist with the build. Daily tasks were briefed, labour allocated, and hazards and risks and their mitigation, identified.

Prior to the teams’ arrival the local workforce excavated and laid the bridge foundations, tower pedestals and a temporary river crossing. However, our team soon noticed the need for backfilling on the far bank. With no equipment available, compacting of layer had to be done by hand, or indeed foot. As this wasn’t included in the programme, the team decided to run it simultaneously with other site tasks, as and when labour could be spared.

The first main task was to construct scaffold towers in front of the tower bases, while two smaller scaffold towers were erected towards the end of each approach ramp, to support the fully assembled steel towers prior to hoisting. Work began driving steel rebar into the ground to act as anchors. Once done, the scaffold towers themselves had to be erected. The ground was reasonably level and base jacks were laid out, set at pre-determined heights, and then ‘goal posts’, cross-bracing bars and steel platforms attached to build up the towers. Bases were set out centred on the tower base. Guy ropes were passed down from the towers, pulled taut and clamped to the rebar anchors to give stability.

With the scaffold towers upright and stable, tower assembly was next. The steel tower legs had been delivered to site by the local labour force prior to the team’s arrival. This was a truly impressive feat as the steel pipes (6m long with an external diameter of 168mm) were some weight. The tower legs were lifted onto supporting (shorter) scaffolds and the towers were assembled ready to be hoisted onto the pedestals. They were then ready for one of the most anticipated stages of the build: the tower hoist.

Pulleys and stopper boards were installed at the top of the main scaffolds on both riverbanks. Hauling cables were attached to the steel towers using slings and large carabiners. When a tower was hoisted, the hauling rope was passed from the tower, over the pulley, across the river and over another pulley, before being attached to the transition arm of the Tirfor winch, anchored on the opposite bank. The cable was then pulled taut and secured with clamps awaiting the hoist. With safety being a primary concern, an exclusion zone with clear escape routes was set up, taking into account the winch operator’s location.

Using the Tirfor, the towers were raised at a gradual, steady rate. Team members situated on both river banks with radios relayed hoist progress back and forth, allowing the winch operator to adjust their speed accordingly. Once hoisted, the tower cant was set at 150mm back from the vertical using a plumb line as a guide. The towers were then lashed to the scaffolding for temporary stability.

The team next had to hoist the main cables and set the sag but first the cables had to be carried to site. The four steel cables (the longest of which was 130m) had been laid out on the hill leading down to site. 25 people were spaced out along the length of the cable and lifted in unison, carrying them to site on their shoulders, an operation that had to be repeated for every cable.

They were then visually checked over for welded joints, kinks and wire breaks and hoisted one by one, to hang between the steel towers. This was achieved by passing the cable over the top of the steel tower, walking it through the river and over the top of the opposite tower. Scaffolding was set on the exposed river bed to support the cables and prevent them from resting in the water. The cable was then hoisted using the Tirfor and adjusted until it hung at the correct sag, which was checked using an auto-leveller. All cables were hoisted, set at the same sag and then clamped into place.

The hanging swings that would support the deck, which had been constructed concurrent with other works, then had to be placed. Rebar suspenders were cut, bent and arranged in position. The lengths varied greatly depending on the suspender’s location along the pull cable.  Timber nailer boards were cut, treated with diesel (for weather protection) and screwed to steel crossbeams, which had been painted to match the Rwandan flag. The suspenders were then attached to these to create the swings. Pull cables had been inspected and carefully marked with the required location of each swing. The cables were then passed over the steel towers and the pulleys to lay them in place.

Teams worked on both river banks to hoist swings up the side of the scaffolding using rope. Team members on the scaffold clamped the rebar onto the marked points on the pull cables, which were periodically used to pull the swings towards the centre of the bridge span. With all the swings in place, it was time to lay the deck boards.

First a safety line was installed to which harnesses could be attached as team members screwed the deck boards into place. The timber decking was counted, cut to size and diesel treated. Each board needed to 2m in length and approximately 50mm thick. The provided timber thickness varied however, and it was found that some of the boards were not adequate for use on the bridge so replacements had to be ordered and delivered to site.

Clipped to the safety line, team members carried boards out and drilled screws into each one to fix them to the nailers. Construction began on both banks at the same time, working inwards until they met in the centre. With all the boards delivered, prepped and in place, and now on the last day of construction, the swings and fencing had to be fitted on either side of the deck. Suspenders were clamped into place all along the deck and fencing was tied to the suspenders and the hand cable.

As the final day wore on, and several of the local labourers began to strike the site, the team progressed to the final task of casting the concrete landing for the approach ramp. Concrete was mixed by hand before being cast in place. With the sun setting around 6pm, the team soon found themselves working by torchlight, making crossing the river quite difficult.

Having completed construction in the dark (and leaving the concrete ramps to set overnight), there was no chance to see the final product of their labours. The next day they were taking part in a community football match, against the local village team, so everything else would have to wait.

Inauguration day
In front of over 200 spectators the local team won the football match 2 – 1 despite our team’s best efforts. Disappointment didn’t last for long though as now was the moment to head out to the bridge for the inauguration ceremony.

Getting to site just slightly ahead of the crowds, the team had one chance to view their handiwork in all its glory. The opportunity was taken to be the first to walk over the bridge, sweep the deck clean, and hang out the team banner.

As the site filled with onlookers and the formal opening ceremony took place, it became very clear to the whole team, the great impact promised by the bridge. They were well aware of the numbers: in a community of 8,500 there had been two deaths and 10 injuries within the last year. Seeing the community come together for the ceremony, watching the excitement of the local children as they ran across the bridge, observing the genuine happiness and satisfaction that the structure brought to those who live locally, really drove home the need for the bridge and the legacy they would leave.

What the team say
“This truly rewarding experience provided all of us with the opportunity to be a part of something that brings help to those in need who, if not for organisations such as B2P, may otherwise be forgotten. It is humbling to think that something we take for granted – simple access –means so much and we are so glad that we were given the chance to make a positive difference to this community and the people of it.”