Kyriakos Antoniou is a Graduate Member of the Institution and a structural engineer with Flint & Neill. This year he travelled to Rwanda to volunteer for the charity Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), which builds footbridges around the developing world, helping to bring communities out of rural isolation and improving access to healthcare and other services. Here Kyriakos talks us through the trip.
I first heard about Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) last year. I was really fascinated by their successful 2015 project and decided to get involved, and in June 2016 I travelled to Rwanda as part of a team of ten, to build a 48m suspension bridge for the people of Tubungo, over the River Mukungwa.
This is the first time I got involved with a project in a developing country, something I always aspired to do. As a structural engineer, getting to see how the work we do impacts people’s lives is really fascinating.
Before travelling to Rwanda we organised several planning meetings to discuss the procedures for the bridge build, the logistics and the health and safety considerations on site. This work was absolutely vital to our success, and we arrived it was great to see all the planning work come together.
However, working on site in a developing country comes with challenges. It often requires travel over great distances to source materials and tools. Another issue we faced was how to carry the bridge’s main cables across the river, as we could not walk the cables across the wide river. Still, engineering is all about problem solving, and the team came up with a novel idea of a pulley system to overcome the problem. This was the first time such a solution has been implemented in Rwanda. B2P was highly impressed and keen to incorporate the idea in future builds.
Our team was on site for the construction of the bridge superstructure, where we assembled and lifted the towers into place, installed and set sag to the main cables and prepared and installed the suspenders, decking and handrails. We managed to complete the build in eight days.
Throughout the project we worked alongside B2P staff and local skilled labourers. Initially we thought communication would be an issue as we had no understanding of Kinyarwanda, the local language - but translators on site really helped and in the end communication was never an issue – hand gestures and sketching also really helped to communicate ideas.
We aimed to ensure that all the relevant knowledge and skills were transferred to the local workers, maximising the long term sustainability of the bridge. The locals will continue maintaining and building new structures, and this will benefit the community greatly.
Driving to the bridge site each morning was an experience in itself, as we encountered crowds of children shouting and excited to see us, and while working on site we always enjoyed a large audience. One of the strongest memories I will be left with are the smiles and the laughs of the children around us and the time we spent with them during our breaks.
I would love to go back to Rwanda one day and meet our Rwandan co-workers. Since my return I have been sharing our stories and recommending this experience to everyone. It is definitely something that I would do again; there are no words to describe the feelings of satisfaction and pride at constructing a bridge which has transformed this community – 10,000 people are now much less isolated, and may cross the river safely. It’s a great example of how engineering can truly change lives.