WSP Volunteers Build Connection to East African Community

A team of WSP USA volunteers partnered with Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) to build a footbridge that spans a river in the village of Tugogo, Rwanda.
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©2018 JOSE RODRIGUEZ/WSP USA

Monika Bruzkova, Juan Montenegro and Tom Cooper (from left to right) work together to prepare the Tugogo footbridge.

The 190-foot suspension bridge crosses the Mwogo River, providing safe, year-round access for 3,500 people living in the surrounding Giseke and Nkumbure communities, including 50 children who use the bridge to attend school.

“Building this bridge is much more than the structure itself,” said Juan Montenegro, a bridge engineer in Denver who served as the Tugogo project lead. "It's about creating a bridge between cultures and backgrounds, connecting and collaborating to fulfill a common goal and improve the quality of life for others. The bridge is a concrete manifestation of that purpose."

Crossing the Mwogo River can be extremely dangerous, even with small amounts of rain, and is nearly impassable for more than five months of the year, during which time residents—most of whom are subsistence farmers—are cut off from critical resources. Over the past three years, two children and one adult have died while crossing the river, and five others have been injured.

“At the bridge inauguration, a village elder spoke of a young mother who had lost her life crossing the river after a heavy rain, trying to return to her child,” said Jason Robertson, an engineer from the New York office and safety lead for the project. “It was a sobering confirmation to me that the work we did had meaning and was for a greater purpose.”

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©2018 SAMANTHA NAKAMURA/WSP USA

Rachel Anderson and Lidiya Burashnikova install a wooden plank over the crossbeams on the new footbridge.

Resiliency at Its Best

Two months before the WSP team arrived in Tugogo, local workers completed the excavation and walls for the foundations and abutment.

“When I saw how much manpower the local community provided, my first thoughts were that they don’t even need us; they are some of the strongest workers I’ve ever seen,” said Samantha Nakamura, a mechanical engineer from the Honolulu office who served as communications lead. “But I realized the collaboration between the Tugogo community and B2P engineers and our team was about the exchange of ideas and knowledge—a showing of solidarity, a metaphorical bridging of our worlds.”

Each member of the team played a specific role on the project.

Construction tasks for the volunteers included setting cable sag, cutting timber decking and crossbeam nailers, crossbeam assembly, deck installation, foundation backfill, pouring concrete for ramp, fencing installation, site drainage and preparation of as-builts for the community and B2P’s record keeping.

“The bridge was built with mostly locally available materials, locally harvested wood and designed to be maintained and repaired by a local team with basic tools and general knowledge on construction methods that they acquired during the construction process,” added Jose Rodriguez who served as the project’s construction lead along with Tom Cooper, both from the Chicago office. “This is resiliency at its best.”

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©2018 RACHEL ANDERSON/WSP USA

WSP USA volunteers carefully place the bridge planks in place.

Project Challenges

Access to the bridge site was extremely difficult, making it a challenge to transport building materials such as cement, cables, wooden planks and tools.

“Materials had to be hand carried on a muddy, half-mile-long dirt road and with a 400-feet elevation difference,” Montenegro said. “Luckily, there were many community members who assisted us on this task.”

In unfamiliar working conditions, they found support from the local people who knew the landscape well.

“Without the work of local people we would never be able to finish,” added Monika Bruzkova, an engineer from the Brighton, Massachusetts office and the project’s logistics lead. “With no access for heavy machinery, the rocks had to be carried to the site from a local quarry one by one and a hill was leveled to create an access road using hoes and shovels.”

Although a language barrier posed some challenges, especially when training/teaching community members how to safely use power tools or work on dangerous tasks, they found ways to communicate with the 12 local volunteers who assisted with construction of the bridge.

“The challenge of a diverse group quickly became an opportunity for project success as team members found tasks that were better suited to their knowledge and experience,” Rodriguez said. “Engineering, architecture and project management experience blended at the project site and beyond.”

“Our group supplied the expertise and the B2P country team their experience from many prior projects, Bruzkova added.

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©2018 SAMANTHA NAKAMURA/WSP USA

Lidiya Burashnikova (center) saws a wooden plank for the new footbridge with the help of teammates Juan Montenegro and Jose Rodriguez.

Learning from Each Other

During the two weeks in March that the volunteers were in Tugogo, they visited Saint Robert Technical School, a local trade school where students specialize in construction, electronics and sciences. Almost 500 students attended an assembly where the team discussed the bridge construction, B2P, WSP, what engineers do, and how to become one.

On the day the bridge opened to the public, the WSP team met with local government officials, who have been working with B2P and other government sources to secure funding for the project and the materials that made it possible.

Teamwork, patience and the desire to learn were key ingredients to the success of this project, according to Bruce Woogen, a volunteer from the Briarcliff Manor, New York office.

“The build was truly a collaborative effort between WSP, B2P and the local villagers where we all learned from each other,” Woogen said. “The energy was vibrant, and it was inspiring to work alongside my colleagues to be able to impact a community in such a positive way.”

The grand opening celebration included a barbecue dinner, as well as a friendly soccer match between the WSP/B2P team and the local community soccer team – a game that ended in a 1-1 draw.

“This level of volunteerism—the immersion approach—is a standard WSP should set for our company culture,” Cooper said. “By giving back to the communities we serve, we create new opportunities for us to come together and solve problems and to stay in touch with how we contribute to our own culture as design professionals.”

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©2018 JAMES BLOOMFIELD/B2P

The WSP USA team included (left, front to back) Samantha Nakamura, Monika Bruzkova, Rachel Anderson, Jose Rodriguez, Lidiya Burashnikova, (right, front to back), Bruce Woogen, Tom Cooper, Jason Robertson and Juan Montenegro.

A Lasting Impression

It’s estimated that 150,000 footbridges are needed around the globe to ensure children have access to schools, residents have access to health care, and farmers can reach local markets to sell their goods. In Rwanda alone, B2P has identified about 350 sites in need of bridges to serve their walking communities.

The experience left a lasting impression on the WSP USA volunteers.

“I was inspired by how hard the Rwandans worked and with such positive attitudes,” said Lidiya Burashnikova, an engineer in the Buffalo office. “Seeing how people there live made me realize that I am very fortunate in my life. It is something that I have always known, but seeing it firsthand has a stronger impact.”

Rachel Anderson, an engineer in the New York office, said the project created a great deal of pride and gave her a sense of accomplishment.

“Finishing the bridge was one thing, but getting back to the basics of why I, like others, became an engineer or architect was valuable and humbling,” Anderson said. “It reminded me of my interest in this industry, especially the part where we can directly meet and develop relationships with the people who are receiving our help.”

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©2018 JOSE RODRIGUEZ/WSP USA

WSP USA’s Bruce Woogen works with local builders to prepare the wooden pieces that will be installed on the new footbridge.

Robertson called it one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. “This bridge will be a vital asset to the community for generations to come and provide safe and consistent access to health services, education and economic opportunities,” he said. “I will never forget the work we did there and how impactful it is to the people it supports.”

“It was a true joy to work as a community—with Rwandans and with the excellent people on the WSP team,” Bruzkova added. “The project was a great example that it is possible to build something as substantial as a bridge using locally sourced materials and with limited resources.”

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©2018 JOSE RODRIGUEZ/WSP USA

The residents of Tugogo celebrate the completion of their new footbridge, which accommodates 50 students walking to and from school.

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