Namawukulu Footbridge

Namawukulu Footbridge on inauguration day

Namawukulu Footbridge on inauguration day

Contact

Peter Curran. Ramboll

Peter Curran

Spearhead Director, Major Crossings, UK
T: +44 7736 497481
Xavier Echegaray

Xavier Echegaray Jaile

Engineer
T: +44 7870807121
Bridges change lives. That’s a belief we share with international charity Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), and why a Ramboll team relocated to eastern Uganda with a mission to create a footbridge to link a community divided by a frequently impassable river.

June 14th was a special day for the Namawukulu community in the remote eastern Ugandan district of Bududa. Hundreds of local residents, old and young, besuited dignitaries, colourful dancers, and weary construction workers and engineers made their way from the village down a rain sodden earthen track towards the Ngame river. There had been feasting, dancing and speech making for hours, and all were now eager for the main event. Before them lay a new 70m suspended footbridge spanning a deep, verdant gorge. At the foot of the gorge lay a rust brown stream, swollen by recent rains and now bursting its banks. They had turned out because it mattered. The new bridge would makes crossing the river safer but also enrich their lives, by bringing them closer to the communities, facilities and amenities on the other side.

The bridge had been designed by Bridges to Prosperity, with subsequent tweaks made by the Ramboll team in the UK before they flew out. Construction had started a mere 12 days previously, bringing together the five Ramboll engineers, four International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE) engineers from across Europe, local workers and the goodwill of the entire community. For Ramboll team leader Xavier it was a proud moment “It’s been really tough, hard work to get this done in time. But seeing the completed bridge and hearing from the local residents how it will transform their lives makes it all worthwhile. It’s why I became an engineer”.  

Planning & bridge design

While construction took less than two weeks, the project took the Ramboll team months of planning, working closely with our partners at IABSE. The main task of the Ramboll project team was to carefully plan construction tasks, programme, implement quality control, and to ensure that everyone on the bridge was working under the highest health and safety standards. Tight timescales and the remote location meant everything would have to be in place before the project started, there could be no lengthy wait for parts. Work would have to start on day one and finish on day 12.  

Equally challenging was the logistics of organising and transporting a team of five engineers from different UK locations with appropriate travel documentation and visas to a village 100 kms northeast of Lake Victoria. This was the first time that B2P had coordinated a project in Uganda, so the team was constantly breaking new ground.

The team

Travelling to Uganda were five Ramboll engineers, four IABSE engineers and four B2P coordinators. More detail on the Ramboll team members can be found on the Namawukulu Bridge to Prosperity blog. The Ramboll team comprised:

  • Xavier Echegaray Jaile – Project Team Leader
  • Ed Fraser – Communications Coordinator
  • Tim Prosser – Safety Manager
  • Wojciech Szewczak – Logistics Lead
  • Eddie Leach – Construction Manager

The IABSE team came from across Europe and were seconded from Bridgewiz, Bolina Ingegneria and Schimetta.

Construction 

Challenges associated with the construction of a bridge of this scale and in this location were very different from bridge projects Ramboll normally works on, and yet eerily familiar. It’s the rainy season in this part of Africa, and it rained… and rained… and rained. While this would be an inconvenience for bridge build in Europe, it had serious implications for the safety of everyone. 

One reason the bridge was so necessary was the dangers of landslides and loss of footing in the gorge during heavy rain. Though B2B had constructed a temporary footbridge before we arrived, access down the steep gorge with heavy tools and materials was a constant potential hazard. This was made more challenging by the need for locals to share the temporary footbridge, and the natural curiosity of children, so we had to designate some of the local workers as traffic managers.

The first task on the site was to bring site safety up to scratch. This involved installing of treads to avoid slipping on mud, building French drains on both sides of the abutments. If the group were under any illusions about the challenging nature of the task and the condition, this is where they ended.

Heavy rain in the first days meant sheltering from indoors as the team fabricated the cross-beams, deck boards and other elements in the tool shed. However, this period of grace ended when adjusting the suspended cables, launching the crossbeams and installing the deck and parapets. Setting the cables to the right level took a lot of patience, as a manual winch had to be used to tension them!

One of the most enjoyable tasks was launching the crossbeams. These would be spaced 1m, but they had to be hung first near the abutments, because they needed to be installed from ground level. The plan was to cleverly tie a rope with appropriate spacings and then pull all the crossbeams towards midspan as if they were a curtain. Endless knot tying called on Tim’s fishing and Xavier’s sailing experience, and pulling the rope took almost the entire workforce in one of the most exciting moments of the build. There was much screaming and shouting to coordinate the pulls, before finally pulled them in place to the amazement of the children watching from a distance.

Installing the deck was equally exciting, but not for those afraid of heights. With health and safety being the number one priority, Eddie and Tim delivered a safety talk to the entire workforce, establishing a safe system of work for everyone out on the bridge. Actually installing the deck took long hours under the sun. Frequent rain showers meant downing the power tools and working on other tasks, such as preparing the fence. Once the deck boards were laid the final task was installing the fence panels and concreting the abutments, leaving just enough time to scrub up for the inauguration!

Learning, Reflections and Reaction

The returning team all felt the experience challenging but hugely beneficial. The key advice could be summarised as:

  • Be flexible and patient: If it rains, a truck blocks the road on your way to the site, stubborn pedestrians enter the site, or if government officials turn up late, be flexible. Accept that different cultures have a different concept of time. Things will get done.
  • Be resourceful: Engineering is not only about solving problems, it is about solving problems with limited resources and under tight deadlines! Accept that you will not always work in ideal conditions, so be ingenious and use the skills, tools, equipment and resources you do have to achieve your goals (it doesn’t mean compromising standards).
  • Be open to new experiences: Everyone knew the project would be a massive challenge, hard work and at times uncomfortable, but the team were up for it. Their positivity meant they experienced parts of the world they would not otherwise have seen, met new colleagues and made friends from across the globe. And though we benefit from world class training and support, there’s still much to be learned from the way people do things in different climates and with different tools. Experience helps us grow as people and as engineers.

Xavier Echegaray, Ramboll team leader on the project, commented ”Delivering this bridge has been a worthy challenge. There is a lot that can go wrong with a build in a remote part of the world, but we were well prepared and everyone demonstrated great flexibility and resilience on site. I could not be prouder of the team and what it has achieved together with the IABSE, Bridges to Prosperity and the local labourers. This piece of infrastructure will be truly transformational for the area, bringing further prosperity to the local community. It is not often that one can participate in such a life-changing project, so if you have the opportunity, jump on it!”

Erica Brandt, Bridges to Prosperity Uganda programme manager, reflected on the completion of a hugely successful project. "The local communities and B2P could not be more pleased with the success of the Namawukulu bridge build. This project was B2P’s first sponsored project in Uganda, and the Ramboll team set the bar high. I was particularly impressed by their enthusiasm, flexibility, kindness, and high level of skill. They integrated well with the B2P team and local laborers, and helped us overcome challenging site conditions – including relentless rains throughout the project. Namawukulu bridge is serving many nearby communities, who now can safely and reliably access markets, health care centers, and schools. I can’t thank the Ramboll team enough for giving up their time and expertise for such an important cause."

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