COWI engineer Musa Chunge recounts his favourite engineering experience to date; travelling to Rwanda to work alongside local community members and help build a bridge in a remote rural location.
In January 2018, five COWI employees landed at Kigali International Airport with an important mission ahead of them: join forces with a team of local workers and install the main structure of an 80m long footbridge in the small village of Kucyaruseke in southern Rwanda, using only limited materials and equipment, and facing major language barriers. This would be no easy feat.
One of these five team members was Musa Chunge.
Laying the groundwork
Musa grew up in a household with two doctors as parents. Reflecting back, it makes sense to him where his natural inclination to seek out human connection and his desire to leave behind a positive personal impact on society came from.
“I really enjoyed physics and maths in high school, but I wanted to pursue them in a practical and tactile way that would also offer a high degree of human connection. Engineering seemed to provide that for me. Plus, the scale you get to play with in civil engineering is just fantastic.”
Bridges in particular were always an interesting area of exploration for him.
“Bridges define a landscape. While working on them, you often get to see the story behind them, from the architectural vision to the structural design, detailing and then to construction and use. Technically, they offer many unique challenges, which I find quite fascinating and exciting. When done right, bridges are the pinnacle of civil engineering – structures that provide elegant and inspiring solutions to the most basic problem of getting from A to B.”
A new opportunity
When COWI partnered with the non-profit organisation Bridges to Prosperity for the eighth time to build a bridge in a developing country, Musa felt this was a perfect opportunity to combine a few of the things he is passionate about.
“What initially appealed to me about this project was the direct interaction with the community that would use the bridge on a daily basis. Sometimes while working on very big projects, you can feel a bit disconnected from the end user, from the actual people who will be crossing a bridge.”
He also felt a personal connection to the vision of the organisation.
“For Bridges to Prosperity, it’s not about going in and just fixing the problem. It’s more structured around partnering with the locals to empower them to build and take ownership of their new crossing, instead of us coming in to 'save' them.”
When Musa and the team arrived on site in Kucyaruseke, the need for this type of project became even more evident than before. Rwanda is referred to as the land of 1000 hills, so travelling across valleys and rivers can be challenging. Water levels often change rapidly from heavy rainfall, and the small bridges that locals set up are seasonal and poor quality.
A different kind of compensation
The real highlight of the trip for Musa was seeing the community members cross the bridge for the very first time.
“Singing and dancing in celebration with the local workers really touched me. The history of Rwanda is painful, and most of the people we worked with lived through the genocide. We were joyful and proud of our accomplishment, because we created this new connection and crossing together. It was such a rewarding day.”