An unforgettable trip to Rwanda

By Emma-Louise Frost, Ashden Communications Officer
In September I was lucky enough to visit the 2016 Ashden Sustainable Travel Award winner, Bridges to Prosperity (B2P).

Award sponsor Eurostar ran an internal competition for staff to raise awareness of the need for sustainability within the business and, along with the two lucky winners, I travelled to Rwanda to see the work B2P is doing to connect communities with schools, markets and hospitals.

Over five days we saw four bridge sites, including a bridge inauguration, over the length of the small but very hilly country.

There are two rainy seasons in Rwanda, one in spring and one that starts in October, so the rivers were relatively low-level when we were there, but even so the need for pedestrian bridges to cross from one steep-banked area to another was abundantly clear.

We visited sites where the old crossing points - bridges seems to be too grand a title for the ways that locals were crossing the rivers: old planks, stepping stones and rudimentary rope bridges - had been washed away completely, taking half the river bank with them.

There were huge rocks downstream that had once been part of firmer ground and the clay-soil beds were so wide in parts that you’d have struggled to be heard yelling on the other side.

We visited schools that, out of 600 pupils, would lose attendance of over 200 when it was rainy season because the rivers were simply too dangerous to cross, or there was no crossing point left at all. Some pupils would stay at the school overnight for days at a time if they couldn’t get home.

The deputy head at a school we visited in Gisenyi also said that once the bridge at the bottom of the hill was completed, he expected the children from the other side of the river to be able to start school at a younger age because their parents wouldn’t be worried about them being able to cross.

After being in Rwanda just a day I could see that the benefits to having a safe crossing are seemingly endless: better education for children; farmers (which the majority of people in rural Rwanda are) can get to market and sell their produce more frequently, and sell more of it as they don’t have to carry it across a precarious fast-flowing river; people have access to a wider market of jobs, to hospitals and healthcare, and are more connected to their local community.

The thing that really struck me though is the things that we really take for granted are the simple things like being able to walk to town with dry feet. We can go to work without worrying about ruining our clothes and shoes in the muddy water of a river, and we can transport our children and our elderly easily.

We don’t have to carry them on our shoulders to get them to a nurse; we don’t have to wait until our children are a certain height before we can send them to school or to see their friends, and we can walk for miles in the countryside for pleasure, not necessity.

It’s not just the completed bridges that B2P are bringing to towns and villages in Africa, South America and Asia though.

They have a comprehensive training programme that ensures that local communities are provided with the knowledge and tools to evaluate and maintain their local bridge. They train in-country engineers, contractors and masons, improving their job prospects and the local economy.

Such is the excitement of a bridge opening that the whole community comes down for the official inauguration, there's live music and the local government officials attend. We were lucky enough to go to an inauguration on our second day in Rwanda and it was certainly a party I won't forget.

To get to the bridge was a good 30 minute walk from where you could take a car. Some parts were more like rock climbing - a journey which most locals think nothing of making at least twice a day to get to school.

We were overtaken at one point by a woman in loose sandals and a fairly young baby on her back, making us all feel clumsy and ungraceful as we made our way down very carefully in our walking boots. All another reminder of the impact the new bridges have on day to day life, making journeys like that a little bit easier.