Fri 23 Mar 2018
- The award-winning student news website of Imperial College

Know something you shouldn't? Tell us, using our quick, 100% anonymous tip-off form!

Live! - Editions

Building Bridges - Malawi Style!

Nov 07 2006 08:43
Andras Szollar
A report from a truly extraordinary summer relief work placement!
Adding the final bricks onto the bridge towers

Arranging the Experience

Originally I was to do a proper internship with a contractor during my summer - as I felt I was supposed to do after my participation in previous year?s Salvador Project ? when I was approached by a bunch of expedition people and asked whether I would be interested in helping to build a bridge in Africa. Initially, I was a little concerned as there were not yet any civil engineering students in the team, but after carefully analysing the validity of the charitable cause I could not possibly say no.

Classmates warned me that I was mad for taking on such responsibility?and how do I know how to build a bridge anyway? ? My answers would be possibly ?just a bit? for the first part and ?true, not quite yet? for the second part? ?but I still have a few month to learn, haven?t I??

The Idea

Annual flooding in southern Africa claims many lives and leaves thousands homeless each year. Malawi is no exception. The North Rukuru River splits the community of Uledi in two for many months of the year, when during the rainy season water levels rise forming an impassable barrier. It also prevents scouts from patrolling inside the National Park which caused 95% loss of big game in the last 15 years. The bridge was therefore needed to provide year round access to the school and market for those living on the other side of the river, and to enable the scouts to be more effective in providing year-round protection of the wildlife against the poachers. The bridge?s location called for expedition-style logistics as it is two days? rough drive from the nearest town and source of electricity.

The Team

Imperial College Exploration Committee was approached originally by Biosearch Expeditions who have been out in Malawi a few times, met the community of Uledi and discussed the idea with some National Park officers. It was through the Committee how the team got together, comprising of a Daniel Carrivick (Geologist PhD.), Naomi Bessey (physicist), Rafael Holt (chemist), Martin Threakall (civ. eng. graduate presently working for Deloitte) and I.

The Design

As part of the challenge and a way to reduce costs, the design was to be done entirely by us students. Starting from a simple-looking span-sag-load equation, we spent months doing background research for appropriate methods, consulted with civil engineering companies ? including WhitbyBird, Buro Happold and Expedition Engineering ? and received much help and support from our department?s very own staff and Engineer Without Borders UK as well; for which we were all grateful.

At the end we came up with a very flexible design centred on a suspended type footbridge with mixed masonry towers, concrete anchorage and a span of up to 30m which, based on information available, was very, very, very conservative?or so we thought.

On the 19th of July, we set off with a bagful of photocopied guide extracts and the ?Structural Engineer's Pocket Book?, scaled ruler, calculator, a few simple surveying equipment from the department and massive backpacks filled by ropes, tents, GPS, 2 sets of clothes and most importantly some Sainsbury?s basics pot noodles!

A bit of a bad omen?

It was exactly like a real civil engineering project?nothing quite worked out as planned.

First our bags with all our survival equipment in them didn?t arrive. After a few days we received most of our bags? except the one which had the surveying equipment in it alongside plenty of other crucial kit. At that time we had to set off or otherwise jeopardise the whole project.

Already taken aback slightly by the loss of my precious, we happened to participate in a fatal road accident with a drunken man? from which I still don?t think we had yet spiritually recovered. It was definitely not the way how I have imagined supporting the developing world.

The worst bit was yet to come. We arrived on site and performed our initial walk-through and site survey. It revealed only one possible site for the bridge, with a minimum span of 36.5m ? compared to the suggested worse case 25m span ? and high flood level at least one metre higher than previously thought. Our donated cables were already cut and on their way and we were in the middle of nowhere facing yet the biggest real engineering problem in our lives. This is something the department does not quite prepare you for. Giving up would have been the easiest option, but we thought that since we are already there, we might as well push our limits a bit more and do the best we can with the resources we had. After some cautious further geotechnical surveys we changed the entire design and spent sleepless nights trying to trick connections and other details to allow for a larger span with the original length of cables, yet still be safe.


On an average day we would wake up before dawn at around 6am, quickly make some porridge on the fire, preferably the unburned version with a proper layer of sugar to provide some taste. The labour for the day would be gathering from about 6:30 ready to be briefed for the day and start work at 7am? we had a few extra people turning up sometimes from miles away to join the works.

The most time-consuming and laborious tasks were to collect sand, gravel and stones ?some needing hammer dressing for masonry use ? which we all sourced from the river bed after a few quick quality checks. Managing the growing amount of workers on site proved to be the hardest task, sometimes having only two of us to look over 45 workers not speaking a bit of English ?other than ?Yes Sir/Madam?. Communication was difficult not only because of language barriers, as we did have a few scouts helping out with translation, but also because the locals were too humble and afraid to say ?No? or ?I do not understand? thus kept nodding and saying ?Yes, yes, no problem Sir!? ? even if they had no clue what we asked them to do. No wonder we had a few wavy brick layers! Our approach to the project was to provide the technical knowledge to the construction works and show basic management principles, by which the community can build the bridge themselves, while learning about basic construction techniques and health and safety. After an hour and a half break during the hottest part of the day, we would finish at about 4pm, after which most times some of us stayed a few more hours for doing a few more bits and pieces until it darkened on us, sometimes having to finish concreting under head torch lights.

Nevertheless, to keep on schedule we worked dawn till dusk seven days a week for five and a half weeks. We had only half a day off enabling us to complete the bridge superstructure on time and within budget.

Still, both the team members and the locals have gained from the expedition, even if we could not finish the actual bridge. Sharing cultural values; discussing the state of Malawi and the rest of Africa while zipping maize-beer out of a plastic bucket; singing together and eating ensima and freshly murdered chicken with the locals were all life changing experiences. Not to mention observing from first hand the extreme poverty and simple but hard day-to-day survival of communities struggling to grow crops in a forgotten part of the world, but still being able to appreciate the smallest pleasures of life and community spirit. We managed to share basic engineering knowledge, while personally tackling our biggest engineering-design-construction challenge, but also to integrate into the community, play football together and still have a laugh after numerous snake attacks, while learning to value just how lucky we really are to be able to meet these hard-working and exceptional people.

The Future

The good news is that there is a possibility for you to get involved and return. Next year, we plan to finish the project and do various additional works. There is also going to be a presentation with plenty of inspiring pictures sometime in November.

  • -----------


Standing in a rebar cage on the bottom of a 3m deep trench placing stones into place handed down by a chain of workers? kids start shouting ? well they are kids after all ? than women start shouting ? maybe because they kids are too loud ? than your workers start shouting too ? oh well, it must be some argument ? but when your workers jump out of the trench without telling you anyhting, one develops natural feeling that something might be going wrong, convinced quite fast I too followed the workers and jumped out in record breaking speed as a massive 4m long snake literally flew by me down into the pit exactly where I was crouching a second ago and starts attacking the rebar cage? welcome to Africa!


Construction of?

  • two 4.5m towers
  • two 6m3 concrete anchors
  • decking ready to put in place
  • 37m free span suspended type footbridge; almost ready...
  • 60m long total structure
  • 6 weeks, 45 local labourers, totalling over 5000 man-hours
  • Over 300 tonnes moved by hand
  • 36 tonnes of reinforced concrete mixed by hand
  • Over 9000 bricks moved by hand
  • Shared engineering knowledge, cultural values and friendship

Would not have been possible without our sponsors:

Exploration Committee, Gordon Foundation, Interserve,

Mouchel Parkman, Black & Veatch, Engineers Without Borders, ULU Convocation Trust, Buro Happold, Halcrow, Expedition Engineering, WhitbyBird, IC Civil Engineering Department.

Email this Article | Share on Facebook | Print this Article

Discussion about “Building Bridges - Malawi Style!”

The comments below are unmoderated submissions by Live! readers. The Editor accepts no liability for their content, nor for any offence caused by them. Any complaints should be directed to the Editor.
Feb 05 2008 11:50

Well i am a young lady in fourth year- civil Engineering student at The Malawi Polytechnic.I really dont have much to say but that,we have to look for attachments ourselves which makes it hard to find one and some of these projects seem not to be exposed no wonder you found no engineering student in your project.Next time why not invite me in your next assignment i would love to learn from you people.

Nov 10 2008 21:15

Have you looked at the Helvetas Nepal Short Span Trail Bridge Standard? This could save you allot of design time, as many of your questions will be answered reviewing their standard drawings.

Add your comment:

If you can see this, something is broken (either with your browser, or with our system). Please leave the box below empty, or your comment will be considered to be spam.

Also In Livic

  1. Mini-Millau Masters
    07 Nov 06 | Livic
  2. To Know A Veil
    07 Nov 06 | Livic
  3. Our French Correspondent
    07 Nov 06 | Livic

See Also

  1. Straight Outta Skempton
    07 Nov 06 | Livic
  2. Join the Green Team
    07 Nov 06 | Livic
  3. Freshers Pub Crawl
    07 Nov 06 | Livic

Live! Poll

How frequently would you like to see a CGCU magazine being published