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D.R. Congo: Building Bridges

Building Bridges

Medair opens a vital humanitarian corridor from the city of Isiro to isolated Ango territory where tens of thousands of people need aid.

Just over a year ago, vulnerable families who lived in Ango territory received almost no assistance from the international humanitarian community. Not because they didn’t need help, but because Ango was so difficult to reach.

In 2009, violent regional attacks forced 25,000 people to flee their homes and take refuge in Ango territory, where 30,000 residents already struggled with poverty. When Medair flew an assessment team to Ango town in late 2010, we found that people there faced immense and often life-threatening needs, including a lack of health care, safe drinking water, and food.

Ango territory is very isolated due in part to its distance from other centres of population and the poor condition of roads and bridges leading to it. “The main problem is that, of the 25 bridges on this road, 15 are damaged,” said Mark Wooding, Medair Reconstruction Advisor. “So even if the roads were improved, you could only cross the rivers with great difficulty because of the sub-standard bridges.”

“Humanitarians are unable to reach isolated areas like Ango,” said Jean Kugaya, a Congolese engineer working for Medair. “Some new trucks coming from Isiro have been stuck at the bridge in Dingila and have never gotten to their destination because of the bridge.”

With thousands of families cut off from potentially life-saving aid, Medair—with support from the Pooled Fund (a multi-donor trust fund for D.R. Congo) and private donors—launched a project to build or rehabilitate the 15 bridges needed to open a humanitarian corridor to Ango.

“You cannot begin to imagine the impact these bridges will have on our lives,” said Bernard Poly Modumo, a day labourer in Nagbongbo.

“You cannot begin to imagine the impact these bridges will have on our lives,” said Bernard Poly Modumo, a day labourer in Nagbongbo.

“You cannot begin to imagine the impact these bridges will have on our lives,” said Bernard Poly Monomo, a 26-year-old man from Nagbongbo village whom Medair hired to assist with the bridge reconstruction. “Trucks transporting food from Isiro take so long to get here, sometimes getting stuck for weeks, but once the bridges are done, food will get here much more quickly.”

In order to provide access to humanitarian actors, the bridges needed to be strong enough to hold 25-tonne trucks like the ones driven by the World Food Programme (WFP).

“One of the challenges was to reconstruct three metal bridges whose wooden beams and metal pieces were falling apart because they had not been maintained since colonial times,” said Thomas Simon, Medair Rehabilitation Project Manager. “The objective was to replace the planks and missing metal parts so that trucks and commercial transporters could pass through again.”
“The wooden planking is very dangerous,” echoed Mark. “Most heavy trucks cannot cross the bridges without getting stuck.”

Age, lack of maintenance, and environmental factors like soil erosion had left some bridges in such a state of disrepair that water was flowing over them instead of under them. “We had looked for means to repair the bridges ourselves,” said Bernard Poly. “We tried to build makeshift ones with branches but they were not stable enough to hold the weight of the vehicles passing through... We thought we had been forgotten, but then Medair arrived and has started to repair them.”

Medair staff Thomas Simon and Julien Kambale work on the Isiro-Ango bridge rehabilitation project.

Medair staff Thomas Simon and Julien Kambale work on the Isiro-Ango bridge rehabilitation project.

Over the course of the past year, Medair worked closely with local communities between Isiro and Ango to build and/or repair all 15 bridges. We used international and national engineers to oversee the work including volunteer Simon Bird, a British engineer who helped ensure the bridges would perform as required despite the challenging environment. We hired approximately 1,800 local labourers to do the work, bringing an influx of cash into the local economy where jobs are woefully scarce. “I had been looking for work for a long time,” said Bernard Poly. “I am not a mason by profession but they have trained me to weld and curve metal. I am happy to have gained a new skill.”

Our team held meetings with community groups and local authorities to ensure that the work was a productive partnership, one where participating communities felt a sense of ownership in the resulting bridges. “By allowing people to work on the bridge, the project improves the lives of people with no economic means, like those who are displaced and single parents,” said 61-year-old Sarafine Nodele Ndele, a community leader in Poko territory. “It will help them pay school fees and even buy clothes for their children.”  

Indeed, the bridge-building project provided families with a lot of secondary benefits in addition to the crucial purpose of opening up access for humanitarian aid to Ango
. All along the road, local residents received temporary employment and many gained valuable new skills. Labourers received health information about HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, and sleeping sickness—sometimes for the first time. Furthermore, now that the road can be travelled again, the price of commodities from towns like Isiro will be lower because trucks have much easier access.

“We are also hoping that the bridges will indirectly boost agricultural activities by opening up transportation and, in a wider sense, increasing the economic status of the people,” said Jean Kugaya.  

Rehabilitating the bridges has already led to increased humanitarian aid for the people living here. “The bridge rehabilitation project has facilitated better movement of WFP trucks transporting food rations to populations in the Uélé areas,” said Laurent Frimault, WFP Logistics Cluster Officer.

“When my sisters and my relatives saw the progress on the bridges, the look of happiness on their faces gave me so much joy,” said Bernard Poly. “Because we are very isolated, we lack a lot of essential services here. We even nicknamed our Territory le Zaire, because we are reminded of the suffering we endured during the Mobutu regime. But now we are slowly beginning to feel like the D.R. Congo again. This fills me with joy.”

Hope in the Darkness
Want to know what it’s like to live as a displaced person? Philemon Foolani gives the straight goods about his life as a displaced person in Ango. Read More.

In addition to Medair’s bridge project, Medair opened a base in Ango in 2011 where we are providing health care and we have improved community access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) for the local population.

Medair’s projects in Ango territory are supported with funding from the Multi-Donor Pooled Fund, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and by private donations.

Read more about Medair’s work in D.R. Congo.

This web feature was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.



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