I’ve been looking forward to publishing this article ever since I started this blog in November 2015. That same month I heard a story I’ll never forget, a story that shows how much one motivated person can do to make the world a better place. It was the story of Toni Rüttimann, a Swiss humanitarian bridge builder, who visited my university to give a presentation about his life’s work of building over 700 bridges that serve approximately two million people.
For the last 30 years Toni Rüttimann has been living a nomadic life, going from village to village and country to country, building bridges in rural areas and post-disaster zones. Even though these are only simple pedestrian bridges, they have a huge impact on the lives of the people by connecting them to services like schools and hospitals and to the society as a whole. What’s incredible is that Toni has done it all with no salary, no fundraising, no NGO, no company, no office and not even a website, working directly with local governments and communities and using donated waste materials. Recently, I went looking for his bridges in Honduras and found two – both with their own story to tell.
A life devoted to helping people
In 1987, when Toni Rüttimann was just 19 and about to finish high school, there was a devastating earthquake in Ecuador. The images of destruction on TV made Toni want to help, and directly after finishing high school he left Switzerland and traveled to Ecuador. He had no local contacts or any plan for what he was actually going to do there. This became the start of something great, when Toni happened to meet a Dutch hydraulics engineer. Together with one village they built a bridge, a bridge that in Toni’s own words was terrible and nothing like he would build today. And yet this bridge still helped the people by connecting them to services that had become unavailable after the earthquake.
Toni then returned to Switzerland to study civil engineering so that he could better help people. But after seven weeks he quit. He felt that if he spent five years studying, he would get so used to the comfortable Western lifestyle that he wouldn’t be able to do what he did in Ecuador, which was helping people while living on bare minimum. So he went back to Ecuador and over the next ten years he built 100 bridges there, together with an Ecuadorian welder named Walter, who became his partner and right-hand man.
From Ecuador, Toni moved on to Central America, Mexico and eventually Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia he found partners like the Walter in each country, and these partners learned his techniques and could continue the work when Toni moved on to the next country. Currently, he and his local partners build around 40-50 bridges a year.
Community effort and reuse of waste
What kind of bridges does Toni Rüttimann build then and how? When he first embarked on his humanitarian path, Toni knew nothing about building bridges. This turned out to be an asset, since he couldn’t just go to the locals and tell them what to do. Instead, he had to work together with the local communities, involving them in the whole process and making them the true owners of the bridges. Over the years he developed his own unique and efficient method of building suspension bridges that are suitable for pedestrians and light traffic such as motorcycles.
The locals were willing to provide free labour and some of the raw materials like wood and sand, but the big question was finding structural materials that were suitable and safe for suspension bridges. In Ecuador, Toni found out that the the oil industry had a lot of old pipes and cables, and he realized these could be used to build bridges. So he went to the oil companies and asked if they could donate the scrap metal, which they did. Over the years this has evolved into similar donations from other companies, and today Toni mainly uses old cables from Swiss cable cars and steel pipes and plates from a manufacturing company called Tenaris.
Toni goes through local governments to find communities that are in need of bridges, and once he’s been in a country for a while, people start coming to him. When determining whether a site is suitable for a bridge, he only has four basic criteria: there has to be enough people for labour, people have to be willing to really work, the site has to be technically suitable, and it has to be possible to transport materials to the site. Commitment of the locals is most important, and in one case in Indonesia the locals were so determined to have a bridge that they carried the materials for 20 km.
The International Friendship Bridge
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused destruction in Central America, and this made Toni and Walter leave Ecuador and move to Honduras to build bridges there, followed by more bridges in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. One of these bridges is the only international bridge built by Toni Rüttimann, and this was the first of his bridges that I visited. Crossing the Lempa river between Mapulaca, Hoduras and Victoria, El Salvador, this bridge was built to serve 15000 people on both sides of the border. Already on the bus to Mapulaca it became clear to me why a bridge was needed, as it took hours to cross the mountains that isolate Mapulaca from the rest of Honduras. For example, the nearest hospital to Mapulaca is in El Salvador.
The challenge was that these two communities had been at war with each other in the 1970s. Even 30 years later when Toni Rüttimann arrived, the locals were reluctant to have anything to do with people from the other side. But they overcame their difficulties and the old grudges, and the bridge was built. It was named Puente de la Amistad or the “Bridge of Friendship”, but it is better known among the locals as Puente del Suizo (“Bridge of the Swiss”) or Puente Colgante (“Hanging Bridge”).
This is the story I had heard and read before coming to Honduras, but when I reached Mapulaca and the bridge, I discovered there was more to the story.
Everything changed in 2009 when a road bridge between Mapulaca and Victoria opened, and the pedestrian bridge became obsolete. Now the unused bridge became a hotspot for smugglers and drug traffickers. The municipality of Mapulaca wanted to preserve the special bridge for tourism and historic reasons, but the military destroyed it to stop the smugglers. The steel structure still remains today, but the wooden platform has been destroyed and so the bridge is unusable.
And yet the legacy of Toni Rüttimann’s bridge remains. For several years it was the only connection between the two villages. My theory is that the bridge brought the villages closer together, and this new connection eventually led to the desire for a road bridge. Eventually, the unique international bridge developed uniquely international problems.
Simple bridges, great impacts
Because it was easy to find, my original plan had been to only visit the International Friendship Bridge and to write this article based on it. But because the bridge had been destroyed, it left me unsatisfied. I was thirsting for more information and curious to see what kind of shape other bridges were in, and I knew I had to find at least one more.
According to Wikipedia, there are 33 Toni Rüttimann bridges in Honduras. Because Toni works in remote areas and doesn’t even have a website, finding information about his bridges is not easy. The International Friendship Bridge was an exception, as it is one of his most well-known bridges – and as you can see, even that information needed lots of updating! But with my newly improved Spanish skills, I managed to find information about another bridge, this one in La Regina in Yoro department, next to a main road connecting the towns of El Negrito and Morazan.
This bridge was completed in 2002, and it has been mentioned in the Honduran news a few times since then. The site had previously had an important road bridge that was destroyed by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Toni Rüttimann came and built one of his suspension bridges here, and until very recently this bridge was the only connection over the Cuyamapa river for around 30000 people from 30 villages. In 2015, the construction of a new road bridge finally started, and it was finished just a few months ago. And so this one of Toni’s bridges is now obsolete as well, but the fact that it was used and needed by so many people for 15 years is a clear testament to the importance of Toni’s work.
Freedom and dedication
One of the things I admire most about Toni Rüttimann is his freedom and how this helps him help people. He is not tied to any organization or company and he has no demands, such as the burden of taking care of finances or writing reports or going to meetings – the time he saves he spends on building more bridges. He is also not tied to a particular place or to material possessions. His lifestyle is very simple and he doesn’t ask for much, sleeping in locals’ houses, monasteries, schools, police stations or wherever the communities can put him up. Everything he needs fits in two bags, one has his personal items and the other is his ”office”, where he keeps his laptop and tools. Sometimes people give him money when they hear his incredible story, but his simple lifestyle means he needs very little money. This gives him even more freedom, and crucially, it means the work doesn’t just stop because of a sudden lack of money.
In order to do what he does, Toni Rüttimann has sacrificed Western comforts, financial security, a potential family and even his health. While in Cambodia, Toni became paralyzed for two years from the neck down due to Guillain-Barré Syndrome. He had no insurance, but the locals took care of him like one of their own. Even during his paralysis he kept working, and using a pencil in his mouth he developed a computer database and worksheets that made designing new bridges more efficient.
One of the things Toni said two years ago during his presentation was that we have to get rid of our excuses, such as the lack of money. His story shows us all the power each individual has in changing the world.