THE

POWER
OF ONE
Toni Ruttimann has devoted
his life to helping others

Building Bridges,
Changing Lives
BY RO BE RT K IENE R

WITH A TEN-INCH-LONG combination wrench in one hand and
balancing some 60 feet in the air
atop a half-completed suspension
bridge in western Myanmar, Toni
Ruttimann is in his element. This remarkable self-taught bridge builder,
known throughout a dozen countries
simply as “The Bridgebuilder,” is
helping villagers erect a 105-meterlong bridge over the muddy brown
Daga River.
As the sun beats down on the
47-year-old Swiss, he mops sweat
from his forehead and scoots along
the steel bridge’s suspension cables

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on a narrow eight-foot-long board,
tightening wire clip after wire clip as
the bridge takes shape. At the same
time, scores of villagers who have
worked for the last few weeks to help
build this bridge carry and bolt in
place eight-foot-long sheets of checkered steel plate that will form the
bridge floor.
With every sheet that’s laid down
and every cable and wire clip that’s
tightened, the bridge gets nearer to
completion. Soon, after the last cable
is secured, residents in this remote
village of Nyaung Pin Seik will no
longer have to use a costly, ram- ➸

Toni and villagers after
finishing a bridge in Po Oo,
Magway Division, Myanmar

READER’S DIGEST  

shackle ferry service to cross the
has devoted his life to building peDaga River. Children will be able to
destrian bridges in countries from
get to school safer and easier, sick
Honduras to Cambodia to Indonesia.
villagers can reach the medical clinic Since he began his unique form of
quicker and farmers can now haul
humanitarian aid he and a team of
more produce and handicrafts to
devoted welders have built more
town on bikes, carts and even motor- than 660 pedestrian bridges from 30
cycles. Their lives will improve drameters to 264 meters long in the sermatically.
vice of two million peo“We’ve been dreample. Presently splitting
ing of this bridge for
his time between
“I see the
years,” says village
Myanmar and Indoneleader U Soe as he
sia, he and his team
suffering of
watches Ruttimann and people who need will build 15 bridges in
villagers work on the
each country this year.
a bridge, and
bridge. “It will change
In Myanmar alone he
our lives.”
I know how we has built 80 bridges.
Changing lives by
Via the internet, he
can help,”
building bridges is
also guides the conhe explained.
struction of another 15
what Toni Ruttimann
bridges in Ecuador and
has done for the last 27
South America with his
years. Inspired by reports of the massive damage an
Ecuadorian colleague Walter Yánez.
earthquake caused in Ecuador in
Some of the bridges Ruttimann
1987, he pledged “to do something.”
builds are replacements for those
After collecting donations in his
that have been destroyed or deteriohometown of Pontresina, Switzerrated, but most are located in places
land, he flew to Ecuador to see how
where there has never been a bridge.
he could help. The 19-year-old dis“We either scout locations ourselves
covered villagers who had become
or villagers come to us asking for a
cut off from the rest of the world after bridge,” he says.
losing their bridge. Ekeing out the litRuttimann has purposely kept his
tle money he had brought from Swit- bridge building efforts low key. He
zerland and with the help of a Dutch
accepts only small donations from
engineer, he helped villagers build
individuals, mostly from his native
his first bridge in five months. He
Switzerland. He has formed longhad found his life’s work.
lasting relationships with the steel
On a one-man journey to “serve
company Tenaris, which has contribthe people throughout the world,” he uted enough steel tubes to build

some 100 bridges, and the mountain
cable car operators who have donated a staggering 230 miles of wire
rope from Swiss ski resorts. Local villagers must agree to supply the labor
and buy the cement (from 200 to 500
bags) and sand and gravel necessary
for their bridge’s foundations.
None of Ruttimann’s donors ask
for any recognition in return for their
materials. “They agree with me that
we are doing this for the people,”
Toni says. “This is about helping others.”
He rarely gives interviews and regularly turns down offers for rewards
or recognition. “This isn’t about
awards,” he says. “Building bridges is
about spreading love and working together.”
Out of principle and to keep costs
down, Ruttimann travels as economically as possible. Instead of hiring a
car, he rode a crowded bus for five
hours from Yangon and then on the
back of a motorcycle to the bridge
site. He stays in a modest guesthouse
with only one communal bathroom
and a bucket of cold water for a
“shower.”
Ruttimann is always on the move,
scouting and building bridges, coordinating shipments and managing a
small crew of welders and helpers.
Asked where his office is, he laughs
and holds up a small backpack that
contains a laptop, a digital camera
and a mobile telephone. His home?
“Right here,” he says, reaching for an-

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other bag packed with several
changes of clothes, shoes and one
tie.
Although his reputation has spread
throughout Asia and elsewhere, it often takes him some time to explain
his philosophy. For example, after
telling a Myanmar government official how he had been building
bridges for free since he was 19 and
wanted to continue in Myanmar, the
minister asked, “For free? Tell me, really. Why are you doing this?”
“I see the suffering of people who
need a bridge and I know how we
can help,” he explained. “And I was
born to be a bridge builder. Lastly, I
really want to do it.”
Ruttimann not only got permission
to work in Myanmar, but the government offered him help with import
permits for pipe and cable and
premises to assemble and store materials.
The last bolt has been tightened
and several villagers have taken their
first tentative steps across the bridge
spanning the Daga River. “Look at
the smiles on these villagers’ faces as
they cross their new bridge,” he says.
“This is a labor of love.”
Editor’s Note: Robert Kiener first wrote
about Toni Ruttiman in these pages in
2007, in “Bridges of Love.”

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