Monday, October 31, 2011

October 31st, 2011

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

It sat there on the surface of the lake - the largest floating vessel ever to grace the surface of Lake Volta, travelling at around four knots (seven km/hr), moving gracefully southwards, demonstrating that a Ghanaian Captain and his local crew has what it takes to master a vessel of this size admirably. Captain Abdulai Seini brought SIX barges, four ‘wet’ tanker and two ‘dry’ goods cargo barges, from Buipe to Akosombo and all without a hitch (other than the ones in the ropes, as any boy scout will tell you!).

We heard that it was making good past Kpando at 0600 last Thursday, and when we intercepted the vessel from the air, around noon, it was almost at Dodi Island. Flying over and around this vessel was highly impressive. Visible from over twenty kilometres away, the barge load left a wide wake, lapping the shores as it went. Other vessels, such as fishing and transport canoes, sped [relatively] past the gargantuan iron mass being skilfully guided downstream. This demonstration of ability and equipment raises my hopes that Volta Lake Transport Company really is transporting – and more than that – transforming. Transporting fuel, cement, yams, plantain, traders, vehicles and transforming the economies of those around the lake, and beyond, as it does.

Leaving the six-pack barge behind us we flew towards the Akosombo dam – the water level visibly really high, and the turbines clearly at full chat… leaving foaming whirlpools at the bottom of the power-drop. We took the opportunity to fly along the Akosombo Port, one of the first places I ever flew in Ghana.

Much has changed at the port, especially in the past couple of years. The two new ferries under-construction are more than just a mass of plates of steel these days – one, floating under its own displacement, even looks like it could be useable within months – the other still embryonic, but clearly growing towards leaving the womb of the floating dock at the port. Sad relics of days gone by are also evident, but there is clearly a positive, upbeat image at the Akosombo port rising high into the sky - we could even sense it at two-thousand feet overhead!

Much as the ‘barge push’ and the port growth encourage me, I still have to wonder ‘what about the people around the lake?’ We are not here for ourselves, no this is a family – Ghana is a family. I am proud to be an active part of that family. Family is about caring, sharing, educating and encouraging, it is not about ‘look at what I have done and how rich I am’. No, not at all, despite the current trend in the cities for ‘self-ness’, there is still a solid ‘family-ness’ sense in Ghana overall.

So, I look at these ferries, boats and cargo potential, and look to the management and crews to ensure that these facilities are used to the benefit of all of those it can reach. That does not mean ‘run the business models badly’. No, not at all! In fact, it means run the business models in the same way that the late Steve Jobs described running Apple. He explained using other words, but in essence that; ‘when Apple sought to realise its passion it was profitable, but when it sought to be profitable, it lost its passion’.

Passion, caring, interest – desire to be a part of – are all key to the success of the newly invigorated Volta Lake Transport Company efforts – and it can be seen most clearly from the air! We can see the crews are enjoying their work, serving the communities, serving the Nation and making efforts that go beyond ‘the job description’.

Nonetheless, the Volta Lake has been plagued with Schistosomiasis (also known as Bilharzia) since its inception. Do note that all 170 of Ghana’s administrative districts have incidences of the disease. This second most socio-economic devastating parasitic disease, after malaria, runs rampant in our country – and yet it is so easily prevented and cured. The challenge is, we need a National approach. We need a Schistosomiasis Control Initiative. The good news is that we are reliably and solidly informed that such a group is preparing for a conference in mid-March 2012, to be held in Akosombo – a place I often refer to as ‘the bottom of the Lake’. The Group behind this initiative are trying hard to get all of the stakeholders together to discuss, create and implement an Integrated National Schistosomiasis Control Initiative – or INSCI for short. With the support of major international players and the knowledge of local players, the project stands a good chance of gaining momentum – but I do hope to see more than the four knots witnessed on the lake last Thursday!

One of the major challenges for the INSCI project is access to the communities affected by Schistosomiasis. More vessels, and more frequent movements of the same, plying the lake and its tributaries could help, but first all of the communities need to be identified, located and mapped. That is where aerial support really comes in. Already Medicine on the Move, using a built in Ghana aircraft, and flown by a Ghanaian pilot, has logged nearly one thousand communities along the Afram and the lower lake. Images show that the vast majority of these communities are exceptionally isolated. Larger boats may not be able to get close to the shores where they are, roads simply do not exist, and so ‘air support’ will be essential in the fight for development for all.

I hope that the fact that built-in-Ghana aircraft, flown by locally trained Ghanaians and the recent demonstration of the Ghanaian maritime skills with barges, coupled with the INSCI initiative, is indicative of a change of wind and a change of tide, changes for the better, changes for the people, changes for the children, changes that will empower in terms of health, education and consequentially socio-economic success and sustainability for those hard working rural dwellers, who are literally ‘invisible’ in our society.

One other thing that has really become evident flying over the lakes shores and the coastal savannahs this last week, has been the amount of water that has fallen from the sky this year. The consequential rapid growth of grasses and the rutting of the tracks to and from rural communities is evident in large doses as we fly around.

As the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone drops southwards in the coming weeks, the dry season and the Harmattan will soon set in, and with them bush fires will be more ferocious than usual. The rapid, spindly plant growth of recent weeks will dry quickly and then burn with gusto.

Once again, the lack of accessibility, communications and support to those in the far flung corners of our nation will be left to ‘sort it out for themselves’, but let us hope that the time will soon be upon us when there really is an improved accessibility to support, health, education and markets – and perhaps, our flight last Thursday was a witness to a ‘turning point’ for the better. Let us all hope so, for the sake of those in the more challenging areas of our Nation.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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