Monday, May 28, 2012

May 28th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

When we fly a ‘drop-run’ to rural communities it is always exciting – and full of procedures. Loading the aircraft with the health education materials; making sure that the GPS is loaded with the correct run sequence; checking the fuel levels and tank configurations; preparing the drop hatch and cameras; final checks and climbing aboard; starting the engine; rolling; take-off and climb...

The next section is an enjoyable treat, flying over the magnificent Ghanaian countryside, towards the drop-zone. During this phase of the flight, the plane is on the heavy side, and does everything in a ‘slower than usual’ manner. This adds to the pleasure of absorbing the sight of Mount Yogaga passing underneath the right wing.

As we climb through two-thousand-five-hundred feet we start to see the Volta Lake, resplendently shimmering in the sun, the wind making ripples on the surface of the inland sea. Not only does this under-realised asset feed the wall sockets of Ghana, it also supports major South-North and North-South supply chains, is a food basket for millions and is incredibly beautiful.

We start the descent into the Upper Manya District. Literally hundreds of hamlets and villages scattered across the countryside, like seeds blown by the wind. Our targets are the school fields, at the very request of the people living there. Not just any school, only those with hard to reach community members. The GPS warning of 2 minutes to drop site comes up, and the Drop Master reaches back to select the numbered package. A package prepared to ensure a safe and efficient delivery of educational materials and communications. As the ‘descent to drop’ continues the crew jointly decides on the safety route – which way to pull up and out after the drop. The plane levels for less than five seconds and, as the drop site edge passes visibly through the drop hatch, the Drop Master releases the package, calling ‘Drop!’ as they do so. The Pilot adds power and climbs, the Drop Master looks up, and the plane lifts upwards in the predetermined safety arc.

A brief glimpse down reveals faces. Faces that are rotated, upon the necks of their owners bodies, to new angles. Flipped-back and looking vertical the faces are beaming – clear demonstration of the reflective quality of the Ghanaian dental array! Arms are lifted, waving hands are uncountable, and then, in a second, the plane is out of sight.

The GPS counts down to the next drop. Less than five minutes flight time could equal an hour or two by ground transport. The drop system is aimed at reducing the challenge of reaching rural communities, making it even easier than driving between communities on a tarmac road, and it works.

The cycle is repeated until the aircraft load is depleted, and the crew climb again to a height, above the terrain, of relaxation. The flight back to the home field is full of satisfaction. The Drop Master, if also a pilot, may give the Mission Pilot relief, by sharing the controls, as they enjoy their snacks and drinks. Inflight catering is a big word for a bottle of water and some biscuits – perhaps with some chewing gum as a bonus!

Landing back at the field, it is inevitable that the telephone is already ringing, and the Health Care crew are telling stories of the calls coming in. The community has switched on its phone (they have no power to keep it charged, so only switch it on when needed), climb to the point where they can get coverage, where possible, and excitedly, with pride, report in the receipt of their materials.

For the flight crew, it is a job over. For the Health Care Crew it is a job beginning. For the community it is an opportunity to work towards a better health quotient, and subsequent socio-economic sustainability.

One such village received a package on Schistosomiasis. The training materials lovingly packed into the special delivery medium and dropped with precision onto the school field. The community health rep, assisted by the Queen Mother, arranged a health education meeting, armed with their new materials.

Showing the posters and reading out the ‘guidance sheet’, translating the language needs of the community, eagerly sharing the message from the sky. It is rather exciting, after all!

What happened next makes me proud to be a part of the team that made that drop. The community members realised that many of the things being talked about, that could propagate the spread of schistosomiasis, were the very acts that they were doing daily. It was not the first time of hearing this, but, perhaps, for many, the first time of realising this.

The community members are keen to change their habits, and look to the sky for another drop. Hoping for more materials to be shared by their community health reps, and Queen Mothers, as they yearn to improve their lot.

Many of these communities are small, around 300 people or less. Some are a little larger. All are communities that are not easy to get to. All are communities with wonderful people. All are worthy of the simple educational exposure that could improve, or even save, their lives and the livelihood, possibly the very existence, of the community.

It is hoped that soon this method will be used to work on larger runs, reaching many more communities, reaching out across the whole Volta Basin. Touching places that no health worker could ever imagine reaching on anywhere near a regular basis.

How can this happen? It relies on the ‘F’ word. Yes, I said the ‘F’ word. That word that nobody likes to hear. That word that causes politicians and business men alike to close their ears. It is a word that strikes fear into the heart of the bank account, wallet or purse of every person who hears it. The ‘F’ word. I dare not even type in the sacred pages of this esteemed newspaper, or allow the word to escape to the internet pages where this column gets disseminated. The ‘F’ word. A word that appears to be so hard to grasp or obtain.

I get asked on a regular basis ‘where do get your ‘F’ing’. My response is ‘mainly we make our own but it is limited and we do what we can with it’. Such a response is often met with disdain. It is not seen as ‘normal’ to generate the majority of your own ‘F’s through social entrepreneurship. Especially not when there are many organisations that offer large helpings to those who can meet their criteria.

But there are some basic problems with the traditional ‘F’unding of projects (oops I spelt the ‘F’ word out!).

  • 1. Funding of projects is generally linked to political lifecycles. Real change in the community takes more than a political cycle.  
  • 2. Finding Funding for remote sites that the funding agency cannot practically get to in order to assess the impact is like looking for a five-legged sheep.
  • 3. Funding tends to go to the larger organisations who consume large amounts of the funding in their own overheads, and funding request applications, reducing the field impact. Such large organisations are better placed to apply for, and win, Funding. Smaller organisations tend to be too busy working on the problems to dedicate the time to completing the ‘lottery’ of funding applications.

At least I get to see the smiling faces of thousands of the people being helped by the missions we fly, changing lives, one flight at a time…

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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