Monday, February 18, 2013

February 18th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

As I write this week, I am sitting on a Volta Lake Transport Company bus, heading towards the Afram Plains. Our destination is Donkorkrom. We left Kpong yesterday at 2pm, and spent the night in Kwahu. This morning we heading out for the first ferry crossing at Adawso, and will then drive the last couple of hours to our destination. In a little under 24 hours, we will arrive at the point which is less than 100km from where we started – less than one hours flight in the smallest aircraft.

There is no other way. The Afram Plains is as isolated as an island. I fly over it regularly, enjoying the magnificent views of this fertile, readily irrigated, land segment in Ghana. The relatively flat land mass is demarcated to the South by the Afram leg of the Lake Volta and to the East by the large of the water body. The North is bound by the Digya National Park and then to the East the isolation from the Ashanti Region is broken by a smattering of relatively inaccessible roads and tracks. The Afram Plains is as remote as it is magnificent. Well, unless you go by air! By air the Plains are easily accessible, and more magnificent than you can imagine. Sadly, the airstrip at Donkorkrom is no longer useable, as I witnessed five years ago when I first visited the area. Power lines and constructions have rendered the landing area, which should have been a lifeline to the area, too dangerous to use.

So, why this trip now? There are many reasons. The most important one is the people of the area. Even those living in the ‘capital’ of Donkorkrom have challenges reaching the many communities scattered, like maize seed sown by the gods, across the area. We hope to establish a regular air supply of health education, and related materials, to these people in the coming months. This in itself is not enough for the team from Medicine on the Move. As part of the trip to establish an agreement to begin the support, we will also be talking to the school children, sensitising them to aviation and making them aware of the potential aircraft movements over their communities. Patricia Mawuli, assisted by the student pilot/engineers from the AvTech Academy, will make presentations to the schools, enlightening them to the proposed activities, making them a part of the growth of their own communities and lives.

The AvTech girls will teach them some basics about how aircraft fly, as well as using the opportunity to sensitise the group to the issues of Schistosomiasis, Ghana’s second most socio-economically devastating parasitic disease. An estimated six million children are at risk in Ghana, and the lake communities are clearly at the highest exposure risk.

Personally, I detest road trips. I do not like to drive. I can fly for 10 hours straight, but can’t stand more than a couple of hours in a coach or car. For the people of the Afram Plains, access to the ‘outside’ world is forcibly a land and water vehicle trip that will take at least a day. They embark upon such trips without complaint. My aversion to road trips is to the advantage of the Afram Plains, because it means that we will be looking for a potential location for an airstrip whilst we are there. We hope that this initiative will be supported by the community, and the authorities. We hope to find a way to co-locate a new airstrip with the development of a VLTC ferry port at Agordeky. The need for airstrips in ‘access friction’ areas should be a high priority, and should be supported by the authorities. That does not mean that the authorities should DO everything, but rather that they should create the enabling environment for development. The last time we assisted a community with its airstrip development, the authorities effectively killed the project with charges, bureaucracy, and then by taking over and apparently abandoning it, despite the enormous effort by the people of the community.

The most vibrant light aviation facility in West Africa is private, it is well maintained and sees four to five thousand movements per year – more than most of the regional aerodromes in West Africa. The authorities have not contributed financially to the development; it has grown on its own merit. In the same vein, encouragement of community led and maintained facilities could lead to a safe, exciting, life changing, livelihood empowering solution, at one of the lowest costs for improved accessibility available.

The cost of putting in one kilometre of tarred road is far more than the cost of creating a simple airstrip for light aviation. The Afram Plains, like many other areas, has been isolated way too long. The work of the Volta Lake Expansion Project, coupled with improved air access and aerial supply of key health, education and other materials, should mark the beginning of new opportunities.

There is one other purpose for our trip into this fantastic part of our nation. The AvTech Academy is launching a new training programme, for a Diploma in Aviation and Technology, but delivered through a four year Vocademic Apprenticeship. What is most interesting about this new programme is the delivery method and non-payment method. The Vocademic Apprentice is not charged for their training programme, and is actually paid to learn, provided they complete their weekly assignments and tasks. This training programme is aimed principally at those from the rural areas with low income, providing access that would otherwise not be possible. If you consider the people in places like the Afram Plains, they are not only physically isolated, they are also often financially isolated, making access to education and opportunities limited for their wards.

The 46 week per year learning and working schedule includes accommodation, food, safety equipment and international travel for the most successful – regardless of their families’ ability to pay. It is earned by the young person’s ability to work, academically, vocationally and as an apprentice in real life, live projects. Aviation, engineering, robotics, computing as well as the provision of relevant training in English and Mathematics is integrated, and each Vocademic Apprentice will be given the opportunity to excel in their own way. Some may go on to fly, others to build aircraft, some may tend towards radio communications, and others to manufacturing and programming of robotic devices.

Of course, taking on a challenge of accessibility to education such as this is even harder for the young women. Therefore, the programme is exclusively for young women (those who have completed JHS, 16-19 with family support and encouragement to enter the programme).

I must admit that I feel privileged to be part of the team that is going in today to speak to the young people, to provide solutions to their challenges and opportunities for those young people with ability, but without the opportunity or resources to realise that ability through education – taking on some major challenges, all lead by the dynamic young Ghanaian women who are dominating the light aviation developments in West Africa.

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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