Monday, February 25, 2013

February 25th, 2013

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Last week’s trip into the Afram Plains was magnificent. Ok, so my back felt like a thousand knives were being driven into my spine; but the pain from many hours of travel on poor quality roads, albeit in a good quality vehicle, was more than worth it.

We were welcomed by the DCE and his team – a dynamic and enthusiastic group. They demonstrated clear dedication to the area, and all that it has to offer. They were conscious of their rural challenges. With over 200,000 people and just one, sporadically good, narrow tarmac conduit, the 700+ communities of the Afram Plains are hidden from view. Their need is great; their potential is great, yet the access to the area is amazingly poor. These appear to be ‘forgotten people’ in terms of access and development.

Volta Lake Transport Company, who sponsored the transport component of our trip, are looking earnestly at creating more ferry ports to facilitate growth in the area, but that will take a few years. Much as the ferry ports will change dynamics, without suitable road infrastructure, they will not solve the challenges of intra-Afram-Plains travel. The next 10 to 20 years may see that being solved, but the people have needs NOW.

Our team spoke about the abandoned airstrip at Donkorkrom. The strip is beyond sensible recovery with a house built on one threshold and power lines run across another part. The clear desire of the leadership in the area to open a simple dirt strip for humanitarian use, and to enable the budding business persons to gain easier access, was clearly stated. We are ready to help, but my concern is whether they will get the support they need from the authorities in this regard. The last time we tried to help a community the authorities took over and the project died. Putting in a simple airstrip is a matter of two or three days work for a dedicated team, especially with access to a grader. Maintenance is not beyond the skills of any community in Ghana. In the Amazon rain forest communities hand-clear, and establish, regularly used bush strips, and yet in Ghana it is not commonplace. The main reason seems to be regulatory and the ability to complicate what should be simple and logical.

I heard with great joy President John Dramani Mahama, in his ‘State of the Nation address’, speak about new aerodromes planned for Ghana. He mentioned Ho, Cape Coast, Koforidua and Bolgatanga... all of which already enjoy good road access, and thus are ‘low on my priority list’, but welcome to see them getting a Presidential mention – and we will certainly use them (especially Ho and Koforidua!). I openly invite all those concerned about our rural areas to come to Kpong Airfield to see how traditional, low-cost, high-impact, community led and maintained aviation infrastructures can be implemented within a matter of months, if only we are serious about enabling our rural communities. I would suggest that such rural facilities be put under the direct control of the District Assemblies, and that they are given all the support of the Administration, and the relevant Authorities.

I know for a fact that many of the civil servants have been positive about such developments, yet are stymied by the leviathan bureaucracy and lack of rural development inertia, that appears to be deeply rooted in the traditional system. It is time to change that - and now.

Several years ago there was a conference aimed at stimulating light aviation. It was led by the Ministry responsible for the sector. It happened once. It raised these matters, and how readily they could change the access to the rural areas, changing lives positively and sustainably. Sadly, it was, apparently, a flash in the pan.

Meanwhile, the private sector has done its bit. Continued training and sponsoring young people from the rural areas, developing aviation solutions that are locally built and maintained by local personnel. Based on what we witnessed in the Afram Plains, and coupled with the apparent new desire in the President’s speech to see aviation reach every corner of the nation, it is time for a change of pace, regulation and attitude.

After our conversations with the DCE and his able team, we went on to speak to around 250 young women from the JHS schools in the area. What a wonderful moment. 500 eyes bright and forward looking. Smiles with giggles hiding behind them. These teenage girls representing the future of the Afram Plains. I enjoyed the ‘warm up session’ that we bring to a school visit. ‘Stand up’, is the first instruction. A shambles of chairs scraping, chatting and heads bobbing slowly to a common position ensues. ‘Sit down’, I bark, and the reverse happens. In my ‘Sergeant Major voice’, I roar that it should be done in unison, without noise. A few more ‘stand up: sit down’ calls and it is coming together. In a matter of minutes the young people are co-ordinated, moving as one, demonstrating that they can learn to be a disciplined group of one accord. Then we move to simple hand signals to generate the corporate movements. They are ready for their lessons.

Patricia Mawuli and her team went on to explain the four forces of flight and the functioning of the four stroke piston engine – the bright minds soaking up the technicalities like a Harmattan dried sponge the first rains of the rainy season. Then, as we always do, the talk went to health. Schistosomiasis, which is endemic in the Plains, was discussed and the ‘1,2,3 song’ (1. Do not bathe at the water’s edge, 2. Do not drink untreated water 3. Do not piss and crap around, use the toilet instead) was sung with gusto. A reverend sister from the catholic school looked a little shocked, but could still be seen to have a smile in the corner of her mouth, knowing that the message was hitting home – potentially saving lives.

Finally, we prepared the young people for our return by air. The Afram Plains is our target area for 2013. We plan to drop many health education packages to the schools in the coming months. Demonstrations of drop packages and explanations of what will happen were drilled into the vibrantly awake young minds. The message to be sent to all the communities in the Afram Plains that ‘you are cared for’ and ‘you are not isolated’. By air we can reach Donkorkrom, the capital of the Plains, in less than one hour. By road and ferry that is a minimum of ten hours. The Medicine on the Move team, in partnership with WAASPS and The AvTech Academy, will be doing all that they can to join hands, with the people and authorities of a similar mind-set, to shrink the gap that appears to be holding the Afram Plains back from reaching its potential.

If you have not visited Kpong Airfield, just 30km south of Akosombo, you should. See for yourself that rural aviation is not expensive, nor prohibitive – and that it can change lives sustainably. Kpong Airfield is open to the public most Saturday and Sunday mornings.

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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