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Friday, February 25, 2011

How many challenges can you fit into one day?

Submitted by Jonathan Porter
Reality TV is for sissies. Honestly, I have seen these programmes of 'challenges' in remote areas - they are really not reality at all... IF you want reality, you have to spend some time amongst the real life challenges that West Africa has on offer - in abundance, raw and ready to make you question the 'necessities' that we all take for granted - after all, YOU have power and a computer in front of you - and they work, as does your internet connection.... so that is a start....

I have to say that taking challenges in your stride is all part and parcel of doing the field work that we do out here - but it does get beyond a joke from time to time.  There are times when you just want to shout 'GET ME OUT OF HERE'... but you do not!
To give you an idea, In the past few weeks we have had :
  • broken push rods in our main genset (on order, should be here in six weeks)
  • con-rod break in a small gen set (probably beyond economic repair)
  • AVR/Governor up the spout on another one (limping along on limited tasks)
  • Six or more punctures including one in thick mud, care abandoned until mud gets dry!
  • No less than ten other motor vehicle challenges - from electrical failure, starter housing cracks, carb issues, key/column issues, smoking batteries, and general 'I hate car days'
  • Fuel supply issues (Effimax is in short supply)
  • Water pumping issues (you need working gen sets to pump water)
  • Inverter and storage battery issues
  • Staffing issues (it seems not everybody wants to go to work EVERY day they are paid for)
  • A big ol' rain storm (minor damage, but very wet)
  • A 'broken' fence and cow incursion (minor damage, but cow poop on the runway early one morning)
  • Delays in building programme (resulting in accommodation and transport challenges)
  • Customs/clearing challenges and associated additional costs and delays
  • Weather preventing missions taking place that should have completed last year (resulting in knock on effects like a domino game
  • Internet access issues
  • ran out of chocolate (a very serious condition)
  • to name but a few...
BUT we are still smiling. Of course, we do not always... and in the past two weeks smiling days have not really been in big supply. So, when we are not smiling, I avoid blog-ing!! Fortunately, we have a fantastic team - a really fantastic team. It is made up of some great individuals, with amazing skills, focus and determination. Without a team there is no success, and without that team learning from the challenges, one-by-one, day-by-day, there is point in being here. Right now we are privilaged to have a volunteer out to take some of the burdens off, Erin Nolan, who steps up to the mark when it comes to ensuring that the girls from AvTech are given a range of new exposures (yesterday she did some instrument work using the software donated from Iowa, now that there is power again in the classroom).

The night before last, I went to my room, had a brief meeting with Matthew and Patricia about the load of challenges, we checked the finances and what we could and could not do this week, and then I explained that 'I was not coming out'. Not a childish 'not coming out' but a planned, calculated 'not coming out'. I really needed some time to get my head around it all.

When the load of poop on the fan reaches critical mass you have to choose how to react. It is always written in our foreign passports that we have a 'get me out of here' clause.  It is all too easy to consider 'packing it all in'. BUT for our local team members 'this is it'. This really is their lot, challenges and all - and we are not in this to let them down, no Sir! Our 'outside' exposure allows us to understand that 'five punctures a day' is not 'God's special way', no, it is a result of poor roads, debris, conditions and the lack of availability of decent tyres at reasonable prices. But we have to cope with it, or sit by the side of the road and weep (which is an option we would like to take once in a while), or shout and scream (which we take as an option more often than we should).

So, I sat in my room, cogitating on the pile of challenges which were growing and providing a near total eclipse of the vision. I prayed, I thought, I considered, I postulated and then, after a moment of watching a bit of a Movie (Aliens v Monsters) sent over by Clay, I slept - well I fell asleep before the first ten minutes had run on my laptop.  Normally I get between four and six hours sleep per night, due to the challenge load! That night, I got over eight hours sleep - a real treat.  

I got up and Matthew, Patricia, Erin and I went out to the car - to find a puncture and a flat battery.... only to later find that the starter housing was cracked when Kojo arrived with the second car (which now belongs to him) to jump start the charabanc. Kojo simply slid out of the Astra lay down on the muddy ground under the Previa and called out 'Boss, take my car' , and so we did.

By the end of the day most things get fixed, and we learn that not all that we want or think that we need is necessary, but simply 'convenient'. Whilst Kojo, Matthew and the teams were working on the fixes and stuff, Erin and Cindy took the classes and Patricia took the pilot seat whist I sat in the camera-operators seat, and we set off on a long photo video mission over hostile terrain in 9G-ZAF (after a delay on starting... but that is a story in itself).

Where we were flying over there are often no roads, no telephone cover and no airband radio cover either. Operations are all between 1000 and 3000 feet and we were airborne just under seven hours in our CH701.What a privliage it is to be documenting the remote villages around the lake. How much more of a privlage to see neat little communities in the middle of nowhere - without ANY of the 'luxuries' that we have, nestled on the edge of the lake, having lost ALL of their farm land, all of their food stores, and yet still out there, smiling and waving at the plane as it sneaks a snapshot of their homes and lives.

One village had a neat little school building - and the children were out in the yard, all lined up and marching as if on parade for the President himself - deep in the remotest area of Ghana. The lake is magnificent, the communities around it so, so many. The access to power a pipe-dream for the majority. Access to clean drinking water not even considered an option by most. Access to anything but subsistence farming and some fishing not considered a likelihood - and yet, so proud, so brave, so magnificently persevering in all that they have to do in order to simply get from birth to death with a few smiles along the way.

The vast majority of these people will never visit a doctor or dentist, probably have contracted Bilharzia a number of times, or simply live with the disease, and are unlikely to taste a carbonated mineral - let alone a cold one! Yet, these people have so much to offer this planet - they are intelligent, albeit lacking in educational opportunities at times, determined and hard-working - and in this day and age, deserve a 'better day' now and again.

Despite all of our little challenges - that seem so enormous - we have it easy - comparatively speaking. I respect and admire 'the lake people' they are so, so brave - and soon, with your help, we will be in a position to reach more of them, more often. 

As we gear up for our 'MoM Lake Outreach Programme' which will include extensive Bilharzia education and treatment (we are ready to work towards eradication over ten years, if the donors will buy in), basic health education, first aid, general lake safety and, hopefully, 'teacher support motivation' in the remote, often 'under a tree' schools, I can only look at our daily challenges and be thankful that I can complain knowingly about not having some of the things for a day or two, that most of these people will never have or understand what it may even be like to have.

We are truly blessed, and I want to thank all of your for your support - since without you we could not do any of what we do - whether you are a customer of WAASPS taking your lessons in flying, or using the aerial solutions we offer, or whether you are a donor, loan provider, praying for us or volunteer giving up your precious holiday time to make a difference in person - YOU make this all possible, thank YOU.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Tale of Three Airfields and a road trip 'extraordinaire'!

Submitted by Jonathan Porter
This is a tale of three airfields.  It is a tale with history, with sadness, with joy and with disbelief – but what follows is true, and is the result of the last ten days spent on a rough and, at times, hazardous journey, accompanied by Detective Erin Nolan of the New York Police Department Aviation Unit, who is currently in Ghana promoting aviation for young ladies, alongside Ghana’s own pilot/engineer ‘extraordinaire’, Patricia Mawuli and the AvTech Academy girls who build Zenith Ch701, 801 and X-Air aircraft in Ghana.

This trip needed to be a terrestrial one - sadly, harmattan spoils the visibility and since there are no places to land, it requires a four wheeled vehicle to get there (our 16 year old Toyota Previa).  We did cheat a little, to avoid some of the roads - and took the car ferry, with the empty yam crates for the first 200km, up the largest man made lake in the world, the Lake Volta.

We boarded in the dark, which was quite impressive... but not as impressive as the morning views of life aboard the boat and the many communities suffering from Bilharzia all around the lake.  

The need to accelerate our amphibian aviation mission work clear, as is the lack of funds glaring us in the face!

During the twenty hour (5knot average) voyage, we took a visit to the engine rooms, where things were interestingly explained to all those in our team.

And a trip to the bridge was one that al the team enjoyed as we compared aviation and maritime terms and methods first hand.

This trip had many intended motives - the survey of three airfields, schools presentations, safety briefings and two 'tourist' opportunities - especially for the young Ghanaian s who have not travelled their own country before.  Of course, the boat ride itself provide instant interest since none of them had travelled by boat (other than a dugout canoe) before.  The 'on board' provisions shop was made up of fresh produce and some candies - squished next to some empty yam crates.

We landed at Kete Krachi and watched our 'floating hotel' unload, load and depart for Yapei.

With our avid interest in Bilharzia and lake dwellers health, we were not surprised to see people and animals drinking and washing at the waters edge... do note that there is 'pipe' water and low cost 'satchet' water nearby, so this is not necessary, but simply an act from lack of understanding and lack of education - a simple to fix, but hard to implement challenge for MoM and VRA in the coming years.

Assisted by the VLTC Port Master, we visited the Director of Education and the District Chief Executive's offices before speaking to a selected 100 children from the community.

We primed them for the next-day's presentation and our 'selection' methods for the identification of 20 children to be sponsored by Volta Lake Transport Company to come to our Fly Me day on the 5th March.

After Chicken and Rice supper and a good nights sleep in the local hostel, we all spent energy as if it were going out of fashion, teaching the four forces of flight and 'talent' spotting the children to be carried to Kpong Airfield next month.

Patricia demonstrated pitch and roll....

Erin pretended to be in her 'Kete Krachi powered' helicopter....

and Capt Yaw just ran around screaming 'Weight, Lift, Thrust and the Demon Called Drag'

After the session at the school, a visit to the fishermen in the port was in order.  Having young Ghanaian's who are succeeding in the Aviaiton Industry and with high standards of safety, we have found that they have a real talent in getting peoples attention and changes in attitudes.

One fisherman/boat operator admitted to overloading his vessel - the first step towards changing habits.  He spoke well and had an understanding of nautical miles, compass headings, and more - and holds potential to be a contact person in the future.  Others, took less interest, until Patricia started her 'LOVE' speech.  Let us be honest, when a young lady stands up and says to a group of chaps 'I want to talk to you about LOVE'  it is an attention grabber!

As the yam crates from the vessel were loaded next to our makeshift classroom, Patricia expounded, at length and with every ear wide open, her policy of LOVE your boat, LOVE your plane, LOVE your port, LOVE your environment and swung minds away from any other concept of LOVE as she likened planes, boats, cars, tractors, yam crates and the very fabric of the port to being their children - children that they should love and take care of - not abuse and risk the very existence of.  The message hit home and may just save some lives in the future.

From there, we set off on a tight schedule to see the airstrip at Kete Krachi.  This strip was created before the flooding of the lake, and re-located to its current location.  A strip that is ‘almost use-able’.  A strip which has not seen an air-plane regularly land there for many years. Only 200km from Akosombo, it takes around twenty hours by boat or twelve hours by road – or less than two hours by air, in a small plane.

The Avtech Girls, Patricia and Erin walked the length of the strip whilst Capt. Yaw complained about his knees.  The community of Kete Krachi is aware of the airstrip and would like to see it returned to service.  The school children are bright and full of life and were ready to learn more about aviation and the exciting potential that it could hold for their community.  The Director of Education was ready to assist in the creation of aviation clubs.  The DCE was open to discussion and ready to see the facility returned to useable status. 
Therefore, we see no reason why the airfield could be returned to useable status with less than one day’s manual labour.  About ten small shrubs to uproot, some dried grasses to be burnt off, bundles of sticks removed, some metal barriers stacked nicely and a serious FOD walk (to remove loose stones, rubbish and items that should not be on the strip).  There is the need to stop people and cows crossing the strip, as well as to stop the ‘driving practice’  thereon.  All of these can be achieved easily with the support of the District, community leaders and the schools in a matter of weeks.  Thus, it is conceivable that Kete Krachi Airstrip could be useable this year, if they make the appropriate applications to GCAA and all inspections and approvals go through smoothly.  Kete Krachi holds the potential to be a very happy airfield and one that could be used to support the work on Bilharzia around the lake admirably - probably as a refuelling base, moving drums up on the ferry, subject to approvals and arrangements.

Tired, but happy with the days event we slept early, rose early and hit the three kilometres of tarmac that lay between the port and the next 200km of what is called road to the town of Yendi.  This is an important route for the many subsistence farmers - and it is no more than a corrugated dirt track that can only safely be travelled on at low speed.  Of course, many travel at high speed, tip over, skid off, maim or kill themselves and others - but the road is not good.  We took 7 hours or an average of 28km/hr (17.5mph).  It was tough on the vehicle, our bodies and the temperaments of all on board.  Especially when the air-con went out and the dust came in the windows in large plumes turning bodies reddish brown.

Although many parts look nice, they are simply 'corrugated' and it is like turning your car into a mobile massage parlour - jiggling and bumping, ashtray falling out, panels coming loose and tempers fraying as you dare not go above 30km/hr for risk of losing a body panel - or as one passenger complained ' losing an organ'.  If a pregnant person in need of care were carried on that road, early delivery or miscarriage would be a serious concern, and that is without exaggeration.

As you drive past the pedestrians you cover them in red dust, their noses, mouths, ears and clothes lined with the fine particles of latterite.  But they smile and wave just the same, in the moment before they dissappear in your wake.

Arriving two punctures later in Tamale, we seek respite in a small guest house.  Another early night as we leave early the next morining and need to try to fix the aircon, both tyres and find supplies for the next few days.    We fix the tyres, the aircon and find supplies, and as we drive out of the city of the North, the engine quits and wont start.  

A few hours later we have found a man who has solved the electrical short, caused by an incident at the Military hospital last week.  Our electrician finally gets us on the road six hours later than we had hoped for.
We drive over the White Volta river and turn, once again, onto the 'roads from hell'.  Backs tired, noses full and only 86km to go  - a mere three hours of dodging high speed idiots who have no respect for the value of life dirt skidding as if in a rally along another badly presented transit route, on our way to Mole Game Reserve.

 Before you reach the reserve, there is plenty to see, including donkey carts,

Cattle crossing (you can see the corrugated surface in this image) - where they appear out of the long, dry grasses without notice, waiting not for your skid on the loose surface to complete before they turn and look at you disdainfully and

Guinea Fowl flocks, wild, domestic or perhaps 'combination' dance like old ladies with their bustles well formed as they bob along trying to avoid becoming 'flat-fowl-road-kill'.
 Mole Game Reserve is in the Northern Region of Ghana.  Mole is fantastic – a national resource established in 1957 and improved to an acceptable standard today.   Mole has spectacular views and is a must see for those who have not seen it.  Elephants, bush-buck, hartebeest, buffalo, baboons, kob,  dyker, baboons, velvet monkeys, wart-hogs, crocodiles and so, so much more are there to see in their natural environment, splendid beyond belief. 

In the mid 1990’s Mole had an airstrip built.  A nice, safe and very useable resource.  Today, in order to return the resource to a useable state would only take a few good hard working folks a couple of days, and although not perfect, it would be a safe and useable resource.  When approached about the strip, the immediate reaction of ‘Mr A’ the ‘number two big man’ on site was ‘it is all about money’, followed swiftly by ‘it is not our responsibility’ and ‘it is the fault of the Government of Ghana’ and ‘go tell the Forestry Commission people in Accra’.  This reaction and the lack of interest in their own resources only convinces me that Mole strip is, at this time, a lost cause.  I know that a few years ago a Minister of Tourism landed on the strip – for which it was cleared - and I know that it could be maintained easily.  But it is evident that, despite the genuine interest shown by the competent and welcoming game wardens lower down the command, there are those who see ‘gimme money’ and ‘not my problem’ coupled with ‘blame the government’ who will ensure that this resource is not one we can rely on as a safe place to develop.  For even if we get it safe today, tomorrow the ‘money and blame game; will be underway.  It was interesting when a verbal attack was made on our American Aviation visitor, Det Erin Nolan, with ‘you would not maintain your facility [in the USA] without extra pay’, to which the reply was ‘of course we do – it is OUR facility, our safety and for us.’

There is, sadly, a lot of ignorance about the facts that outside of the developing nations people are expected, and expect of themselves, to ensure their own facilities and community assets are maintained, since they know that their Governments are not going to step in to help.  So, for Mole, a very sad tale of a neglected runway that could have been used for many opportunities, an investment that will probably rot and wither for lack of a better understanding and approach.    Before we went to bed... we had to change another tyre... just to keep our hands in!

As we drove away we saw a number of accidents, which convinced me - along with the pain in my back and knees from the state of the roads - that I would not be returning to Mole for a number of years - because either the road needs fixed or the runway put into order - neither of which are on the cards.  This is very sad, because the communities around the game reserve are very poor - and they need Humanitarian Aviation Logistics, which could be run from the tourist centre at Mole.  Sadly, we cannot make efforts where efforts are not wanted - both in word and in action.  So, Mole will remain on the back burner for a few more years.

We headed further south to our Aviation Club Capital, Techiman. Wilfred and Aysitu Owen have a school there with over 100 children in Aviation clubs - and we are always asked to speak to the children when in the area - by air or by road.  If we come by air, they bus the children to the airstrip - a marked contrast to the previous days visit!!!
So, Captain Yaw led two half-day presentations.  One on the internal combustion engine - making children into cylinders and pistons, having 'air and fuel' sucked into their tummies, squeeeeeezing it, saying 'BANG' and then blowing the 'exhaust gases' out of their mouths!  The second presentation was on the purpose of Air Traffic Control and trust, involving children running up and down the make shift football field blindfolded with 'ATC' giving them instructions to avoid the 'mountain-benches' and 'thunderstorm-benches' that littered their route.  Of course, Patricia and Erin also gave their inspirational speeches too - and many children's eyes seemed as though they were going to pop out of their sockets as they listened to the aviators weaving their magic amongst their minds dreams and visions.

Techiman Airfield is relatively new, created by the Traditional Council with the assistance of many members of the community and the municipality.  School groups regularly carry out maintenance, FOD walks, and sensitisation of the population. The community is sponsoring one of its own young ladies, Juliet, towards learning to fly and to learn more about aircraft engineering.  The Chiefs of Techiman have a great deal of aspirations for their airfield.  They can see that it can be more than a few hundred meters of dirt strip, and have designated enough land to make the facility a viable competitor to Kumasi and Sunyani as the private aviation sector grows – and they are independent, unlike the Ghana Airports Company Limited facilities.  Techiman has a great deal going for it.  The people are interested in Aviation.  Chiefs come to the airfield to greet arriving aircraft and the community demonstrates its interest for aviation developments in a proactive, non-partisan and responsible manner.  Techiman airfield will continue to grow and we hope that soon an aircraft will be based there - for it will really boost the young people to see an aircraft flying on a regular basis - and they all know 'Weight, Lift, Thrust and the Demon of Drag' as well as 'Induction, Compression, Combustion and Exhaust', and the have the concept of ATC and trust.  Not a bad achievement in any part of the world!

On one afternoon the girls visited the 'largest Market in West Africa' which is Techiman's claim to fame, and the other afternoon we braved another bumpy road to the Boabeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, where monkeys and humans live together in almost harmony.  Colobus and Mona Monkeys 

These monkeys (about 2,000 of them) live with the people in the rain forest, and when a monkey dies it is given a funeral as if it were a human.  The monkeys have no fear of humans and drop out of the trees for any snacks that you may offer.  For all of the team this was magnificent - but especially for Lydia who made friends with the Mona monkey at the monkey cemetety - a monkey took her hand and would not let go at one point - so very gentle and a demonstration of how humans and nature can live together in harmony.

Both for visitors to Ghana and for those of who live here, visits to these places are a rare treat, and we are pleased to have shared them with you.  The people of rural Ghana have many needs, so many needs, and although we normally see those needs from the air, it is good for the soul to do a road trip - albeit not good for the car or passengers - to gain a little more 'first hand' experience of the daily transport struggle they go through.

And as all trips must come to an end, we thank all of our hosts and especially Aysitu (pictured in the middle below) who took us all into her home, and adopted us as her children, along with the several hundred others she cares for!  We were all sad to leave for the 'good' road home and posed for a last minute group photo... 

From left to right: Ciara, Emmanuella, Juliet, Aysitu, Capt. Yaw, Patricia, Lydia and Erin - the intrepid road travellers before leaving Techiman.

If you are interested in sponsoring a young person from Kete Krachi or Techiman please let us know, we hope to take another young person from Techiman in September and one or two from Kete Krachi, funds and suitable candidates permitting.

Watch out for more news on our Bilharzia project, data towards which this trip provided a great deal.
Thanks to Erin Nolan for her patience with the roads, the car, the breakdowns and the many challenges along the way! (Erin is with us for a few more weeks and will be bloging her own versions of these events!)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Back Home in Kpong and Getting to Know the Fulani’s

Submitted by Erin Nolan

The 10 day road trip came to an end after a scenic and uneventful 8 hour drive from Techiman back to Kpong. It was approximately 450 km back to the airfield and it was decided to side step Kumasi to avoid being stuck in traffic. This route allowed us to enjoy the view of the rolling hills, valleys, and different views of the lake. Ghana is a very beautiful country with so much potential but it wasn’t hard to notice that the flood waters from the previous rainy season didn’t recede to normal levels as of yet. I have a feeling this tower wasn’t built in the water like this picture depicts.

Worth someone’s concern? Maybe? What will happen during the next rainy season?
 The route took us through basically “good road” we even hit a stretch of ”brand new road” and we all arrived in one piece and by some miracle the car still had all major parts intact. It was a relief to know we made it back to our destination but my instincts tell me our vehicle issues are far from over.
The next few weeks everyone’s focus was on three main goals; completing the roof on the Fulani Camp School, projects in the workshop, and getting ready for Fly Me Day. 
The Fulani’s are a nomadic tribe who settled very close to the farm house. We passed them every day to and from the airfield. Mathew has become very close to them and tries his best to provide guidance to them with whatever he can. Our first visit was a basic introduction and a chance for me to get an understanding of their way of life. They live completely off the land and handle livestock to make a living. Their children do not go to school and speak their own tribal language. I did find it interesting that one man also spoke French. Mathew explained that he had previously lived in the neighboring country of Burkina Faso where French influence is very high. Made me think of going back to refresh my French because it would have been nice to be able to communicate with him as well as Mathew did. I got a chance to see their homes; their livestock, the frame work of the new school, and meet their women and bright eyed kids.

Our visits were many over the rest of my stay. While we were on our road trip Mathew had taken one of the Fulani girls to the hospital for a bad infection in her hand and index finger. After looking in on her we saw that she needed follow up medical care.

We came by two days later with nurse Lydia from VRA.  She spoke to mostly the women of the tribe and tried to explain the importance of hygiene and getting medical attention. She also discussed the benefits of seeing the doctor so something simple doesn’t turn into a major health concern. Proper nutrition and the soon to be built school were also big topics of the day.

I took the older kids aside to give everyone a chance to talk without the kids distracting the women from the important discussion. I learned they already knew some English words like eye, nose, ear and mouth. So I jumped into the tough ones like arm, elbow, finger, hand, and stomach. I haven’t had too much experience teaching little kids but I’m hoping they couldn’t tell!

These kids hang on every word and are really starving for knowledge. They are so smart and just need someone to take the time to teach them the basics. I am also beginning to notice that the women are the ones taking care of everything. It seems most of the men enjoy their afternoon under the shaded tree while the women are working extremely hard on all the major chores.

Looks like Nurse Lydia is giving them a piece of her mind! I have to admit I enjoyed knowing she wasn’t happy either.

Our next visit was the day the roof was completed on the Fulani school. Cindy the Av Tech English teacher will be spending one day a week in the Fulani school once it is completed and Rex and Melissa had arrived and came along on the visit as well. Mr. Solo and Benard went to work while we all hung out with kids. Cindy sang songs with them, Rex and Melissa were taking photos and entertaining the kids and I tried to get them to write their ABC’s.

By the end of the day the roof was complete and soon all of the kids will have a place to start their education.

As you can see this little one’s finger is really in need of some medical attention.

 Since there had been no improvement Mathew decided it was time to make sure she got back to the doctor. He spent almost an entire day at the hospital and after an x-ray it was determined that her finger was both broken and infected.
This is just one girl in a huge country and there are so many people all over Ghana who could benefit from MOM’s services. She is lucky because she is close to a hospital and had a kind soul like Mathew to give the family some direction. Twice a day for the next week he stopped in to make sure she got the correct medicine and dosage at the correct time. These visits for me were a huge eye opener of how much something like MOM can change their lives.
I can’t wait to see how these kids do in school and maybe one day get to say to them how happy I was to meet them and share their way of life.