What comes to mind when you hear these words: humanitarian organization, aid group, missionary pilot, relief mission? I imagine a group of Westerners funded with big money and truckloads of donated goods entering into an area of poverty and devastation, and providing much-needed help that will last as long as the supplies, funding and interest allow. I imagine photographs of sad children with puffed-out bellies due to malnutrition, and stations where the organizations are handing out secondhand jackets and canned goods. Although all of these efforts are good and save many lives, are they long-term sustainable solutions? What happens when the crisis is over, and the support goes away?
This winter, I received an email from a gentleman named Jonathan Porter titled “Inspiration to Africa,” telling me about a young girl from Ghana who walked out of the African Bush one day asking for a job. She was tasked with pulling weeds and stumps by hand alongside the men who were clearing an area for Kpong Airfield’s first runway. Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi, 18, went from living in a mud hut to building her own aircraft, and becoming the first female to hold the Ghanaian National Pilots License at age 22. This didn’t all happen overnight, but it happened in what I’ve come to call “African Time.”
Porter first moved his family from Europe to Ghana nearly 17 years ago, and with him, he brought his light-sport aircraft, a Zenith CH 701, and a dream for aviation in Ghana. He said to me, “A pilot would have to be blind not to see the potential and need for general aviation in West Africa. It’s like Alaska without the snow.”
Ghana has the largest man-made lake in the world called Lake Volta. Along with this lake came large dams providing more power than the country’s current power infrastructure can handle. Everywhere you look, you can see high-tension power lines running over mud-hut villages that are still lacking electricity and running water. As I write this article, I’m in Kpong, Ghana, near the airfield, using power from a generator. In addition to dams, the lake has brought rising water, resulting in extensive flooding and prime conditions for diseases, including malaria, cholera, typhoid and, above all, schistosomiasis (more commonly known as bilharzia). Most of these communities are farming and fishing villages with no road access to the outside world. That’s where the Porter family comes in with the creation of Medicine on the Move (M.O.M.).
With the development of general aviation in Ghana and the permission to operate floatplanes on Lake Volta comes a sort of “air highway” to these remote villages. Porter and his son Matthew have worked extensively with the authorities over the years, crossing one bridge at a time to make this dream a possibility. They helped to create the Ghanaian National Pilots License to teach Ghanaians how to fly and to build Ghanaian-registered aircraft. They’ve worked to set up a system to allow the building and usage of general aviation airports, a process they’ve gotten down to “only” two years. You might be thinking, why the hassle? Why not just bring in pilots, supplies and aircraft from the outside world? Why not just give the medicine to these villages? The answer is in the approach taken on by M.O.M., in that understanding culture is essential to bringing about change to the rural areas of the developing world. Through many years of living in the Ghanaian bush, the M.O.M. leadership team is in touch with the needs and understands the methods for long-term change, not just short-term headlines.
Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi is the poster child for what M.O.M.’s mission is in Ghana. She’s Ghanaian, and she’s now teaching other young Ghanaian women to become aircraft engineers and pilots. M.O.M’s mission is to train the young women of Ghana, so that they can one day fly the aircraft that they’ve built into the villages from which they came, and take with them inspiration and education. Through teaching basic first aid to people and educating them in reading and writing, many problems will be stopped before they begin. If not treated properly, a simple cut can result in an amputation, because the basic understanding that you need to clean a wound isn’t even there. Drinking clean water and avoiding bathing or going to the bathroom in the lake will prevent bilharzia. (There’s a pill to cure bilharzia. However, if within two weeks after taking the pill a child drinks lake water, the disease will return, and the cycle goes on.) If antibiotics are given to a village where the population can’t read or write, or understand the importance of dosages, then the antibiotics may not be used properly. Education and prevention are the keys to long-term success.
The difference between the impact of an obruni (foreign white person) flying into a village with doctors and medication compared to the life-changing impact of a Ghanaian woman, flying and landing an airplane that she built, into a village of her own people, is everything. The message of health education will be listened to when it comes from a Ghanaian. Through example, these girls are empowering the villagers with the message that they themselves can make a difference. The reason M.O.M. is focused on women is because they’re more likely to remain in Ghana and help their country. They’ll pass on what they’ve learned. And yes, it will take time, but Medicine on the Move is changing lives, one flight at a time.
To view a trailer of their film, go to http://vimeo.com/21946586
Melissa Pemberton is a full-time air show performer in her Edge 540, and a former member of the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team. She’ll accompany Jonathan, Patricia and one of their students, Lydia, on M.O.M.’s first visit to the United States at EAA AirVenture. Melissa and her husband, Rex, have spent months filming the documentary The Calling about M.O.M. Visit www.sportsgal.com, www.rexpemberton.com and www.medicineonthemove.org.