Sunday, 18 October 2015

A day with Helimission 

The hangar next door to MAF belongs to Helimission, a Swiss company that uses helicopters to reach people in remote and inaccessible places. Like MAF, they support local missionaries and pastors and bring medical assistance in the form of personnel, supplies and evacuations. One of the pilots, Chris Niederhรคuser offered me the chance to come with him into the bush, so I offloaded Bethan to the first willing person, which happened to be her mum, and gratefully accepted the invitation.

Bethan spent the day "helping" in the MAF office 

I was joining a flight to Androrangavola-tsienta (a small village near Marolambo, in amongst the rainforest) with a lady called Leonie who was visiting her team of bible translators and bringing them some food supplies and instruction for their work. It was expected that we would fly in, have lunch (if they could provide it) and fly back after an hour or two. Leonie first came to Madagascar in 1996 and first visited this village in 2006. She recruited the local pastor and other elders in the community to start translating the bible into the local language and Leonie herself, spent a lot of time in the village. After a while, Leonie felt uncomfortable about the pastor and his family moving out so she could stay in their house (wooden hut) each time she visited, so she built her own house in the village!


I was kindly given the front seat in the helicopter and given a few safety tips in the case of an emergency. Although I knew that helicopters take off vertically, it still took me by surprise as we lifted up into the air. I scanned all the dials and watched Chris expertly fly it, with worst-case scenarios of me having to take over flashing through my mind. I'm not a nervous flyer but the helicopter didn't look like it would glide very well so an engine failure would surely cause it to drop out the sky like a very heavy stone. Perhaps Chris is good at mind reading but once we were clear of Tana he reduced the altitude and showed us what would happen if the engine did fail. I was very impressed as he chose a nearby field and did a controlled (near) landing in front of some very surprised villagers. We flew over the edge of the “high plateau”, which covers a large portion of central Madagascar, after which the landscape changed from undulating red-brown barren land to dense rainforest and impressive waterfalls. 50 minutes after leaving Tana, we reached our destination and Chris landed the helicopter in front of the excited crowd of villagers.

Flying over the edge of the "high central plateau"

Local people watching the helicopter land

Leonie went to greet the people that know her so well and she was quickly made aware of the people who needed medical care. A lady with a very swollen abdomen (looked heavily pregnant but wasn't), a grandmother who had been unwell for a while and is caring for her young grandchild (her mother died in childbirth) and a young baby whose head was twice the size as you would expect, for her body size. Chris went off in search of high ground to try and phone MAF to arrange picking up these people from nearby Marolambo on their next visit. Leonie was very concerned about the baby so she, along with her parents would be accompanying us back to Tana later in the day.

Leonie and Chris speaking to the villagers

Leonie and I were made very welcome in the home of the pastor of the village and were joined by the men (identified by their smart but oversized suits) leading the team of translators. As we drank coffee, they discussed (in Malagasy) the bible translations that they had done and would do next and problems that had arisen.For lunch we sat on the floor of the hut and shared rice, a tasty but unidentified green sauce and an omelette/pancake. Chris had told me that he really likes the Malagasy food that he eats when staying out in the bush and I can see why. Leonie gave out the food supplies that she had brought from Tana and we returned to the helicopter. As we came with Leonie, who they know and respect, the people here know that “we” want to help them but I wondered how people in other remote villages feel when foreigners arrive in their strange flying machine!

Flying out of the village
At the helicopter Chris had employed some bouncers to keep the crowds away during take-off after a scary previous experience of children running under the helicopter just as it lifted off the ground. We got away safely and flew back to Tana with the sick child and her parents and an extra teenager who needed a lift! Apparently, extra journeys and extra passengers are all in a day's work for a Helimission pilot. It was a privilege to witness the great work that Leonie and Helimission were able to accomplish together for the people in this isolated place. And of course, it was great fun to ride in the helicopter!

Passengers squeezed into the back of the helicopter, going to Tana