Theo Rammelkamp is a pilot for children’s aid organization Terre des Hommes. In the province Turkana in the rugged north of Kenya, he flies medical personnel to tribes who are deprived of any kind of care. He also picks up wounded people from conflicts about cattle and takes patients to clinics. Photojournalist Bart Coolen visited the dutch pilot for two weeks, who has lived with his wife in Kenya since 2008.
The problems in this part of Africa are overwhelming. A four year-old girl who is crying from pain when urinating because she has been raped by her drunken grandfather. Mothers who give their babies a home-brewed beverage with 45 percent alcohol “because then they sleep well and do not cry from hunger”. A smart girl who sees her chances of a follow-up study vanish because her friend has infected her with HIV. Emaciated bodies of tuberculosis. Children living on the streets after their parents have died of AIDS and the rest of the family is drinking. Tribal wars where cattle are robbed because it increases the status of young men and is very suitable as dowry. Add to that the drought, poor roads, bad state of education and the disinterest of politicians for this part of the country and you hardly know where to start.
“Camels on the airstrip!” pilot Theo Rammelkamp (29) yells above the noise of the engine. At the last moment, the landing is cancelled. In an attempt to expel the herd, the plane makes a dive, just over the heads of the camels who slowly walk away from the airstrip. Moments later, the Cessna-206 lands on the ultra-short runway, in the middle of the inhospitable northern part of Kenya. No wonder the Kenyans call this the “badlands”. The area, roughly twice the size of the Netherlands, consists of endless sandy plains and dry riverbeds. Only a few days a year the river is filled with water. This is the country of the Turkanas, tough nomads who live with their goats and camels.
Terre des Hommes supports a medical program in Turkana by flying nurses and medicines to the remote and inaccessible areas by air. Boxes full of medicines and vaccinations appear from the abdomen of the plane. Two local nurses flew in a table under one of the few trees, right next to the runway. There is nobody. “Wait,” says Theo. “It will be busy within an hour”. And indeed, warned by the sound of the plane, people arrive from all directions just a little later. Women with chains from neck to chin, children in rumpled rags or even naked. They sit on the ground, where a tree gives some shelter against the heat. The nurses weigh the babies, put the vaccines with a venomous prick and distribute medicines. The sisters accept the fact that part of the penicillin provided is used for the sick goats. In the meantime it is a lot of fun. Also in nomadic tribes there is a need to exchange the latest gossip. A quarter of the children show serious malnutrition. Some women undergo an AIDS / HIV test on site that is not favorable for most people.
Flying in this uncontrolled airspace requires special skills from the pilot. There is no air traffic control, no weather information, no windsock to indicate the wind direction. Clear navigation points are missing, below everything looks alike. Theo: “The runways are very short. Moreover, you never know what you find. I have already experienced that the tribes had dug a channel across the strip. If you end up in it, the propeller will hit the ground and the whole engine can fail. ” The fact that flying is not entirely without risk turned out a few years ago when a former pilot from Terre des Hommes came back from an evacuation at night. Due to a power outage, all lights at Lodwar airport had failed. Mobile communication was also not possible. In an attempt to find the lane, the plane came too close to the ground, a pole that hit a hole in the wing hit. The plane hit the head and landed in the river. The pilot brought it off perfectly unscathed. This time too, our accidents and tribal wars continue to be saved. At the end of the afternoon we land safely in the dusty and sweltering town of Lodwar. “Welcome to Lodwar”, Theo laughs when we have a beer in the evening at the Miami Neighborhood Club. “You have to love the African atmosphere. First and foremost, I have a good time and I also do good work for others. If you only come here to do a good job, but the rest of the circumstances are not good, it will not work. It makes a huge difference that I live here with my wife Kaby and daughter Caitlin. They are my outlet. I also love the freedom of flying. That is very different from civil aviation where everything is bound by rules. Here, as a pilot, you are completely dependent on yourself. Working in this part of Africa can be hard. Especially the medical evacuations stay with you. I once picked up a 12-year-old boy who was in bad shape. In such cases you really make the difference between life and death “.
To organizations like Terre des Hommes the challenge to improve this. It does so with the support of projects set up by local organizations for children, with the emphasis on education and health. “The situation of children is often poignant,” Monique Janssens of Terre des Hommes in Nairobi says. “In the end people will have to do it themselves, but the country is not yet that far. From a kind of survival strategy there is a every-for-mentality here. It takes a while before a culture change is reached to the shoulders underneath “.
– Terre des Hommes focuses on helping children in 14 developing countries;
– In Africa, the organization with 92 projects is active in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya;
– The projects are carried out by local partners;
– Some 187,000 children receive direct help in the form of education, medical care and care in the event of exploitation and (sexual) abuse;
– The flight project in Turkana has been running since 2005;
– The aircraft is used for medical clinics and for evacuations of the sick and wounded, to the district hospital in Lodwar.
Bart Coolen is a freelance journalist and photographer and member of the International Federation of Journalists.