Normally, hard times bring people, organizations, and governments together, helping and supporting each other. This was also the case recently in Malawi, where the tropical storm “Freddy” hit with full force in the middle of March 2023. More rain fell in six days than usually does over a period of six months. Unfortunately, approximately 1,000 people died because of the many floods and landslides. Around 660,000 people became homeless and/or were cut off from the outside world and isolated.
Mercy Air, which is stationed in South Africa, was immediately able to provide a helicopter and received a flight permit within a few days thanks to their good connections with the Malawi government. As a result, Mercy Air could offer immediate help between March 24th and April 16th in a very uncomplicated way. Aside from fixed-wing aircraft, Mercy Air also operates helicopters, just like Helimission. The Foundation Mercy Air Switzerland is financially and operationally responsible for these helicopters. The driving force behind this is the former Helimission employee Matthias. Because both Helimission as well as Mercy Air operate the same Airbus AS-350 helicopters, whenever possible, we have been helping each other out for some time now.
Both organizations lack enough professional staff; especially helicopter mechanics. Mercy Air was not able to provide enough staff for all of the three weeks, which is why the idea came up that I could help out in Malawi for 12 days. I was formerly an active pilot and mechanic myself, but today, as technical manager of Helimission, I mainly work only in the office. That is why I was grateful for this change and to be on the front lines again, as well as that Helimission was able to help Mercy Air this way.
Specifically, Mercy Air was able to help the southern Malawi city of Blantyre with the distribution of around 45 tons of cornmeal and soybeans. We focused on small villages behind the eastern flank of the Mulanje mountain range bordering neighbouring Mozambique, an area that had been badly affected by landslides. I supported Matthias by getting the helicopter ready in the morning, ensuring refuelling and loading during the day and getting the helicopter ready again in the evening. That way, Matthias was free to deal with the relief organizations about the villages he had to fly to, as well as the actual flight planning. Being a small team, we were able to work much more efficiently and carry out at least 1/3 more flights during the course of this operation.
This unbureaucratic cooperation between Helimission and Mercy Air is characteristic of the way in which people should work together in difficult times. This is even more the case for disaster relief, because in such situations, immediate help is the first priority. Interestingly, the Malawi government used the local expression “Tigwirane Manja” for the aid following hurricane Freddy. This can be translated into something like “hand in hand”, but actually means cooperation. The government already set a good example by providing the helpers with fuel, road transport, accommodation and food as well as a small team to assist. This was a very positive and encouraging experience for both Mercy Air as well as Helimission, as both organizations have experienced the complete opposite in other countries. It was also fascinating to experience how the Malawian government institutions such as the army and the Ministry for Disaster Aid worked hand in hand with civilian UN organizations such as UNICEF, WFP, OCHA, but also with secular organizations such as the Red Cross as well as Christian organisations like Mercy Air and World Vision, in order to help out the local population. That is how the motto “Tigwirane Manja” was tangibly lived out.
Adrian, International Technical Manager