August 28

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Air evacuation in Mandera

Part 1

Last week after spending the day at GSK’s Nairobi offices, I received a call on my mobile just as I was going to bed. For my phone to ring at any time is an unusual occurrence given the only people who have my number are my work colleagues and the drivers I use. I figured neither would be calling for an idle chat at 10.30 at night.

It was Catherine, my manager. A 19 year old man from Mandera County, North East Kenya, had been shot and was in need of evacuation. While most of the flights for AMREF Flying Doctors are for tourists or members who have paid annual insurance, there are a select number of occasions where evacuations are performed for free, typically when the patient concerned meets certain social, medical and financial criteria. This was one such occasion. I was invited to join the flight so I could write about it in marketing and fundraising materials.

I confirmed my availability and called for a driver to pick me up so I could get to the airport in time for the 7am departure. Mandera is just over 1100kms from Nairobi but travelling in a Cessna Caravan the trip takes us close to three hours.

Outskirts of Mandera town

Outskirts of Mandera town

Flying in the early hours of the morning evokes a certain stillness in mind and body. As a guest passenger I was left to sit back and watch the world float by. It was a hypnotic journey past the dusty bedlam of Nairobi, over Wajir County and into Mandera.

The landscape changed as we traveled north into the tiny far corner of Kenya, bordered closely by Somalia and Ethiopia. It reminded me a little of outback Australia. Red, barren and desolate.

I scratched around in my imagination trying to picture what life would be like living here. Gazing out the window, the odd isolated village captured my attention and snapped me back to reality. Poignant reminders that as distant and unbelievable as things may appear, for some people this is home.

There isn’t much to Mandera and even less to its airport. There is no check-in counter, no air traffic control. No building even. In fact, there is barely a runway. Mandera airport is nothing more than a concrete pivot circle and some bunkers.

Amidst hot, dusty wind the flight nurse and doctor immediately set about assessing the state of the patient as I lingered awkwardly in the background and made small talk with one of the soldiers on duty. I tried to keep enough distance to give the patient privacy while still keeping an ear out for details that may indicate how he came to need our help.

Transferring to the patient on to the plane at Mandera airport

Transferring the patient on to the plane at Mandera airport

But with the patient not speaking English or Swahili and none of the crew speaking his tribal language, the details never came. Given the history of the area it is likely this was a tribal dispute. I’d like to think it wasn’t something more sinister but in Mandera even the most extreme scenarios are a possibility.