Remote Malawian community sees a drone for the first time

Children watch a drone demonstration in Thipa village, Kasungu
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

By Doreen Matonga, UNICEF Malawi

The central meeting place of of Thipa village, in Malawi’s Kasungu Province, was a hub of activity as the buzzing sound of a drone drew a crowd of curious onlookers. As a hard to reach rural village, Thipa stands to benefit from the enhanced transportation, connectivity and imagery that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, can bring.

A mobile broadcast vehicle drove around the surrounding area, with a loudspeaker system calling people to come to the venue. Young and the old alike made their way to the open space, surrounded by houses and tobacco drying sheds.

As well as the drone flight itself, experts from the Ministry of Civic Education were ready with a drama performance. They explained what a drone is, its importance and how they could potentially help in the development of the country.

It was clear that for some people, this was their first time seeing a drone. Others they had seen one a few months before: it was taking pictures at a wedding of one of the ‘rich men’ near their village. There’s no word for drone in the local language Chichewa, so people call it ‘kandege kakang’ono’, which translates as ‘small plane’.

Rhoda Nkhambule holds a drone, following the demonstration in Thipa village
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

As Chief Air Traffic Controller Steve Mkandawire, launched the ‘small plane’ to the amazement and applause of the people that gathered to watch this new technology, Rhoda, a mother of two, remembers the number of times that her children have missed their vaccinations.

“I am so excited to see the small plane flying in my village, I never knew this would happen in our community,” says Rhoda Nkhambule, 41, with a smile. “Our biggest problem is transportation of medical supplies from the health centre to our village.”

Thipa village is 19 kilometres from the nearest Health Centre, Dwangwa. The only ways to get there are by bicycle or walking for a minimum of 4 hours. If Rhoda needs to go to Kasungu District Hospital, she walks 6km to the main road, where she pays K600 for a local taxi.

“I know how important vaccinations are to our children,” Rhoda continues. “Medical staff tell us that children have to receive their vaccination on time, but our children can only receive vaccinations once a month because we are so far from the health centre. If they miss it, they have to wait for the following month, putting them at risk of catching diseases.”

A drama performance during the drone demonstration in Thipa village
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

The long walk

Problems with access and transportation of medical supplies to Thipa village do not only affect women and young children who access the village health clinic. Older children, have to travel19 kilometres to get treatment at Dwangwa. Misozi Phiri, 12, also hopes that drones can help change her life.

“It’s a long distance to Dwangwa,” Misozi says. “My parents prefer to go to Kasungu when we have money. But when we don’t, we have to walk. It’s a long walk especially when you’re sick.”

“They say that the small plane can carry items from one place to another,” she continues. “I hope it can take my blood sample from here and bring back results and medicine, without having to walk the long distance. Sometimes I don’t tell anyone I’m sick because I don’t want to walk the long distance.”

Misozi Phiri, 12, sometimes hides her illness to avoid walking to the health centre
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

Group Village Head Thipa is amazed at how fast technology is developing. “Seeing the small plane flying in my area is a symbol of development and a sign of good things yet to come,” he says. “People here struggle with transport, especially during the rainy season.

“It is also difficult to get a phone signal in this area,” he adds. We have had cases of children dying due to failure to make a simple phone call to request for transport. We are people that are forgotten. We hope these small planes can change our story.”

As the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and after much ululation, clapping of hands and excitement, it was time for Steve to land the drone. Having listened to the questions the community asked, it is clear that the people of Thipa village have hopes and expectations bigger than the size of a drone.

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