27 September 2011

Meeting Benjamin

Sometimes things fall into place. It is very gratifying if the usual unfair chaos of the world is broken by a sensible line of actions, and suddenly life makes sense. I would like to share the unusual and highly improbable story of Benjamin and our trip to Ghana with you.

It all started when my friend Florian stumbled across a petition for help on the internet. After some research, he found that nothing at all had happened so far to improve the situation of Benjamin, a 35 year old painter from Accra who fell down from a table, hit the edge and broke some of his lower vertebrae. Not a problem in Germany to get an operation that fixes the problem and gets you back on your feet. But for a man from what I would call a slum in Africa, it usually means extreme suffering and eventually death, by infection, pain or starvation.

Benjamin was pushed out of his room - yes, even in slums the tiny huts are rented, and the landlady knew of course that she would not get any money from the man who could not work anymore. So he spent weeks in front of that place, lying on the ground, on a wooden bench, feeling excruciating pain. The reverend of the local church took pity and allowed Benjamin to lie beside the church under a roof, feeding him every now and then with left overs from his or others family. You can´t expect donations or help in a place where everybody fights for food and survival daily.

At some stage, a foreign doctor took pity on this torn man and took an xray, seeing that an operation was possible, but costs about 7000 €. He put the story on the internet where Florian found it. Florian contacted the doctor and also the Madamfo Ghana association in order to find out how to get help to Benjamin. At this time, Benjamin had already survived in this desperate state for over two years! With the help of some initial money and the Madamfo Ghana workers, Benjamin was getting pain killers and also was looked after with food and drink by the sisters of a local monastery.

Yet it was a long way to raise attention and money. Luckily, as a radio and TV presenter, Florian knew how to connect people and find a way to push for help. Dirk Walter wanted to help and set up a charity soccer game with the young girls of their soccer club - it took place during the time of the women´s world soccer cup. So Florian just contacted many German celebrities to play soccer against the girls and raise money to finance Benjamins operation and his rehabilitation. He also asked me to play on the team, but I was going to the hang gliding worlds. At least I thought so - a wrong step at a wrong time forced me to stay grounded for a while, so I could join in and help, at least as a referee on crutches at the side of the soccer field ;)

The outcome was overwhelming - and Benjamin got his operation, got back up to his feet, gets a new chance. But we wanted to know more, make a personal contact, go to Africa and meet Benjamin. I was lucky - Accra was my first work flight again after having been unable to fly for two months! I was able to take Florian and Tom with me at low cost - there is no point in wanting to help if you need just as much means to travel to see Benjamin as half of the income of donations was, so this way we could afford to meet Benjamin at a reasonable cost for us.

We were excited when Michael and Viktor from Madamfo Ghana came to pick us up and go to see Benjamin. I prepared the guys that it can be a while, even though the distance was barely 20 km, it will take hours and hours on end in the crazy traffic of Accra, where you just spend a lot of time waiting and waiting, breathing fumes from other cars, or the strange smells of decay, or - just sweat. It is almost always 35 C in the shade and nearly 100 % humidity, and of course the tiny old taxis have no AC. Yet I was happy that it didn´t start raining, as the cars run on very old tires that look like slicks to me, and if the red raw roads turn into red muddy rivers, it would take even longer for the jam to move anywhere.

It was not boring at all, as there was plenty of entertainment for us to see - constantly we were offered all kinds of things by people walking through the waiting cars, not just cassava chips, nuts and sweets, but also undies, sunglasses, tyres, water, juice and softdrinks, all kinds of car gear, old fish, collecting cards of some sort, ... most of the stuff carried on the head by elegant women moving through the lines of cars without hesitation. What a colourful mess! I wouldn´t have been surprised to also see fridges offered here, smoothly balanced by the strong women in their colourful traditional dresses. The nicest part - we always got a warm smile even though we did not really make use of the car shopping channel.

It felt like 3 hours later when we finally arrived at Benjamins place, located on the first floor in a decent, secure place. Not many possessions. A bed, very few clothes, a book and his medicine. In the middle of it Benjamin upright, his eyes wide open - his suprise when we finally meet is undescribable. These 3 guys from Germany just went to Accra to see him, to get to know him and spend two days of his life with him. To explain where all the help came from - that many people were involved and donated money on facebook, at the soccer game and privately. That a huge group of young girls stood up to help Benjamin. It was quite an impressive event, I wrote about it on my blog here.

Benjamin hugged us, took our hands and thanked us for all the help that finally eased his incredible suffering. He is skinny, with very thin but strongly built arms. Soon we know why - for years now when he had to move, he went on all fours on the ground, crawling like a lizard. The pain to stand up and walk was too big. He showed us how he moved along, and we just stared at each other, wondering if we only had the strength to survive a single month like that.

Benjamin is wearing a double corset and opens it to show us the neatly healed long scar. His x-rays show quite an amount of metal to hold his vertebrae in place. Bettina Landgrafe from Madamfo Ghana made sure that he was well looked after, got a good treatment and enough food and water. And she supported him, calmed him down whenever she was there - the personal contact made the greatest impression on Benjamin, to feel that somebody in the world really cares about him. He kept showing us the photo book that Dirk had sent to him so he could understand a little better what was going on. He pointed us out on every photo he could find and smiled, holding our hands or embracing us again and again, as if he wanted to check that we were real.

He keeps saying that God sent Florian as his angel to help him survive, and soon I was happy that Flo and Benjamin were in the centre of attention, as my eyes got pretty wet... Benjamin was so open, so emotional, so welcoming and - happy. "Look I walk again!" He kept saying, and then I told him that also I had to train hard to start walking and working again to bring the guys here. We were jumping and dancing with joy!

We went out for lunch with our little group and I was already looking forward to eat Fufu, a sticky dumpling made from Yam and Banana, and a vegetable soup. The people from Ghana really know how to cook great soups- it was a delicious meal. But Benjamin could hardly eat his plate full of rice and chicken. He was so excited, overwhelmed to sit at a table full of beautiful food with people from the other side of the world who had just decided to save his life. He was also very worried - would we just go away, now that the operation was successful?

We asserted that we would keep looking after him, help him to get fit, find a job to support himself. He didn´t look too sure about that.

Then we took off to see his old home area and where the accident happened. It was great to see Benjamin walk through the paths where he had spent more than two years lying down without much hope to ever recover. All the people who saw him and us came towards us and greeted Benjamin happily, with great surprise in their faces. And Benjamin´s smile grew again, now that he could walk again and show everybody that God looks after him. We met the reverend who had looked after Benjamin´s survival, but he also said how hard it is for everybody to survive in the camp of liberian refugees and poor people from the countryside.

I was amazed how strong he already is - he insisted on carrying our big camera bag for us and looked after it really well. He so much wants to work and give something back to us, very difficult to convince him that there is a time to take and a time to receive, and he first has to heal completely before he should give. And by the way, he already gave us much more than he can realize.

When we took him home, we promised to be back the next day. Another 2 hours later, we got back to our hotel, still being overwhelmed by so many impressions, emotions and thoughts.

The next day, Michael and Viktor took Benjamin to our hotel at Labadi Beach so we could spend a maximum time there with Benjamin and did not get stuck in traffic before I had to work on the flight back. Again we went for lunch together, asking more questions about his life and expectations. Suddenly Michael from Madamfo Ghana got up and delivered a speech that made a deep impact on us. He said that he only expected us for a brief visit of Benjamin and thought we then would be off for more travelling in Ghana. When he saw that this whole trip was only about Benjamin, he was absolutely impressed and felt honoured. He said by helping Benjamin, we help his "brother" and the whole people of Ghana and he feels very close to Germany and Germans, even more than before (Bettina Landgrafe is working like a local Mother Theresa for them). Michaels words were very kind and full of hope to make this world a better place when people care about each other. He loved the way we all interacted with each other, with so much respect, love and - fun! Benjamin is really funny and cracked one joke after the other when he finally managed to stop worrying. We were laughing our heads off. It felt good when Benjamin called me "sister" and called Flo and Tom "brothers".

Benjamin intends to open a shop once he is strong enough, to sell goods and support himself. He does not have wife or children, his old parents far away in the countryside are his only relatives. He said he would also like to spread the word of God in church, and every now and then he gave us an impressive sermon about how God and Jesus just performed this miracle to help him survive.

It was sad when we had to leave in the evening, but we could reassure Benjamin that this would not be our last meeting. We would find a way to come back, or - even better - get him over to Germany to play soccer with the girls who played only for him! He beamed when we mentioned that.

Full of impressions, more questions, but also some answers we went back home. Difficult to put these extremes into words.

Meeting Benjamin

We had an amazing time in Accra when we met Benjamin - he can walk again. And even jump. And live.

more pics and a full report soon

24 September 2011

Going South

When the temperatures fall and autumn arrives, it is not just time for the birds to prepare for the great journey to the warmer hemisphere. Also all kinds of pilots tend to pack their gear to find better flying conditions. When I saw this t-shirt, I thought it is perfect for us, just describes our way of life :)
I was lucky to get a flight to Ghana. It is hot and sunny in Accra, and there is a lot to tell and show you, as I had been preparing a help project. It all seems to work out perfect, more details when Im home in a few hours.

14 September 2011

Tonight on Radio Bremen TV

Tonight at 18.45 I will be in an interview on Radio Bremen TV, the show is called "Ansichten". We talked about hang gliding and the fascination of flying. They also show some flying footage. If the show gets online, I will link it for you.

08 September 2011

ZDF Volle Kanne Video

Yesterday on ZDF, one of the main German television channels, in the show "Volle Kanne" there was a nice video of Regina and me hang gliding together at Tegelberg. It is in German and you can watch it here. Good advertisement for our sport!
Meanwhile Primoz took over the lead in the pre Euros in Turkey. They have another 3 possible task days for the others to catch up with Primoz.

07 September 2011

Scores at pre Euro´s are up!

So finally we can see how the guys are flying in Kayseri, the scores are here! Thanks Jochen for posting the link. Suan is first, followed by Jochen, Primoz and Pedro. Looks like only 11 pilots flew all the tasks of the comp, which is a really poor participation. Yet this season was packed with the Worlds and other big comps during the season, and soon will continue with Forbes in Australia as the pre worlds, I guess that is why most pilots were shying away from the long and complicated trip to Anatolia. Sad for the organizers, they seem to do a good job on the local PR, getting a big audience and TV up for the event. Lucky for us that Jamie and Jochen do a good report for the rest of us pilots who could not get there for whatever reason - thanks guys!

06 September 2011

Inversion in Turkey

Looks like the spectators outnumber the pilots at the pre Euros in Kayseri, Turkey. I could not find any result list yet, but it seems like only Primoz, Jochen, Suan and Pedro are the non-Turkish pilots in this competition. On Jochen´s and Jamie´s blogs you will find more pictures and descriptions of the adventures.
They are fighting with a strong inversion layer, low base and a lot of wind. With only 300 m of height from launch to the main landing field, it seems easy to bomb out. It is ok for a small field of not many pilots, like they are now, but I hope conditions will improve for a probably bigger comp next year.
Suan won the first day with a distance of 48 km (out of an 80 km task), and Primoz won day 2, a 32 km task, with Suan being the only other pilot in goal.
The competition finishes Saturday when the guys will start again on their 3 day trip back to Austria by train. Until then, Im looking forward to seeing more pictures taken by Jamie and Jochen!

01 September 2011

Next: Pre-Euros in Kayseri

After Gary Wirdnam won the British Open, Luis Rizo became the new French Champion at St. André, Primoz Gricar won the Slovenian Open and Alexander Barvinskiy won the Russian Nationals in Askarov - with Julia Kucherenko becoming 2nd overall! - now a few guys are on their way to Turkey to compete at the pre Europeans. It is quite an ordeal for most pilots to get their equipment there, I guess that is why there are not many entries at all. Seems like they will be barely 20 pilots...
Flying into Istanbul with a glider is quite difficult, as there are not many airlines willing to take our luggage with them, and even if so, it gets hugely expensive. I just know from Lufthansa flights that the Airbus 320 operates flights to Turkey, and at the station from Frankfurt or Munich they don´t have much time to get complicated load into their belly.
So Primoz, Suan and Jochen took their own car and chose the long trip by car train from Villach to Turkey. Arriving after a few days, they will still have to drive 1000km in the country. Without local knowledge nor language it will be interesting to hear about their experiences on whether or not the road gps works in the Turkish countryside as well ;)