A Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym) C-40 plane departed from the Military Transport Air Command in Bogota on February 11th and landed in the municipality of Albania in full Jemial season. Jemial means drought in the Wayúu language. As a result, it was hot. At times the heat rose above 42 degrees Celsius. Such high temperatures can make most people sluggish and drowsy, but not the 35 passengers who stepped off the aircraft to work for two days without break or relief in the Colombian Air Force’s first series of Development Assistance Days for 2017 in Alta Guajira, Colombia.
A full team of specialists — professional officers from the 3rd Air Combat Command Reserves — arrived to provide medical care in pediatrics, gynecology, general medicine, dentistry, optometry, and respiratory therapy for the indigenous peoples of the Wareware and Pirulumana reservations. The Wayúu ethnic group occupies 15,000 square kilometers and represents 50 percent of the total population in the department of La Guajira.
Children, a priority for the FAC
The most common medical problems seen among the close to 1,500 children and adults at the premises of the Development Assistance Day included skin, respiratory, vision, dental, and dehydration issues, as well as congenital heart disease. Sixty-eight percent of patients were children, and 45 percent of them, between the ages of one and 10, showed signs of malnutrition, undoubtedly the most widespread condition among the infant population.
Malnutrition is is a problem that FAC specialists have tried to counteract through discussions with the young women of the tribes. “But because of the ancestral heritage, it will take quite some time for us to be able to change this,” said Major Andrea Carolina Archila Álvarez, deputy director of the Integral Action Department of the FAC, who has prior experience at four such assistance days in these communities.
The situation that the Wayúu community faces with sanitation, poverty, and isolation is quite precarious; several of the beneficiaries have never been seen by a healthcare professional.
Recognized as one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations, the Wayúu is the most populous indigenous group in Colombia. According to the most recent census in 2005, the population was 270,413, or 20 percent of the country’s indigenous people. Ninety-seven percent of the population speaks the traditional language, wayuunaiki, while 32 percent speaks Spanish. Sixty-six percent have never received any kind of formal education.
Maj. Archila told Diálogo that for the FAC, these Development Assistance Days are no longer just about healthcare. “We have found that the vulnerable populations we visit have a wide range of needs, so we are bringing in ever more qualified personnel to deliver concrete solutions to the problems faced by these people, who are thousands of kilometers away from places where they can access services.” Maj. Archila also noted that none of the specialists from the FAC Reserves charge fees for their work during the assistance days.
Other specialists from the FAC Reserves traveled with the group of health care professionals to answer questions from the community. They included legal experts as well as representatives from government entities, such as the Colombian Institute for Family Wellbeing, among others.
The Department of Integral Action of the FAC is responsible for coordinating the activities. In 2016, they performed 69 missions in different parts of the country. Another 75 are scheduled for 2017.
Assistance days are one of Integral Action’s most emblematic tools for community integration and service. However, their objective is even larger, deeper, and more strategic. This is where structuring and implementing fruitful projects and forging strategic alliances originate.
“To the extent that we use sustainable alternatives to keep crime, drug trafficking, woeful healthcare services, the lack of infrastructure, and unemployment under control, we stimulate development and create living conditions that keep the population away from illicit activities,” said Maj. Archila, a pilot who, having flown many times to these vulnerable areas, became committed to their needs and transferred to the Integral Action Department, making the irreversible decision to put all of her experience at the service of these consolidation efforts. “These non-combat efforts that we are undertaking is what will really create long-term changes,” she added.
Another equally important issue is strategic partnerships, which are an integral part of the programmed activities. The FAC knows it cannot go it alone, that it needs joint buy-in with others to roll out solutions. “During this Development Assistance Day with the Wayúu community, we had strong collaboration from government and private entities which brought in useful things such as school supplies, clothes, and personal hygiene products,” Second Lieutenant Jeison Alexander Blanco Mejía, chief of Organizational Communications for the 3rd Air Combat Command Division, told Diálogo.
To get the communities to attend the health screenings, the FAC advertises in three ways. It uses its own radio stations and also partners with local stations, which is one of the most effective ways of communicating with vulnerable populations.
The second way is through mayors’ offices and health departments in towns where the activities are scheduled. They rely on door-to-door distribution of flyers to get the word out. The third tool is social networks.
“[Community leaders] are heroes without a cape. Their living conditions are precarious, but they are passionate about helping their communities,” 2nd Lt. Blanco said. “Their teamwork for Development Assistance Days coordinated by the FAC is very important.”
During these assistance days, which run for more than 12 hours a day, military health professionals provide care to anyone who shows up. In 2017 the FAC will hold three more development assistance exercises in La Guajira. The team from the Department of Integral Action will remain active while planning, looking for resources, finding solutions, and processing medicine donations that mostly come from the United States. “Military is a synonym for service and Air Force planes are wings of hope for these communities,” Maj. Archila concluded.