We took off from an airstrip nestled between steep volcanic cliffs on one side and the pristine waters of Lake Kivu on the other. The weather was beautiful this time of year; clear blue skies and a crisp breeze that countered the usual 80-degree humidity in this tropical environment which boasts gorillas and rare flora unseen in other parts of the world. Our destination was the rural health district of Kitutu, the location of one of the hospitals we have been supporting and according to weekly UN security reports, one of the few sites deemed safe to land in with no recent reported raids by rebel soldiers, a common problem in this part of the country. My mind was far from marauding rebel soldiers as we climbed above 8000 feet and looked out on the fern-covered mountain peaks that dotted the countryside along the Congo-Rwanda border. We were in a MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) single engine Cessna Caravan that has proven invaluable in our mandate to support isolated and nearly impossible to reach health outposts. I was with fellow ABC missionary Wayne Niles and one of our national colleagues, Dr Albert Kalonji. We were accompanied by a Congolese doctor and nurse who would be working in Kitutu and carried with us in the pod of the plane medicine and supplies for the hospital. We had been involved over the past week in the planning and delivery of essential aid to such areas where few relief agencies venture. We were pleased to be able to render assistance in the current context, but were also very much looking forward to the end of the week when we would be home with family.
I fell asleep in the back of the plane with pleasant thoughts of the weekend to come when Dr Albert’s voice pulled me out of a deep slumber; “Dr Bill, Dr Bill le pilot voudrais vous parler”. The tranquil ambience in the plane which had lulled me to sleep 20 minutes earlier had abruptly changed. It was now dark outside, odd for only 2 in the afternoon, until I looked out the window and saw dark clouds enveloping the plane on all sides. The turbulence which earlier had lulled me to sleep was now bumping me back and forth in my chair. Craaaaack! A lightning bolt seemingly 10 feet away lit up the sky and rocked the plane. The pilot was flying ‘blind’, by instruments only, and dared not descend to search for an airstrip given the tall mountain peaks strewn throughout the valley. The pilot beckoned me to the front and asked us to choose another medical station to land at. We were surrounded by areas known to be infiltrated by the Rwandan Hutu militia which carries a legacy too brutal to contemplate. No one relished the thought of confronting an armed group if we landed unexpectedly at an unknown place in the middle of nowhere. “Let’s head west towards Kinshasa”, I suggested. The MAF Pilot, Garth Pederson, skillfully charted a course on another heading and for the next 15 minutes worked assiduously to pull us out of the storm’s grip into calmer skies. It was nonetheless a long process and there were several turbulent movements when we all looked at each other and wondered if we would ever land safely.
Some were thinking no doubt of a recent plane crash in this very same area less than 3 months ago. Ten passengers from a sister agency and a pilot lost their lives when an identical plane to ours descended through the clouds and hit the side of a cliff. I have had anxious moments in the past aboard both commercial and private planes in a country that has the worst aviation record in the world. This time going back to my seat and looking out into the dark purple clouds I had an abiding calm and peace of mind. None of us know when we will see God; some earlier than others. All I knew was that God was in control. Unlike me who had been asleep in the back of the plane…..God’s hand was on the tiller and I know He does not slumber nor is unaware of events around us. God brings all together in His providence, orchestrating storms and other circumstances according to His good purpose and perfect will. My peace of mind that afternoon was not only due to MAF and their exceptional safety record ….but to the abiding presence of God, the 6th passenger on that plane.
The pilot found a clearing in the clouds and pointed us due west. With daylight leaving and nothing but darkening landscape below, he used his navigation instruments to guide us to a Catholic Mission Station 150 miles away with a not-often-used dirt airstrip, well out of range of rebel elements. The mission sent a jeep to pick us up; a handful of tired visitors who had seemingly dropped from the sky on this warm May evening. I don’t imagine they have many visitors of our nationality or color. They were gracious. A warm meal appeared within an hour after which we were shown to our rooms before the last glimpse of sunlight fell below the horizon. I slept on a single bed; a thin piece of foam on wooden slats, closed in by a mosquito net with a bucket of water on one side for bathing and a lamp on the other. I don’t remember ever sleeping so well in the Congo, not caring about the mosquitoes, the heat, or the humidity.
We confronted yet more storms that next day and had one other aborted landing due to weather as we worked our way west, 1000 miles to the capital city of Kinshasa where our families waited. I arrived home 3 days later where we had electricity, lights, and relative safety. I often bring things home with me from such trips….. this time it was an indelible reminder that God is always with us; even when we are asleep in the back of the plane!
"Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8: 31-39
With faith and anticipation of things to come,
Bill and Ann