How MAF pilots and AIM missionaries are investing their ‘sweat equity’ to build God’s Kingdom in South Sudan.
A billow of fine grey dust kicks up as the bags are swung up to chest height and flung in through the rear cargo door.Three grown men pause to catch their breath for a moment before loading the next bag.By the time they’re finished they’re all pretty hot. Shifting 50kg bags of cement on and off a plane all day is hot, dirty work. On days like this,there’s nothing glamorous about being a missionary or a mission pilot.
This is nothing. In Arnhem Land, where pilot Daniel Gill cut his teeth flying a Gippsland Airvan to remote Aboriginal communities, the humidity would reach 80 percent in similar temperatures during the rainy season. He would be dripping with sweat within an hour of leaving the house and come home looking like a rung-out dishrag.
Over the past two years in South Sudan, sweat has become a small price to pay for the camaraderie Danny enjoys with the missionaries on the ground. It’s why he became a mission pilot in the first place. Right now he’s too busy to talk-but later Danny tell me – “I love getting alongside and working with these missionaries, that’s why I got into MAF!”
The AIM of mission
Africa Inland Mission (AIM) has a large base here in Torit, and there’s always a welcome for the MAF plane as it taxis to the mission’s side-gate which opens right onto the airstrip. The two organisations share a commitment to reach outlying areas-taking off from Torit to reach even remoter villages where the gospel is bringing hope.
The AIM mission kids ride in on the trailer which carries the cement -jumping down while the bags are unloaded to play in the area that looks a pop up waiting room under the wing.The eldest boy explains,how the cement will be used build the foundations of a house with mud walls anda corrugated iron roof. I can’t help thinking how fast kids grow up in the mission field. The sensitivity to culture and heart for people they develop in this unique environment leads many to become missionaries themselves.
The pilot loading the plane is one of them. Danny later tells me how his experiences growing up brought him here today.‘My parents lived in Nepal for 25 years which impressed upon me the desire to live somewhere where I really have the chance to make lasting relationships that will grow a community. For me to be able to help missionaries building houses that will enable them to live in a community is humbling and exciting!’
Right now -Danny jumps inside the Cessna Caravan to secure the heavy bags at the front of the plane. This will distribute the weight safely for the fifteen minute flight. The exercise is the same whether you’re flying 50 or 500 miles.I can’t help thinking that the real balance to be struck here is aviation excellence versus the kind of Kingdom care that looks for opportunities to put people first.
Where roads run out
Danny shares a laugh and the last bottle of chilled water with missionary Jordan Scotland before saying goodbye. With seats secured back in place and the clutter of furniture and people tidied away,the engine roars into life. Danny mutters hazards under his breath(birds, livestock, people near the airstrip)as the Caravan picks up speed.
In the air, he flies over the sun-baked mud track which is the main road from Juba to Torit. Recently, three beaten up aid workers joined a MAF shuttle after a traumatic armed ambush on this road.
Smaller tracks to Torit’s satellite villages project out like the hands of a clock – disappearing into two different sets of hills. The plane heads eastwards over terrain that rises up beneath the plane.Rough tracks turn to winding pathways connecting houses in hilltop settlements where the only travelers belong to the destinations they reach –and the occasional AIM missionary.
At the end of the valley the ground opens up. The village, tucked away on the hillside, isn’t immediately visible as the airstrip comes into view. Danny banks the aircraft to approach from the opposite end before touching down on the recently extended runway. More sweat from the AIM team and villagers went into the lengthening the strip making it safer and enabling aircraft with heavier loads.
Today’s flight is the sixth and final rotation that will have landed in the past few days carrying six tonnes of metal sheeting, wood,nails –and even more cement. Yesterday Pilots Chris Ball and Tobias Meyer landed five loads in one day – shuttling back and forthwith each heavy load.
“It was a busy day, back to the roots of mission flying!’says Tobias who flew the Caravan in yesterday. ‘It was nice to support the missionaries.Their lives are not easy in the places where they live.If you think about it, we moved an entire house from one location to another in 12 minute hops–saving at least three hours each time! They still had to carry all of that somehow up the hill to the village where there is no access to cars or anything!
After seven years serving with MAF in South Sudan, Chris is a familiar face in Torit. “We were able to chat with the missionaries and encourage them a little bit, then it was down to business, really quick turnarounds!It was fun to have the challenge of getting as much done as you can in a day!”
News has reached the community of a highly contagious disease (COVID-19) brought into South Sudan from outside.Today and yesterday the pilots are asked to stay close to the plane. “We weren’t allowed to actually unload because the community was afraid of COVID but it was good to see the context they are working in and how the missionaries are appreciated by the community. There’s lot of respect both ways -I would say,” Tobias reflects.
Cementing a future/laying solid foundations
Danny is only on the ground for the time it takes to unload the sixth and final load before he’s in the air and headed home. A routine flight, maybe.Little to write home about, perhaps. But in a few months’ time,a new house, built on solid foundations,will sit among the village’s distinctive conical roofs. The humble building will enable AIM missionaries to continue a ministry to the Lopit that now spans more than fifty years.
Back in Juba at the end of the day there’s a thin layer of cement dust covering every surface inside the plane.The MAF dispatch team at the airport cheerfully and diligently scrub the seats, air vents, window-ledges and every inch of floor to remove the residue.By the time they’re finished, in the heat of the afternoon, everyone is sweating. All that’s left of today’s cargo is the faintest smell of disinfectant that tomorrow’s passengers will barely detect.
Sweat and cement are laying hopeful foundations in the world’s newest nation -building homes for missionaries but also clinics, churches, latrines, clean water pumps and schools. MAF planes are helping to address the high cost of underdevelopment -one bag of cement at a time.
Story by Jenny Davies. Photos by Jenny Davies and Chris Ball.