After 5 years of crawling through the Dar es Salaam traffic, to chase up work permits and pilot’s licenses, in my role as MAF Logistics Manager, this week I had the opportunity to fill a vacant seat on one of our flights to Katahe in the South Maasai region. This was my first chance to see close-up, some of the work that we have been contributing to from the Dar office since we arrived in June 2011.
The sign on the front of the Arusha airport control tower, welcomes you warmly to Arusha, "the Geneva of Africa”, however we arrived to a less than welcoming, African Winter sky, with low clouds delaying our departure for around 45 minutes. Our 5-seat Cessna C206 aircraft are small enough to enable them to land on very small, remote airstrips but they can only be flown under Visual Flight Rules, so flying through thick cloud is not allowed.
Eventually a small break in the cloud cover enabled us to take-off and climb above it for the one hour journey to Katahe.
The next challenge was to find a route back down through the cloud to enable us to land at the village airstrip. After an initial aborted attempt, Jarkko, our pilot, found a hole and put the aircraft into a stomach-churning series of steep turns to bring us back down below the grey blanket of cloud. In these conditions it was not hard to appreciate why MAF sets such high standards for it's pilots..
Even at relatively low altitude, the airstrip was not immediately obvious amongst the surrounding bush...
...but after a few minutes of searching, Jarkko spotted the narrow strip of cleared land and so could begin his approach to land.
Although this is a regular monthly flight, the arrival of our aircraft still drew a considerable crowd, despite our distance from the nearest town.
The villagers welcomed us with fresh chapatis and Maasai chai. This was a fairly unique tasting sweet, milky tea, strongly flavoured by the charcoal fire that it had been prepared over.
We were served this feast in the Pilots Hut, a small brick-built structure with a corrugated iron roof. This had 4 rooms, 1 serving as a fuel store, 1 a classroom and then bedrooms for the pilot and accompanying evangelists.
The hut was built by the local villagers using materials bought by some Canadian MAF supporters. It has proved a great blessing to the visiting MAF pilots who have found the quality of their night’s sleep greatly improved, particularly important during a busy week of flying clinics. The hut has also been widely used as a classroom and during a recent cholera outbreak, as a treatment centre for the region.
After a few quick souvenir photographs, Jarrko and his passengers boarded the aircraft for the short trip up the valley to Lesirwai.
So that left me with an afternoon in Katahe, with a few tasks to complete and then some time to meet a few of the villagers.
Together with the help of the local evangelist, I walked the length of the airstrip to remove the sharper stones and thorn bushes. In the past our aircraft suffered a series of punctures at Katahe so it has been important to encourage local people to check the runway regularly to reduce this risk.
Once that was done it was time to make a short trip, on the back of the evangelist’s motor-bike, to visit the village. It was a day of celebration for the coming-of-age of some of the young men and so there were several families gathered together when we reached the Boma. The main ceremony would be later that evening after I had left but I received an enthusiastic welcome particularly as I had a camera!
I was taken into the house of one of the elders of the village to meet their family. We sat in the semi-darkness drinking more chai and then the food arrived. Being a celebration day, there was lamb, deliciously roasted over an open fire and then once this was finished a plate of rice was brought in. As a complete stranger walking into their home unexpectedly, I am always amazed and humbled at the hospitality of Africans, especially on a day of great significance for them.
Katahe is very much a Christian village and the faith of the families was very much in evidence as they spoke. The community built the pilot's hut and actively supports MAF's work in the surrounding region by maintaining the airstrip, welcoming and providing for visiting evangelists and medical staff. All of this results in virtually no material gain for the village but they are willing partners nonetheless.This year the region was heavily affected by the cholera outbreak. The residents of Katahe escaped the disease but actively supported the use of the pilot's hut as a treatment and vaccination centre for surrounding villages.
Before I left to return to the airstrip the men of the village were very enthusiastic for me to video the women singing together. The women were less keen but were eventually persuaded as you can see from the link below
Then it was time for the ride back to wait for the aircraft to return....
After a short stop to exchange the passengers for me, we took off again and flew out over the boma where I had spent the afternoon
The cloud had remained throughout the day but the visibility below it had improved so that we were able to make a low level trip back to Arusha.
After 5 years of playing a supporting role in Dar, it had been a great experience to see MAF's front-line work close up and to see how lives have been changed in the remote Maasai communities.
The villagers of Katahe have very little material wealth but the way in which they share the love of Jesus with those around them, through their actions, was truly inspiring.