I always struggle with how to adequately summarize a month-long trip. There are so many experiences I’ve had, so many interesting people I’ve encountered, so many facets of stories that I would like to accurately express, so many emotional nuances of situations that, left unconveyed don’t really tell the whole story. But there always seem to be a few moments that are forever imprinted on my memory. Individual moments that seem to distill the month into a few snapshots that summarize the entire gallery, a few brushstrokes that help convey the broad canvas. So here is my attempt at recounting a few moments I’ll never forget.
He was 25 years old and lived in a small village far from the western shore of the Zambezi river. He suddenly developed severe abdominal pain one afternoon. He knew he was seriously ill, he knew he needed help, so he called his brother who came immediately. They hired an ox cart and with this young man laid across the back of the cart, they made their way toward Chitokoloki Mission Hospital. I can only imagine the pain he must have gone through as the cart jolted over the rough paths through the bush. Fortunately they made it to the Zambezi River just before dark and hired a canoe to take them across. They laid the young man in the dugout and made the precarious crossing without a problem. The brother then ran to the hospital to get a stretcher and some help. A few minutes later, just before dark, the brother and a helper carried the young man up the hill to be seen in the hospital. It just so happened that one of my friends, Dr. Jim, noticed the men carrying the stretcher, so he followed them to the casualty (emergency room). Dr. Jim knew immediately that the boy needed surgery and called me. Within an hour he was rushed to surgery. At the operation I found that his intestines had twisted on themselves (called volvulus, not uncommon in Africa)—not once, but twice. The blood supply to a large portion of his small bowel had been twisted and cut off for so long the intestines were dead. I resected the bowel that was dead, sewed that part back together and made a colostomy. He did very well after surgery, healing his incision without problem and recovering his strength quickly.
As I made my rounds for the last time through the surgical ward, I said good-bye to this young man and his brother, both now my friends. They were ready to make their way back to their village home. As I sat beside him, my thoughts were these: what would have happened if his brother had not been there to help him in his time of need? What would have happened if they had not made it to the river before dark? No one would have dared risked a night crossing in the crocodile infested waters of the Zambezi. What would have happened if Dr. Jim had not seen them carrying the young man to the hospital? It would have been very easy for him to have not been seen until the morning. If there had been any delay, at any point, this young man almost certainly would have lost his life.
As I sat beside him that morning, I thought about something my dad said when I was growing up—the two most important words in the entire Bible are these…but God. We were dead in our trespasses and sins…but God who is rich in mercy…made us alive in Christ… Ephesians 2:4. I gently reminded this young man that he had a “but God” moment. And I reassured him that God spared his life for a reason, that He has a special plan and purpose for his rest of his life.
Suffer the little ones…
We cared for so many malnourished children during the past month. The main food source in this area is corn. When children are only fed corn they can develop a condition called protein calorie malnutrition. The malnourished children almost always look the same. Their eyelids puffy, their eyes dull and lifeless, most couldn’t raise their heads much less stand or walk. Their little arms and legs were swollen, often ulcerated and dripping tissue fluid. Their hair was thin and brittle and falling out. They would lie perfectly still.
Each child would be admitted to the pediatric ward and we would begin to care for them. Each one would be given a warm cap and thick blanket for the cool nights. We would treat any infections that we could find—often malaria and/or worms. We would begin giving them vitamins and put them on a special feeding program—high in calories and protein. These children didn’t improve overnight, but most of the time, over the next few weeks…the swelling would begin to go down, the skin ulcers would began to heal and life and light would come back into their little eyes. We loved to see them begin to lift their little heads and then try to stand and eventually begin to take a few steps. And then they would begin to smile. A smile almost always meant “almost ready for discharge”. What a joy it was for us to release these children to go back to their village homes…well on their way to regaining their health and strength. Our prayer was that each and every one we cared for would come to know Jesus at an early age and serve Him every day of their lives.
An eternal hope…
Sometimes the outcomes weren’t always what we had hoped and prayed for. Many children came very sick with measles, malaria, meningitis or often a combination of several infections. Many who were sick were also severely malnourished. We did all we could do—we gave them very effective antibiotics (or anti-malarials), IV fluids, oxygen, nutrition—but sometimes it wasn’t enough. They were too sick, it as too late in their disease and they didn’t live. It is emotionally very hard when a 3-day old, a 5-year old, a 9-year old, a 15-year old (with a newborn baby) dies. It’s heartbreaking for the parents and the family…and it’s equally hard on the nurses and doctors and others who had cared for them. There are always the lingering thoughts—what could we have done differently? Or, if they would have come in earlier things might have been different. The one thought that we hold on to, one thought that reassures us is this—at least we tried, at least we embraced them, at least we touched them, at least we held them, at least we prayed for them. And hopefully through us they felt the love and comfort and compassion and care of the Savior. And we rest assured that our faith is based on an eternal hope…a hope that looks forward to heaven. And I believe we will see each and every one of these little ones there.
It’s the people you meet along the way that are often so interesting and inspiring. The missionary community at Chitokoloki so warmly embraced me. They are made up of Irish, Canadian, visiting New Zealanders and Scots and one lone American. Most have been working for many years (25-30 years) in this part of Africa. They belong to a loving community of believers known as the Brethren. The Brethren meet in small assemblies all around the world. They have a passion for the lost and send money and resources and people all over the world with the message of hope found in Jesus. I was so inspired by their love for our Savior and their gratitude for the price He paid at Calvary. They are passionate about growing in the knowledge of His Word. They are extremely generous people. They gather every Sunday to “break bread”—partake of communion together. And during the week, they have times of singing hymns—the old ones, ones I remember so vividly as a child, the ones my dad would sing or hum or whistle the tune to. Hymns like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, “Blessed Assurance”, “At Calvary”, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”, to name only a few. After a half hour of singing they usually have an open, simple (but usually quite profound) discussion of a passage of scripture. And then a few prayers and some food and conversation would end the hour of fellowship. It would have been very easy for this community to exclude a visitor, but they did everything they could do to make me feel included, to feel a part.
On the fourth of July (I think in honor of the visiting American!) they had an evening barbeque. I don’t ever think I’ll forget that night. A warm fire was blazing in the circle of chairs, warming all on the cool African night. The Zambezi River in the distance was barely visible as the darkness of the night fell. The sky was magnificent with a host of stars and the moon watching over us. Across the Zambezi was pitch black, the only light visible was a single campfire far in the distance. I don’t think I’ll forget hearing the hymns echoing through the night, or the heart-felt prayers offered that evening. I realized I was embraced by a small part of the Body of Christ faithfully serving their Master in western Zambia.
It is always hard to say good-bye, but as our little Cessna took off from the airstrip beside Chitokoloki—they were all gathered again, this time sending me off with their embraces and their prayers. As the plane made a wide turn and banked back towards Lusaka, I could faintly make out the airstrip far below and I could see the little group of believers still huddled together beside it. It’s been two days since I left Chitokoloki but I can still feel their embrace. I doubt I will ever forget it.
Charlie, Hotel Tango…
The registration letters on the small Cessna that is used at Chitokoloki are CHT. But when Phil, a missionary bush pilot calls the control tower he refers to the plane as “Charlie, Hotel, Tango”. Phil is 60ish, the son of missionaries who served 40 years in the Congo. Even though he is originally from the south of London, he has lived all but 6 years of his life in Africa. Phil works with Bible printing, logistics and he is also a veteran and skilled bush pilot. He is such an expert that he can drop a plane out of the sky, skirt just above the tress and stop the plane on what seems like a dime. I always felt safe with Phil at the controls.
As we made our way toward Lusaka, we had to make one stop to drop Dr. David’s son off at his boarding school in the eastern part of Zambia. So we flew for 3 hours and 40 minutes—south of Kabompo, north of the Kafue Game Park, south of Mukinge Mission Hospital on toward the boarding school. Phil had mentioned to me that the airstrip we would be landing on was rather awkwardly positioned. What he meant was the airstrip was built right up into the side of a large hill—not parallel to it but INTO it. In order to land, you had to either fly over the mountain, quickly drop down and land (but with the risk of air currents coming over the mountain pushing you to the ground) or come in the other way (toward the mountain) and stop quickly. We found the airstrip without a problem and did a “fly by” to check the wind direction on the windsock. The sock didn’t show much movement at all so Phil decided to land into the strip (and toward the mountain). He made a wide approach, lined us up perfectly. All was going well. I sat peacefully, confident in our safe landing. We dropped out of the sky just above the trees and were close to the strip when a gust of wind blew us far down the airstrip toward the mountain—much too far down to safely land. Phil suddenly pulled on the yoke and quickly began to adjust the throttle and trim (I’m not a pilot so forgive me). The plane slowed dramatically and it didn’t seem to be responding to attempts to get it up in the air. I thought we were close to stalling and falling out of the sky. For a brief moment, fear gripped my heart. But slowly, the plane responded, gained speed and began to gain altitude. Phil seemed unfazed, made another wide sweep and a perfect landing.
As we stepped out of the plane we realized there was a gusting 20-30 mph wind bending the long grass along the airstrip. Quite a miracle that we could land WITH the wind into the mountain.
As we unloaded our friend, said our good-byes and took off heading southwest toward Lusaka, I was (am) so thankful for men like Phil who have given their lives so faithfully to advance the Gospel. And I am so thankful for the everlasting arms that were beneath us and for the angels that helped push that little plane up into the air. And, on a personal note, I am thankful for the opportunity for some more time to serve the Master.
Waiting for the Lakewood group!
I have made my way back from Lusaka to Nairobi where I am awaiting a medical/dental/evangelistic team from Lakewood who will arrive tomorrow night. We will fly to an island in Lake Victoria—Mfangano Island. For the next week we will be going from island to island in boats doing medical and dental clinics, evangelistic outreaches, building homes for widows and visiting and orphanage of 480 young people. Please pray for safe travel, for health and strength and for effective ministry for Jesus. I will try to keep you updated. Blessings!