We met Terry Veer where most people meet these days — Walmart. We were in a line, I believe, and we were amazed to hear Terry talking to someone, “Yes, I was flying in the Congo for the Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF), for 7 years”.
After a decent interval, we closed in on him and caught him. We asked him about where he had flown, and if he’d ever flown over “our” Province of Kivu, where it was almost 100 percent rainforest and the trees from the air looked like broccoli. He had. We all started talking excitedly and found we had so much in common — people, places and events. Later one night, we met at Charlie’s and shared more stories.
Missionary Aviation Fellowship is an organization that supplies pilots in many countries where missionaries, pastors, or other service people might live and work. Funding is provided by the individual missions, some came from paying passengers, and some from the churches at home.
MAF pilots are amazing. They have to be twice as good as any of the others you find stateside, because the hazards are legendary. You need amazing reflexes and ability to figure things out on the turn of a dime, stay acutely aware of the weather, and be a mechanic besides. In the interior, there are hundreds of square miles where there is no landing strip, no fuel, and almost never a paved or lit runway. And overall, they have to keep everyone safe. Those were our observations.
In the Kivu, under the rainforest canopy, MAF pilots would tell people new to the area that they carried an 80 foot rope in case they had to put down the plane in the forest and lower themselves to the ground. It was a joke. But it reminded us all of the risk pilots take for us.
Pilots like Terry usually flew small planes, like the Cessna 206 or the Cessna 187, which technically had six seats if there was no cargo. Most planes did carry medicines, other precious medical supplies, tools and repair for engines, mail, and a few green groceries in the back seats or in a pod underneathe. But of most importance were the very sick patients, who were picked up far away and brought into the hospital. Sometimes, the passengers were going to funerals, or to visit relatives. They were then expected to bring along food, and that might include live chickens, bags of caterpillars, and various flours. All of it — the food, passengers, medicines, and supplies, and every caterpillar, had to be carefully weighed, because just a kilo too much might cause trouble in flight.
Jennifer and Terry were a team, as are so many MAF couples. The pilots need someone to do what is called flight following. Jennifer answered every radio call from Terry and wrote down where he was, what the weather was like, when he landed, and what cargo he left, etc. It’s good to have a record for several practical reasons, but, as Jennifer said quietly, with a catch in her throat, “in case the plane went down somewhere, we’d know where he was.”
She had come to the Congo with a baby and a toddler, plus she had two more babies in Africa and said she was well cared for. Working the radio was a constant job, with calls from Terry and other persons. “More than once I would start changing a diaper and the radio would come alive. I had to answer that call, so a bottomless baby would escape and run around until the conversation was over.”
The Veers lived 3 ½ years in a village called Nyanga, and worked in the Mennonite part of the Congo centered near Tchikapa. They provided transportation to medical, agricultural, and theological education ministries. Many African villagers and church workers also enjoyed the use of the airplane. At Nyanga, they met Mennonite Missionary, Arnold Harder, who worked in agriculture. He said, if you need anything, tell me—then I’ll show you how to do without it.”
For their second term, they moved to the northern Ubangi region. Terry flew a Cessna 206 out of an Evangelical Free Church Mission station in Tandala. The Covenant and Evangelical Free churches each had large medical ministries as well as missionaries scattered throughout the northern region.
The last two years the Veers served in the capital city of Kinshasa, flying a larger plane called a Cessna Caravan. Because many of the missions had representatives in Kinshasa, Terry flew supplies and people for all the missions. He could transport so much more because of the larger plane.
So, why did they do it? They knew it would be a difficult assignment.
Jennifer thought about it. “We went to the Congo to help further the gospel of Jesus Christ by providing air transportation to the missionaries and to African church leaders, evangelists, and medical personnel working there.”
“We would do it all over again. Our kids grew into a culture that taught them valuable lessons about sharing and it taught us all, broadening our view of the world. When things went horribly wrong, we just learned to look at things differently”, Jennifer said.
“We loved learning to know people there. It was worse culture shock when we came back to the US,” Terry said. He now has a good job teaching licensed pilots how to fly jets, using a simulator.
I told Terry, I had had culture shock, too—I was afraid of my Dillon’s store for months. And both my husband and I have a deep ache somewhere between our shoulder blades that comes from missing Africa, it’s people, and the beautiful paradise they live in.
And what about this “MAF--Breakfast of Champions”? Most MAF families eat it, but its inventor is unknown. It’s a breakfast cereal that is just like granola, except with all of the fancy things removed. So if you had vacuum-packed oatmeal, sugar, a little bit of canned margarine, all at the same time and the same place, and you baked and cooled it, you had MAF. Just add milk, sold powdered under the name of KLIM, which is MILK spelled backwards.
It’s just delicious.
— Diana F. Graber is a writer from Newton who profiles the interesting people she meets.