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Cleared for Takeoff

By Kevin Mills

An airstrip overhaul reestablishes a vital lifeline for a remote African village

As he stood at the edge of the abandoned airstrip at Gwendjé in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), MAF pilot Stephen Hale imagined what it had once been and what it would take to reopen it.

All ages at work on the Gwendjé airstrip. Photo by Stephen Hale.

“The forest had overgrown the airstrip. The trees at the end were incredibly tall; it just looked very daunting. The amount of work required would be significant,” said Stephen.

Forty years ago Gwendjé (aka Ngwenzé), was a thriving mission hub, with a hospital, a Bible school, and a bustling airstrip. Political instability in the 90s caused many missionaries to leave the country, and the strip soon fell into disrepair as Gwendjé became increasingly isolated and neglected.

When missionary Jay Shafto with the International Mission Board (IMB) first visited Gwendjé in 2017, reaching the village required a commercial flight combined with a grueling five-hour drive on deteriorating roads. After experiencing two incidents on the treacherous route, Jay was inspired to make a change. He spoke to village leaders and proposed working alongside MAF to revitalize the abandoned airstrip.

The Power of Helping Hands

Moved by his vision of a brighter future, the Gwendjé villagers spent two years rehabilitating the airstrip.

Jay continued to visit regularly and shared photos with MAF, along with detailed progress reports of the various improvements taking place.    

Pastor Johkim preaches at the Bible school in Gwendjé. Photo by Stephen Hale.

The obstacles were numerous. The Gwendjé people faced constant delays due to the global pandemic and fuel shortages in the DRC. Some in the local community were adamantly opposed to having a missionary presence in the area again.

It was slow going and at times discouraging, but the villagers didn’t give up. Their persistence was soon rewarded when MAF sent Stephen Hale to help Jay assess the airstrip.

Reset and Rewind

After a six-hour delay, Jay and Stephen and two Congolese pastors and a missionary took off on a commercial flight from Kinshasa to Gemena, DRC. Upon their arrival, they discovered that torrential rainstorms had washed out the “good” road to Gwendjé, making it utterly impassible; they had to take a backroad. After five hours of non-stop bouncing and jostling over terrible road conditions, the men finally arrived.

As Stephen and Jay inspected the airstrip on Sunday, they became increasingly worried. It was supposed to be ready for an MAF flight arriving in two days, but it wasn’t finished by a long shot.

“Oh boy,” Stephen said, recalling his initial assessment of the area. “The surface was not flat; it was pockmarked with holes and uneven areas of overgrowth.”

The ground was too soft, the landing strip too short, and entire sections were littered with footpaths or covered in patches of tall grass.

Raymond with Kids Action Network enlists the children to help compact the strip with a water-filled barrel. Photo by Stephen Hale.

They gathered the community and explained the gravity of the situation. Banding together, the village got to work. Men cut down grass and rolled barrels—weighed down with water—to pack the earth until it was firm. Women filled soft spots and ruts with a mixture of crushed termite mounds, rocks, and crushed bricks. Children used the village’s one wheelbarrow to move dirt and rocks.

Even with the villagers’ enthusiastic help, both men knew it would take a miracle for the strip to be ready in time.

Women collect termite mounds to use in the Gwendjé airstrip construction. Photo by Stephen Hale.

Obstacles at home

Meanwhile, back at the MAF hangar in Kinshasa, the pilots and mechanics were encountering their own roadblocks.

The airplane that was needed to pick up Stephen from Gwendjé on Tuesday was having mechanical issues. It took two days before the team found a solution.

While these problems were happening, the Kinshasa team considered calling off the flight and having Stephen take a commercial flight home. But there was no cell service in Gwendjé so they couldn’t reach him.

Men collect and move dirt for the Gwendjé airstrip project. Photo by Stephen Hale.

Without the ability to communicate with each other, both groups—those working on the plane in Kinshasa, and those working on the airstrip—were racing the clock to finish. Only God knew how it would turn out. 

Stephen described the dedication of the villagers to complete the work. “They were literally running into the forest to get more material. People were really moving with pep in their step,” Stephen said, smiling. “It was very moving, seeing the entire community come out to help.”

From Vision to Reality

Through everyone’s hard work, by Wednesday afternoon the new airstrip was restored to its former glory. Elation erupted in the village when the residents first spotted the MAF airplane overhead. Gwendjés connection to the outside world had been reestablished. After being isolated and completely cut off for decades, a reliable lifeline to medicine, education, and transportation, as well as continued discipleship by visiting pastors had been firmly launched through MAF once again.

Today, Gwendjé’s formerly forsaken airstrip stands as a testimony to the power of partnership in overcoming vast distances. And for a nearly forgotten community, it means the world.

“MAF is already in contact with other partners to plan further trips to the area,” Stephen said. “We experienced opposition and obstacles, but God overcame it all. We don’t know the full extent of the ways that He is going to work in this area, but we are thankful to get to be a small part of it.”

Pastor Jean, right, prays at the Gwendjé airstrip reopening. MAF pilot Stephen Hale is at left with pilot Jonathan de Jongh in the middle. Photo courtesy of Stephen Hale.


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