Joey Lincoln touches down on the dirt airstrip. It’s been four days since I’ve last seen Alpha Uniform, our Cessna Caravan which draws its name from the phonetic pronunciation of the last two letters of its tail number. Our stay at Dingila has been productive and fun, but I’m glad to climb aboard once again. We will be flying back to Bunia to drop of a passenger and some cargo before heading to Dungu. I ride in the copilot seat again, and have a nice conversation with Joey, MAF’s east DRC Program Manager, about Congo life and IT needs that he feels the program has.
In Bunia we off-load our passenger and cargo and proceed to load our second VSAT system. This time around I feel less like an observer. I know exactly how the dish sections need to be loaded in order to fit them through the rear side door of the plane. I know where we’re going to put the boxes of mounting components. The things the pilot and hanger crew do are starting become familiar. Loading complete, we contact Bunia tower, taxi and take off.
After a brief flight we land in Dungu. Uniform India, our Cessna 206 (a.k.a the “little plane”). Jon Cadd is checking out Rodney Dyrud, one of the program’s new 206 pilots. Joey tells me it is uncommon for both planes to be on the ground at a remote airstrip at the same time. However today Jon and Rodney have changed schedule for a medical evacuation flight. As we taxi to park the Caravan, the 206 taxis to take off, and I wave as the little white plane with the distinctive red MAF dove on the tail heads for the grass runway.
The MSF compound is a short walk–maybe 200-300 meters–from the airport, so we load our bags in their vehicle and take a nice stroll with Claire from MSF, a sweet Norwegian woman with a kind smile, who gives us some information on the town. To my left are several brick buildings which, like many things I have seen in Congo, seem to have fallen from a prior state of glory and suffered the effects of time. One appears to have been a school or meeting hall of some sort, but now seems abandoned. On the right side of the road is a soccer field lined with palms and various other tropical trees. There is a small brick structure that appears to be bleachers, though it would scarcely accommodate more than twenty-something people. Claire explains that all the brick buildings in town were built by and are owned by the church. The monastery nearby was founded by Canadian missionaries some time ago and there are still several monks living there today.
Dungu seems very quiet and peaceful to me, but I learn that this is somewhat of a facade. Dungu is less than 40 miles from Garamba National Park where members of the Lord’s Resistance Army has taken up residence. Consequently the people in the area are often victims of LRA violence. Recently a nun from Dungu was murdered while traveling to a nearby village. She was an ophthalmologist who was going to help people. It makes me so mad! These guys murdered a woman who was a nun and an ophthalmologist! With the presence of such danger I can understand how critical MSF’s hospital is to those that live in the area.
At the compound we unload our things. Now experienced at installing this particular VSAT, I am able to direct much more of the assembly than at Dingila. Solo works with some MSF workers to get the frame ready, while I work with another group to prepare the dish. The whole process is going much faster than at Dingila. We finish around supper time.
We find places around a large, wooden, rectangular table on a patio covered by a thatched roof. Adjacent to the eating area is a large oven made of bricks which has an arched opening. The yard has a garden and various palm and papaya trees. Two more covered patios are also nearby. The whole thing looks quite like something you might find at a tropical resort…well, maybe if you added some tiki torches and got rid of the razor wire strung along the top of the encompassing brick wall.
After supper I put together the feed horn with the transmitter and receiver. The next morning I mount it to the dish and connect all the cables. Things are going very smoothly. We call the satellite company and conduct our signal tests. This time it goes much better than when we called from Dingila; our call lasts around 15 minutes instead of over an hour. We are finished a day early and there is an MAF flight coming in today, so we will get to return to Bunia this afternoon.
We get conflicting reports about which aircraft is coming to pick us up. Joey is dropping off passengers in the Caravan, but Chris Konop might get there in the 206 as well. Right now Chris can’t take off because the UN has a helicopter parked in the middle of the runway he needs to use. They won’t take off and there’s nowhere to taxi. We learn later that it was eventually moved to the edge of the runway…by hand…by dozens of people. Words escape me, but a head-shake will do. This is Africa.
In the end both Chris and Joey end up at Dungu at the same time. For something that rarely happens, it’s ironic that this week we’ve seen both planes together on the ground at the same time at the same airstrip. I’m not sure what the odds of that are. I opt to fly back with Chris in the tiny 206 and we get a 15-minute head start on Solo and Joey, narrowly beating the faster Caravan back to Bunia.