Ruth Jack was privileged to visit staff at MAF Uganda. Here she explains how a fascinating week has given her a deeper insight and appreciation for our work.
I was privileged to accompany MAF Trustee Diana White and two supporters on this trip. One highlight of my trip was a visit to the South Sudanese refugee settlements in northern Uganda.
Our day started early on a Thursday morning at the MAF passenger check-in, we were all weighed with our luggage and then led by local ground staff through landscaped gardens to the gate at the edge of the runway. On the other side sat our plane being readied for take-off and, as we approached it, we were warmly greeted by our pilots Dave Forney and Hansjörg Schlatter.
This was my very first MAF flight — something I’d been looking forward to since being offered the opportunity to travel with them. We climbed the small staircase at the back of the Cessna 208 aircraft and I quickly realised that the cabin was much smaller than I’d appreciated from photos!
Once seated – done with care to balance the plane – we strapped in for our flight north. Away from Kampala, we flew over hundreds of miles of grassland and the occasional small village, crossing the Nile on our way.
The noise inside the plane was too loud for conversation, so I watched Africa stretch away below me with my headphones on.
Ninety minutes later, we landed on a dirt strip in the middle of the green fields of Moyo. We disembarked to warm sunshine and greetings from Andrew Hoskins, Country Director for Medical Teams International (MTI), who would be our guide for the rest of the day. The refugee settlements were still an hour’s drive away along bumpy and dusty roads, so we climbed into big 4x4 vehicles and set off.
The ongoing war across the border in South Sudan has left millions of people displaced — bringing death, destruction, disease and famine to a country that only gained its independence in 2011. The settlement we visited opened in December 2016 and was already full by July last year — home to more than 185,000 refugees.
MAF flights to these settlements allow workers and resources to reach them in less than three hours instead of eight hours on roads that can be impassable in the rainy season. When South Sudanese people arrive and register with the UNHCR, they are given plastic sheeting and poles to make a temporary shelter, as well as access to healthcare and education.
The settlement at Palorinya stretches over vast areas of rural land. Compared to refugee camps I’ve visited elsewhere, it is peaceful and well run. South Sudanese people are able to leave the settlement and work in Uganda — again, different from the situation many other refugees experience. But the camp we saw was one of many, and the refugee crisis in northern Uganda is now the largest in Africa.
During our guided tour with MTI, I met Annette in the maternity tent of the clinic. She had come from South Sudan a couple of months earlier and was now in labour. Annette is a teacher and her excellent English made conversation easy. However, given the circumstances, I was surprised she was so eager to talk to me — even through her contractions!
Bright and beautiful, Annette said she was very grateful to be in safe hands for the birth of her second child. She had travelled to the settlement with her first child and mother-in-law, leaving her husband behind to follow when he could.
Our brief chat was a moment of real privilege for me and something that I won’t forget.
We left Annette in the capable hands of the MTI staff and headed back to our plane.
As we flew home, I reflected on the skill and professionalism of our pilots, and the incredible communities they support everyday with their essential flights. It was such a joy to glimpse their world for a brief moment, and my job has been made all the richer for such an experience.