With the rainy season fast approaching in Chad, MAF Pilot and Operations Manager, Becki Dillingham, had to complete some mandatory training in Uganda so flying could continue. Kissing her family goodbye, Becki expected to return three weeks later. Little did she know, the pandemic would scupper her plans and leave her stranded and separated from her family for 32 days….
On 9th March in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, Becki Dillingham - a British MAF Pilot and married mother of two - bid farewell to her husband, Matt, eight-year-old Bethan and three-year-old Luke.
Without Becki’s essential training, MAF’s fleet could be grounded during Chad’s wet season from May. This would be devastating for the country’s remotest and most vulnerable communities as Chad has one of the highest levels of hunger in the world. 66% of the population live in severe poverty (World Food Programme).
‘I never thought things would escalate so quickly’
Bethan and Luke resolutely circled 3rd April – counting 24 long, but necessary, days of separation on their calendar.
As Europe entered lockdown, African coronavirus restrictions came more quickly than anyone anticipated – out of nowhere! When Chad suddenly announced its borders would be closing on 19th March, Becki and her family only had two days to plan their reunion. She swiftly moved from plan A to plan B, then to the complete unknown:
‘I never thought things would escalate so quickly. When I left Chad, coronavirus was so far from us. You’re quite removed from the rest of the world. It never crossed my mind not to travel to Uganda, but we all knew how important this training was.’
A separated family stuck behind two different borders
Becki’s job often requires nights away – sometimes stranded by bad weather in a tiny, isolated village. Until now however, she had never been apart from her children for more than five days:
‘We had built up to this Uganda training trip. Bethan’s birthday celebrations were delayed until I got home. The calendar was there to give them focus. Matt could hold the fort.’
Little did she know they would be separated for 32 days.
Now stuck in Uganda, Becki heard about a flight to Chad on Thursday 19th March. She spent a whole day frantically trying to secure a seat, traipsing from the city centre to Kampala airport. She bounced between fruitless phone calls and emails, only to find the flight was cancelled.
Uganda entered lockdown too…
‘When our calendar ran out, that’s when we struggled’
Becki’s return date came and went. Mummy hadn’t come home. Without school, Bethan’s routine was uprooted and Luke started showing some unusual behaviour. Every day became harder for Matt as he juggled parenting, housework and maintenance on his own without an end date in sight. Becki admits:
‘When our calendar ran out, that’s when we really struggled. The trickiest thing was not knowing what would happen or when we would see each other again. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and things were changing so rapidly. Everything was out of our hands.’
Hearing rumours of repatriation flights from N’Djamena and Uganda’s capital, Kampala, the family prayed for a reunion in the UK:
‘Because we’re British, the governments in Chad and Uganda would have enforced a 14-day quarantine in an overcrowded hotel for $100 a night.
I had read a blog by someone who was sleeping in hotel corridors because they’d flown from Europe or the US. That would have put our family at greater risk of infection and I wasn’t prepared to do that.’
Returning to a country with thousands of deaths
With the help of prayer, an online community and round-the-clock support from MAF, Becki finally made her journey to London, via Dubai, arriving at Heathrow on Saturday 4 April. Now back on British soil, Becki was still no closer to finding out if her family would be able to join her:
‘It felt bizarre, and slightly risky. I had just left a country with only 20 coronavirus cases for one with thousands of deaths. Everything happened so quickly and there was no chance for us to act.
Of course, we wanted to be in Chad – we live there to serve its people and that’s where we call “home.” All we could do was pray to be together again.’
Four days later in Dorset, Becki was living with Matt’s parents in ‘lockdown’. She set up her MAF operations desk in their conservatory.
A lifeline flight – Matt’s story
On Wednesday 8th April, Matt was finally thrown a lifeline. Matt recalls:
‘Our MAF neighbours told me about a French military flight to Paris the next day.’
Matt agreed to be at the military base at eight the following morning. Bethan caught wind of this new hope:
‘It was close to her bedtime, so she promised to do all the packing when she woke up.’
Hopeful for their reunion, Matt’s head finally hit the pillow after midnight, racing with a long list of tasks he had to complete at dawn.
After Matt dashed to Bethan’s school to collect her workbooks, Matt closed the door on a sea of things discarded from bulging suitcases in a vain attempt to keep them under 20kg.
‘We watched the sniffer dog search our luggage’
At the French military air base, Matt and the children were given facemasks. They joined a long line of passengers.
They queued outside tent after tent for temperature checks, luggage to be weighed and for paperwork to be scanned. Matt tried to keep his children entertained in the 40-degree heat:
‘The highlight for the kids was watching the sniffer dog search our luggage’
‘At last, we boarded our Airbus - an old aircraft without entertainment or food. We touched down in Paris around 11pm. I was expecting a night on the airport floor, but Steve - our kind MAF Manager in Chad - had booked us a hotel room. I was incredibly thankful for a shower and a good night’s sleep.’
Crisps and chocolate for breakfast
Breakfast the next morning proved hard to find. With nowhere open to break into a 20-euro note, Matt pleaded with the hotel receptionist for some vending machine change to feed two hungry mouths:
‘In the end, another guest heard me begging and gave me some change’
Now on the last leg of their journey from Paris to London Heathrow, the children were growing more excited about seeing their mum after 32 days. Becki was equally excited:
‘As I waited for them at Heathrow arrivals, I contemplated our reunion. Everyone was standing apart at a mandatory two-metre distance. How would we be perceived when we threw our arms around necks and enjoyed a long-awaited hug?
Luke and Bethan ran towards Becki. Bethan exclaimed:
‘Mummy, Mummy! Guess what? We had chocolate and crisps for breakfast!’