Making a meal of airstrip maintenance in Lesotho

Making a meal of airstrip maintenance in Lesotho

MAF Pilots Joey Martin and Jason Thiemann explain how a good meal makes all the difference when it comes to airstrip maintenance in Lesotho.

'Letsema is kind of like an old-fashioned barn-raising' explains Joey Martin a pilot and engineer from the US who moved to the Lesotho last year with his family from Democratic Republic of Congo.    

Story contributions Joey Martin and Jason Thiemann. Photos by Joey Martin, Danny Hulls and Matthew Monson

'People from the community all come together on the same day to work on a particular project, then when the work is done they share a meal together,' Joey explains. 

'Last autumn MAF hosted a Letsema in the village of Nohana. The runway condition had gotten pretty bad,' he continues, describing the conditions that had led to the timely intervention. 

'Small clumps of grass had grown on the dirt/gravel runway, and over time the small clumps turned into large, hard bumps that made for a very rough ride in the plane.'

'When we arrived in the morning we landed on a very bumpy runway. But when we left in the evening, we enjoyed a nice, smooth takeoff!' 

Jason Thiemann agrees. 'Grass had grown in sporadic tufts everywhere, turning it into a teeth-jarring washboard that threatens the safety and longevity of our airplanes and equipment.  

We moved flights to clear the day’s schedule and at the crack of dawn loaded the airplanes and flew to Nohana,' 

The small mountain kingdom of Lesotho, located within the borders of South Africa is unique. Home to a single ethnic group - the Basotho, Lesotho is the only country in the world that lies entirely above 3,281 feet in elevation. While beautiful, this small African nation is crippled by poverty, famine, and HIV/AIDS.

Jason lists the equipment and preparations they made. 'We brought in wheelbarrows, shovels, picks, Bibles, booklets of the Gospel of John, audio Bibles, a chainsaw, cooking utensils, and a slaughtered sheep.' 

'Nearly 50 villagers met us that morning to help. Part of our team went to buy moroho (veggies) and papa (corn flour) to go with the sheep, then started cooking for the big crowd. The rest of us began digging out grass, shovelling dirt, cutting bushes, painting rocks that serve as airstrip markers, and replacing worn out windsocks.' 

'We worked hard until mid-afternoon, until our backs were tired, our hands calloused, and our bellies crying with hunger. Then we all sat under the shade of the wings and enjoyed the best tasting meal we had known in a while.'

'Everyone worked until 2pm when we stopped to share our meal together,'  says Joey, picking up the story.  'A few of the ladies from MAF had spent the day cooking a delicious meal of papa (a corn meal based dish that looks like mashed potatoes), some fabulously seasoned vegetables with a little touch of spiciness, and mutton.

Jason explains how the team took time to witness. 'During the day, we handed out Scripture, our pastor shared God’s Word with men and women, and I even overheard one of our loaders answering questions about Scripture’s teaching on multiple wives. 

After eating, we said our thank yous and goodbyes, then loaded up to get the aircraft home before dark, even as a small team stayed behind to show the Jesus film and minister to those interested.'

'We made a significant improvement on the airstrip, and were able to train a small group of workers hired to continue the work. There is still a lot to be done, but because of our work together and reliance on one another, God’s love and service through MAF can continue to shine in Nohana.' 

'Though we were not able to complete everything that we had hoped for, we were able to clear the grass clumps out of the parking area and the first third (approx. 600ft.) of the runway,' Joey surmises, reflecting on a busy but productive day.  'When we arrived in the morning we landed on a very bumpy runway. But when we left in the evening, we enjoyed a nice, smooth takeoff!' 

'We started clearing the clumps of grass with picks, shovels, and rakes. Over the next hour or so, more and more people from the village showed up.'