It's early. 4:45am in Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital. The sun is slowly transforming the world with light. But life has already begun in the MAF hangar.
Passengers begin to arrive, and the Cessna Caravan is prepared for departure. With coffee poured, I sit to hear one passenger's story. Her name is Hilde, and she looks very alive – even at this unearthly hour. I can already sense God's love within her.
Following the call
A qualified nurse, Hilde was working in a hospital in Belgium when she felt God's call. Sensing a new season, she began a journey of discovery – her first stop: Madagascar.
She visited the Good News Hospital in Mandritsara, a trip that takes two days by road. With MAF, it's an hour and a half from Antananarivo – the route we are flying today.
Hilde's journey ended abruptly when she reached the hospital. She knew this was where she would stay.
Since then, Hilde's never looked back and she now lives permanently in Madagascar. Sponsored as a missionary by international NGO Tearfund, she feels completely settled in this remote town. Hilde shares a house with a Malagasy eye doctor who feels like her sister. 'And Mandritsara feels like my home,' she smiles.
Although Hilde began as a practicing nurse at the Good News Hospital, she now trains Malagasy to become nurses. 'They come to Mandritsara for three years, then leave fully qualified,' she explains.
'It's a very practical way of sharing Jesus. We may not always speak about Christ, but in our actions we do. Many come to the hospital and have been trained, helped and healed. It's our way of doing the Gospel work.'
It's the Malagasy people and God's call on her life that keeps Hilde passionate about her work. 'So many come from far away to be treated, I know it's worthwhile,' she says. 'Women can give birth safely and babies are saved. Major wounds are treated. That's what keeps me going.'
A lot of Hilde's patients come with injuries suffered on the road, because travelling overland can be so dangerous. That's why many are grateful for MAF's service.
'Taxi-bus accidents happen a lot where vehicles turn upside down. Sometimes people walk for three days carrying others on a stretcher. There's no other hospital for 150 miles.'
When I ask her about MAF's help, she doesn't hesitate. 'There's a lot of coming and going with MAF! People have become so used to seeing the aircraft that they say, "Look! There's our plane coming!" I hope no one thinks it's really ours – we don't have that kind of money!' she laughs.
'But the MAF pilots – they're so flexible, helpful and always kind. Today I almost didn't have a seat, but now I'm here! They work hard to find a solution and fit everyone in. I'm very thankful.'
Playing a small part
Hilde and the rest of the team at the Good News Hospital are certainly humble. They've followed God's call to work in a very challenging and deprived part of the world. Although the hospital is well equipped by Malagasy standards, x-rays dry in the open air, and patients often wait all day in the courtyard to be seen.
'Sometimes I feel like such a small part of God's plan,' Hilde says. 'I even think, "Oh, other people are doing much more for the Gospel than me!" But we can all think that.
'Perhaps you do it in your office, or in a plane, or in a hospital – but we are all part of God's big plan.
'We must all do our bit, holding our own personal vision and faith within. As long as together we're giving to the poor, feeding the hungry and visiting the prisoners – together we can all make a big difference for Christ. It's not our words. It's what we do with our lives.'