From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Pilot longs to resume flight ministry in Congo

Date 20 Feb 2001 07:24:41

Feb. 19, 2001 News media contact: Tim Tanton·(615)742-5470·Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph is available with this story.

By Darlene Slack*

TOLEDO, Ohio (UMNS) - Congolese pilot Gaston Ntambo can still feel God's
gentle hand lifting him on "the wings of the morning," and he prays that his
homeland's new ruler can restore the peace necessary for him to fly again
and save lives.

Ntambo flew for the United Methodist Church's "Wings of the Morning"
ministry before war forced him to flee his homeland. He was the last of the
church's seven pilots - some of whom flew for other ministries -- to
evacuate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo because of the conflict.
His father, United Methodist Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda, had told him to
leave as government and rebel soldiers increasingly threatened to commandeer
pilots and their planes. In 1999, Gaston Ntambo and his wife, Jeanne, who
served as a radio operator for the flight ministry, moved with their
children to Toledo, the city where he had earned his pilot's license. 

He left behind countless villagers in remote areas dependent on the United
Methodist flight ministry for medicine, supplies and transportation.
Although evacuation was "the wisest thing to do," he says, "it felt more
like we were abandoning them." 

So Ntambo, 31, waits like the watchman in Psalms who longs for dawn, hoping
to return in the spring. Designated as a person in mission for the United
Methodist Board of Global Ministries, he is one of three Wings of the
Morning pilots in the church's North Katanga Conference. One pilot flies in
the Southern Congo Conference, and three others serve an identical United
Methodist program called "Wings of Caring" in the Central Congo Conference.

Initially after President Laurent Kabila's assassination in January, Ntambo
was concerned by stories from home. Would newly installed President Joseph
Kabila, a major general and son of the assassinated president, put the
Congolese people first? Since then, Ntambo has been impressed with Joseph
Kabila's quick steps toward peace, initiating negotiations with enemies, and
soliciting help from the United Nations and key foreign powers.

Ntambo says the 29-year-old president "is like fresh water," meaning his
youth and political inexperience could offer a new, untainted source of
leadership. Because Kabila "is surrounded by doubts," he must work hard to
prove his worthiness as leader, Ntambo says. "He has to bring peace to the
people of the Congo."

The other African countries entangled in the Congo war entered the fight
either to support rebels against Laurent Kabila (Rwanda and Uganda) or to
assist him (Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia). Some want to subdue their own
rebel factions, which have taken refuge across Congo's borders. Also, the
Congo has the allure of vast wealth in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt.

Under both Belgian colonization and later the U.S.-backed dictatorship of
Mobutu Sese Seko, the country's natural wealth benefited a few while the
masses were deprived of adequate nutrition, health care, education and
transportation. The nation "that could be the richest in Africa" is still
healing from what people call Mobutu's "kleptocracy," Ntambo says. A year
after Laurent Kabila seized power in 1997, war began again, further draining
resources and restricting desperately needed mission services.

The burden pressing like a stone on Ntambo's heart is the awareness that,
without him, impoverished villagers are dying simply because they have no
way to get to a hospital. The North Katanga Conference is an area the size
of Texas, with a population of 6 million, a few large government hospitals
and "hardly any good roads," he says. Some people survive the several days'
journey by bicycle, if they get an early start. But many more wait too long,
or turn to "the local medicine man," or are too sick to travel that way.

In war, those villagers suffer the most. Already struggling with malaria,
diarrhea, respiratory infections, worms and malnutrition, they are exposed
to widely spread epidemics such as cholera and measles. They also are
vulnerable to soldiers taking their food, medicine and even their lives if
they are accused of aiding enemies.

The Congo war has displaced 2 million people since August 1998, according to
U.S. estimates. More than 327,000 refugees have fled to neighboring
countries. The death toll is estimated at 1.7 million.

The church is a critical presence, a provider of spiritual and medical
services and "a voice of reason" encouraging reconciliation, says George
Howard, who led a mission team from Epworth United Methodist Church in
Toledo to the Congo in 1991.

That team brought home Bishop Ngoy Kimba Wakadilo's idea of making a
long-term difference by investing in people's faith and education. The
Epworth team also brought home the name of Gaston Ntambo.

Growing up as a son of a pastor who earned $10 to $15 a month, Ntambo
thought some dreams stretched beyond him. A United Methodist missionary
named John Enright gave him his first pair of shoes when he was 9 or 10, and
"a little seed was planted inside." He wanted to make others feel as blessed
as the shoes had made him feel. He never imagined that other United
Methodists would provide the means to do so.

The Epworth congregation enrolled him in Davis College in Toledo. At 25, he
became the first Congolese pilot for Wings of the Morning, a program founded
in 1960 by Ken Enright, father of the missionary who gave him the shoes.

Ntambo has inspired the Epworth congregation in their support of several
African church constructions, and the Congolese in their dreams. "They can
look at him and see what God has done. He's doing something they thought
only white people can do, only missionaries. It raises the bar of what
anyone can do," says Howard, Council on Ministries director of
Congregational Development in West Ohio.

Ntambo is completing a two-year airplane technician program at the Michigan
Institute of Aeronautics in Detroit. He's also helping his wife raise their
four young children and speaks at churches about Wings of the Morning. The
program's cost per patient is usually $110. It's generally underfunded,
Howard says.

When sharing his experiences, Ntambo says "that's when it usually bounces
back to me: 'That's really dangerous what you're doing.'" 

Before starting the engines, the pilots pray. "It's a procedure. There is no
air traffic control, no weather station. We're just bush pilots. What you
see is what you get" -- a sudden thunderstorm, logs left on a runway, a goat
or a child who runs in front of a descending plane.

War in the Congo cost the lives of two pilots, one in 1965 and the other in
1985. Although the United Methodist Church now has an agreement with the
government that the planes not be used for military operations, desperate
soldiers sometimes stretch it.

Despite the risks, Ntambo says, "I cannot just walk away from Wings of the
Morning, and I'm not even tempted."

He misses the peacefulness of flying and the joy of helping save lives. When
a Wings of the Morning plane swoops down like a bird from heaven, at least
50 people come running with flowers and songs, he says. Some patients come
on bicycle after a two- or three-day journey to reach the nearest runway. As
long as people can get word to a district superintendent or a missionary
with a hand radio, they have access to Wings of the Morning.

Not all stories end happily. He flew a young woman whose baby had died in
her womb to a city airport, where they waited an hour for a car to take her
to the hospital. She died in the airport hangar.

Sometimes he never knows what happens with a patient; other times grateful
survivors find him later. Ntambo transported a hunter who had been trapped
in a bush fire that burned more than 50 percent of his body. He wasn't sure
the man would survive. 

Three months later, the man and his seven children appeared at Ntambo's
front door. They were carrying, he says, "the biggest African chicken I have
ever seen." 

Wings of the Morning is an Advance Special of the United Methodist Church.
Checks can be designated for "Wings of the Morning, #008597-1RA" (North
Katanga Conference), "Wings of the Morning, #008596-0RA" (Southern Congo
Conference) or "Wings of Caring," 008595-8RA (Central Congo Conference) and
made payable to the local church or "Advance GCFA." Donations can be given
to local church treasurers or sent to Advance GCFA, P.O. Box 9068, GPO, New
York, NY 10087-9068.

# # #

*Slack is a free-lance writer who lives in Cardington, Ohio.

United Methodist News Service
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