Monday, 23 August 2021

The Past 12 Months in Chad - Eric Carle Style
(Part 1)

I opened our blog a couple of weeks ago and was ashamed to realise that although we have been keeping our Facebook feed up to date and have published quarterly prayer letters, we have not posted a blog post since last summer! The past year has been unpredictable, and unprecedented for the whole world. In the last few months things in Chad became even more unprecedented with the death of President Deby who had been in power for 30 years. Despite the travel bans and lockdowns we have done a lot in the last 12 months so here is part one of what we’ve been up to since returning to Chad in July 2020.

In August 2020, rainy season was in full swing and the flooding around N'Djamena was the worst we had seen since since living in Chad. Hansjoerg Schlatter, a training captain from MAF Uganda joined us in Chad to complete my postponed Caravan training and I had a busy month flying people and supplies to places isolated by the rain while also learning how to operate the C208.

Large areas of N'Djamena were swamped with water.

Finishing off the C208 conversion training with HJ Schlatter.

In September we celebrated Luke and Matt's birthdays. Luke had a party with his friends while Matt enjoyed solo parenting as I had a flight which involved staying overnight on his birthday!

I finished off my official training on the C208. It is MAF's policy that once you’re qualified you must then fly a certain number of hours with a supervisory pilot while you get proficient with your newly acquired skills. Unfortunately Hansjoerg was not able to stay long enough for me to complete the supervisory flying so we called on the services of Mark Liprini from MAF South Africa, who joined us for 5 weeks. One of the flights was to the Tibesti Mountains in the North, where we stayed overnight and for the first time in 3 years I got to see one of the most impressive tourist sights in Chad, the Painted Rocks.

Bethan's school year in Chad normally starts in August but due to the airport closures that were in place until early August and other restrictions, her teachers were unable to get back and set up in time for the start of term so she had a few extra weeks summer holiday and started back on September 21st.

A space themed 4th birthday party

Painted Rocks in the Tibesti

In October both aircraft were due for their 4 yearly weighing. Over time, sand creeps into gaps and parts get replaced meaning the weight changes over time. In order to weigh the aircraft, all the additional equipment we have on board (first aid kits, headsets, fuel pumps etc) is removed, the aircraft is cleaned, the fuel drained and then the weight and center of gravity arm calculated. Once the engineer has finished, the operations department check the weights of the additional equipment and add it to the weight of the aircraft. The new weights are fed onto our load sheet information to ensure we have accurate data for our preflight calculations. We were very thankful that our temporary visiting engineer was able to return for a month to carry out this and other essential tasks!

On October 28th I flew solo for the first time in the Caravan.

Weighing the Cessna 182

First Solo in C208

In November we celebrated Guy Fawkes night with a (surprisingly) large bonfire and the children built a COVID safe Guy which was added to the fire. A few days later we joined fellow Brits on Remembrance Sunday for an evening rooftop gathering, a moments silence and a shared meal. 

In the office I ran a four-week customer service course where the national staff learnt how to serve our customers well, how to handle difficult customers and how to build houses out of cards!

Bonfire Night in COVID times

Learning how to build card houses and serve customers

Handing out certificates of completion


In December
 I flew a delegation from ‘Mines Advisory Group (MAG)’, the British Government and the ‘Department for Demining in Chad’ up to Fada for a field trip to see the work that MAG are doing to demine the region. Between 1978-1987 the Ennedi area was part of the battlefield of the Libyan conflict. Now, 30 years later, mines and other unexploded devices are still in the ground, many displaced by the annual rains that carry them to areas away from where they were originally positioned. MAG are working with a team of 50 de-miners and specialist equipment to make the area safe again for people and livestock. 

Due to low Covid cases and easing of restrictions in Chad, we were able to hold our annual Christmas party with the national staff and their families. It was a great time to be able to share a meal together and recognise our colleagues’ achievements throughout the year. There were also plenty of games and gifts for the children. 

For our wedding anniversary we were able to get away to the AIM retreat center about 25 minutes away from our house. It is situated on the river and is a very relaxing place to spend a few days. The river was still high and fast from the rains earlier in the year so we were not able to kayak but we spotted plenty of wildlife including a hippo and some chameleons.

We had a quiet Christmas on the compound, with only 2 families in program at the time. We had a friend over on Christmas day who was on a short term trip in Chad, away from his family. On Boxing day, Bethan's teachers and a few other friends joined us for nibbles at our house

Demining in Fada

Ennedi Region where many mines are located

Camels in Ennedi

Wildlife spotting at the retreat

Sunset over the Chari River at the retreat

In January the country went into lockdown. We were spending New Years Eve with some British friends who work at Guinebor II hospital on the outskirts of the city. At 6pm the government announced that due to rising COVID cases between Christmas and New Year, N’Djamena would be locked down from midnight on Dec 31st. All roads in/out of the city would be closed, and the airport would close on the 4th January. Due to the timing of the announcement, some of our local staff who had been visiting relatives for Christmas/New Year in their home towns were unable to get back to N'Djamena. We got special permission to evacuate some people to the city who were unable to return by road and needed to be in the city for medical care or catch an international flight to return to school in Kenya. 

In the middle of January the airport was reopened but the roads in/out of the city remained closed. At the end of the month our temporary engineer from Madagascar was able to return to Chad, this time bringing his wife along too. We were very happy to have him back in the program in time to carry out some essential routine maintenance and get the aircraft back in the air.

Flying over Northern Chad while the roads were closed

Michel came back in January









Thursday, 30 July 2020

A-Z of Lockdown in England

Now we are back in Chad we've been looking back at the 3 months we spent in England. We enjoyed being able to do things that we can't do in Chad and don't usually have time for when we come back for home assignment. We've compiled an A-Z list of things that we did during our unexpected break during the Coronavirus lockdown.


Spending time with Jack
A is for Animals

We lived with Matt's parents, who have a 2 year old dog named Jack. Luke took a while to warm to him but after repeatedly explaining that "my are the boss" they had a good relationship. Bethan devoted a lot of time training him to "stay close", which he most definitely did, rarely leaving the children's side in whatever activity they were doing. Bethan enjoyed visiting some horses in a field nearby and both of them enjoyed watching and feeding Grandpa's fish.

B is for Biopsy

Earlier in the year, Becki noticed a breast lump and while in the UK, went to the doctor to get it checked out. She was referred to the hospital for a biopsy. Waiting for the results was a worrying time but thankfully the results came back that it was a fibroadenoma.

C is for Completing School

Like many schools, Wellspring Academy closed at the end of March and after the Easter break, the teachers provided work each week for students to complete. Bethan spent the mornings hard at work, with a mixture of working through workbooks by herself (with Becki working at the same table, on hand to help and keep her concentrating), some maths, science and reading with Daddy, art with Becki and creative writing with Grandma. School finished in mid-June so she had a month of summer holidays too.

D is for Doctors

Soon after we arrived, Luke had to go to the doctors surgery in town for some injections that he was due. He wasn't happy and vowed never to "go to town" again. Unfortunately he was due a further injection a month later and quickly cottoned on when I tried to put him in the car. He screamed at me for the next hour until it was finally over and now has a great dislike of doctors. At the end of our stay, an innocuous graze on his knee became infected and we wanted him checked out. Despite the protests he eventually agreed to show the doctor his knee. The doctor had grown up in Africa and his stories made Luke laugh so hopefully he has prevented a lifelong fear of doctors. His knee eventually cleared up.

E is for Easter Egg hunt

We had arrived in the land of good chocolate just in time for Easter, and with much more suitable temperatures we set up an outdoor Easter Egg hunt. The children loved searching the garden with their rabbit ears on. Also Daddy and Grandpa learned an important lesson about not stealing chocolate from children!



Catching tadpoles to raise into frogs
F is for Frogs

It was a nice change to come back to England during spring, rather than summer and the kids found a small fish tank to keep some tadpoles. They enjoyed watching them develop into froglets and we bought them a book on the subject. Luke memorised many facts about them and enjoyed testing us on his new found knowledge. Some of the frogs were released into a pond in the garden so we might even see them again next year.

G is for Games

There were plenty of games played while we were in England. Bethan and Luke really enjoyed playing Frustration and Ludo. Bethan played draughts with Grandpa and learnt some new card games from Grandma. We bought Telestrations after playing it with friends in Chad and had entertaining games as a family. Becki and I had some child free time playing Codenames (over the internet) with some friends who were stuck in Uganda.

H is for Haircut

The fact that the hairdressers were closed was not a problem for me or the kids as Becki normally cuts our hair anyway, but Becki wanted hers cut before we went back to Chad (she had a bad haircut experience in Madagascar) so Bethan stepped up to the mark and offered/begged to cut it. Over two long sittings, one afternoon she did her very first haircut and actually did a great job!

I is for Internet

We appreciated having fast internet without a limit of how many Gigabytes we could use. Becki spent a lot of time on calls with MAF colleagues, so this was vital for her, but we also spent a lot of time online ordering supplies to take back with us.  Birthday and Christmas presents, clothes for the year ahead and materials/tools for woodwork projects planned were all ordered as well as things requested from our colleagues in Chad both personally and for work. Our most frequented website during our time in England was "Tchadinfos" - where latest news in Chad is published - as we waited for news on when the airport would reopen.

J is for Jumpers

We were blessed with glorious weather for much of our stay but coming from Chad which was approaching 40 degrees Celsius in March, we all felt cold. Becki in particular spent most of the time in a jumper!

K is for Kart

One morning Bethan had an idea of building a go-kart, which could be pulled along by the dog. I liked the idea of doing a project with her and rummaged through the garage for suitable parts. Using an old hand-drill, 4 stabiliser wheels and lots of wood, we built it in a day. The dog wasn't interested in pulling the combined weight of the kart and a child but the children had fun playing with it in the garden.



L is for Lathing

I have always enjoyed making things out of wood and my Dad owns a wood lathe so having some time on my hands, I took the opportunity to learn wood turning. Becki asked my if I could make a child's tea-set so after grasping the basics, I made a selection of cups and plates for the kids. I quickly became hooked and was spending more and more time in the garage, making one more thing as a new idea came to me.

M is for Melons

Bethan developed a keen interest in gardening while we were in England and after eating a melon, decided to plant the seeds in pots. A few days later she had 24 melon plants sprouting! Spotting a way to make money, she decided to set up a table outside the house to sell her plants and they sold well, making herself some extra pocket money.

N is for No Visiting

Since we've lived abroad, any visit to England is a busy time of travelling and visiting friends and supporters around the country. This time, with the nation told to stay at home where possible, we saw very few people. In our first six weeks the only places we went were the doctors and to the field near the house. Knowing that we were so close to friends and family but unable to visit them was frustrating.

O is for Operations

Not the surgical ones! The MAF Chad operations, which were managed from a table in Wimborne rather than the hangar in N'Djamena. As well as the day-to-day management of her team and emailing customers, there were video calls with colleagues in the UK office, Chad and in programs all around the world. She also spent lockdown writing the Ground Ops Manual, a detailed document on all aspects of Ground Operations, which will be invaluable for training staff.

P is for Post

One of the highlights of the day was the postman coming to the house. Luke misunderstood how the postal service worked and thought you could ask the postman for whatever you wanted and he would bring it. The children enjoyed wrapping parcels and putting it through the letterbox and a visit to see the postbox down the road was an almost daily occurrence.

Q is for Quiet

We arrived in England during lock-down and immediately noticed how quiet the roads were on the drive back from the airport. N'Djamena hadn't noticeably changed before we left but in England there was no-one around and it felt very odd. After the first 6 weeks, when some shops and businesses started to reopen, the noise levels gradually increased again but it was nice while it lasted.

R is for Riding bikes

We bought a couple of child's bikes that were listed for sale just a few miles from where we were living. This turned out to be a great decision as Bethan loved the freedom of riding around where we lived and Luke soon learned how to ride by himself. On Saturday mornings we loaded the bikes on the car and explored different parts of the Castleman Trailway.





S is for Snooker

In the corner of the garage we found a 6 foot snooker table that had been sat, unused for 20 years. We got it set up but the wood was warped which made it unstable and sloped (not ideal). After experimenting with sandbags tied to one end to try and unbend the surface I decided a proper rebuild was necessary. Becki wasn't best pleased about the snooker table drying in our already crowded bedroom! Playing snooker and pool was a daily activity on fine days and Bethan got a child-sized cue and improved greatly. Now I have plans to build one in Chad!

T is for Treehouse

While we were away, an impressive treehouse and rope bridge was constructed on our compound in Chad. We did the same on a much smaller scale, making a treehouse for the children's sylvanians to live in and building a tree house out of toilet rolls for a competition to win a years' supply of childrens' science magazines. We didn't win but had a lot of fun building it together as a family.

U is for UN flight

With the airport in Chad continuing to postpone re-opening, the only way of getting back to Chad before August was to try and get seats on the flights put on for UN workers by the World Food Program. They use Ghana as a hub for the rest of Africa so we took a commercial flight to Ethiopia and then UN flights to Ghana and then onto Chad, arriving 4 days after leaving England. We were a bit apprehensive about that amount of travelling with 2 children but it all went very smoothly.

V is for Vegetable patch

Bethan and Luke enjoyed working on the vegetable patch, planting seeds, training runner beans, digging up potatoes, keeping caterpillars away from the cauliflower leaves and putting up netting to keep the birds away. They loved getting muddy and learning about growing your own food.



W is for Walks

For the first six weeks, daily exercise was the only thing that you were allowed to leave the house for, so going for a walk became something to really look forward to. Luke enjoyed the flowers (and going past the post box) and Bethan enjoyed running after the dog and going in the pond to retrieve the ball when Jack refused!





Answering the quiz at the last Explosion club session,
here Bethan actually attended from our room in Ghana.

X is for eXplosion club

Bovey Baptist Church is one of our supporting churches and they invited Bethan to join their online youth group on a Tuesday evening. This was a highlight of her week. She enjoyed the Bible stories, crafts and gaining points for successfully memorising memory verses. It was nice for her to do something with other children, which she was otherwise unable to do during lockdown.




Y is for Youtube

One afternoon's activity involved the children and Grandma putting on a show for us about the
planets. They both sang along to different planet songs on Youtube while holding up planet puppets that they had made. One of these songs stuck in their heads and before long, both of them were singing the whole song by heart, learning lots of facts about the planets in the process! Then it transpired that there was also a song about the dwarf planets to the same tune, so this was also learnt and their obsession with our Solar System grew. These tunes became the soundtrack for lockdown.

Z is for Zoom

It was good to be able to speak to friends and colleagues who were in different places, at the same time via Zoom. MAF were excellent at keeping us updated throughout this difficult time for the organisation and we were glad to have the opportunity to speak with our colleagues in program while we were away.

Congratulations, you made it to the end! We hope that you enjoyed reading about what we've been up to these last few months. At the end of this week we will have finished our quarantine at home. Becki will have a flight on Friday to become "current" again on the Cessna 182 and in a couple of weeks, an instructor pilot will arrive in Chad to complete her training on the Caravan.

Bethan and Luke drew a road on some wood from the garage, Covid social distance measures are in place in their imaginary town.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

An Unexpected Return to England


On the evening of Monday 16th March, the Chad government announced that it would be closing it's borders, stopping all commercial flights from "midnight on Thursday" due to the escalating Coronavirus situation around the world. Becki was due to remain in Uganda for another 2 weeks but on hearing this news, with MAF's permission, she tried to book the earliest possible flight back to Chad. Unfortunately the airline phone number wasn't working and on visiting their office at the airport she was told that she instead had to go to their other office in the city centre. With this lost time, she was unable to get a seat on Wednesday's flight but we were assured that midnight meant 11:59pm on the Thursday night so she booked a seat for the following day's flight. However, on Wednesday morning we heard that the scheduled Air France flight would not arrive that evening and it soon became clear that airlines were no longer flying into Chad.

Becki carried on with her training and was enjoying living with friends from our first year in Chad but with just 4 days of her training remaining, Uganda closed its airport and entered a state of lockdown. With all form of transport banned, Becki was no longer able to get to the airport. Chad, meanwhile, had announced a further 2 week closure of its borders and initiated restrictions such as banning public transport and issuing a night-time curfew. Both of us were on the look out for flights to England as waiting for a flight to Chad could mean months apart and the children were missing her more and more as their countdown chart ended but Mum hadn’t come back. There were rumours of an Air France repatriation flight ever since the Chad border closed but no date was given and it looked doubtful that it would actually happen.

An online community to help repatriate Brits in Uganda was very helpful in alerting Becki to a planned Qatar airways flight to London and helping get her to the airport without problems from the police. She arrived back in the UK on Saturday 4th April, but we were still no closer to finding out if we would be able to join her there.

A flight for U.S citizens due to leave for Washington DC on Thursday 9th had been well publicised for the preceding week so I thought that any Paris-bound flight would also come with plenty of warning. So I was surprised to hear from our MAF neighbours, Steve and Katie Machell, on Wednesday evening that there was a French military flight to Paris the next day, which may have space if we were interested. Katie gave them my contact details and at 6:30pm, a phone call from a very helpful member of the French military in N’Djamena took my details and told me to report at the base at 0800 the next morning. Bethan overheard my conversation and worked out what was going on. As It was her bedtime she insisted that she would do all the packing when she woke up and I shouldn’t attempt it as apparently she had learnt from Becki and I wasn’t going to be able to do it! Although part of me was keen to see how that would pan out, I declined her offer.

With the kids asleep I had 12 hours until leaving the house so with my mind racing with all the things that needed doing, I got going. Salaries for our house help, arrangements for feeding the rabbit and hedgehog, who’s going to water the garden? Ask Bethan’s teacher if I can collect all her workbooks, tickets for the Paris-London flight, the list got longer and longer and I hadn’t even started on packing for an undetermined amount of time in England! Thankfully Becki was brainstorming 6000km away and my phone was beeping with WhatsApp messages. The last one, at midnight told me to get some sleep!

The next morning, after a dash to school for Bethan’s school work, we left the house with clothes strewn across the floor from the last minute jettison of things to get the suitcase under 20kg. It was a strange feeling as the excitement of seeing Becki and reuniting her with the children was contrasted by feelings of sadness and nervousness to leave our home to go to a country that was in lockdown! Leaving our MAF teammates who were due a home assignment in May and would not be able to go felt unfair but they were very understanding.

On arrival at the French military base we were given face masks and lined up along with the other passengers, some of whom I knew. There was a lot of waiting as we queued before entering each tent in turn on our way to the final waiting area. The highlight for the children was watching the sniffer dog search through our luggage and I was glad for the extra water they provided as we got through our supply very fast in the 40 degree plus heat. Luke was getting a bit impatient by 2pm as he still hadn’t seen the plane but then the MAF Caravan flew overhead and they enjoyed waving at Steve and Phil so he forgot about worrying about the lack of progress we were making. I was very glad to be travelling with Katie and her friend Penny who were brilliant with the children. At last we boarded the bus which took us through the base to our waiting Airbus. It was an old aircraft, without any entertainment or food provided but it was a good flight nevertheless, arriving in Paris around 11pm.

About to board our flight in N’Djamena


I had packed blankets and pillows as I expected a night on the airport floor but while waiting for our flight, Steve Machell (MAF Chad program manager) had found a hotel that was still open and booked me a room for the night. I was incredibly thankful for this when we arrived in Paris, after a very long day. A good night sleep and a shower was great but breakfast was hard to find. There was nowhere open to change a 20 euro note so the only breakfast option, hotel vending machines, weren’t going to feed the hungry children. In the end another hotel guest heard us pleading with the hotel receptionist and gave us change. It was strange to be in such a large airport with no one around and nothing open. At least the train to the terminal was still operating and the kids were kept entertained by leaving excited messages for Becki to update her on our progress.

The final stage of our journey from Paris to London Heathrow was uneventful and the children got more and more excited about seeing their mum after a month away. It was fun to see their reactions when they saw her, both running under the barrier to hug her!

Happy to see each other again


Monday, 6 April 2020

Update

For those who receive our quarterly prayer letter, you will know that I left Chad in early March and arrived in Uganda for my MAF conversion training onto the Cessna Caravan. This was planned to be for just over 3 weeks, giving me time in Chad with our other pilot, Phil, to do some supervised flying in program before taking the reigns while he went on home assignment with his family for 3 months. However with a rapidly changing situation globally, but especially in Africa where decisions were being made thick and fast, I quickly found myself the wrong side of a closed border (Chad closed its airport). A week later there were two closed borders as Uganda did the same and shortly after that came the news that Uganda was in almost complete lockdown. No vehicles, private or public, were allowed to drive on the roads and it became impossible to finish my training. I was able to complete the majority of it, finishing all the ground school and all but one of the simulator training sessions, so when the situation changes I should be able to complete the rest of my training in Chad.

As it became impossible to continue with the reason I was in Uganda, I joined a specially organised flight to get people out of Uganda who were not resident in the country on Friday night and am now in the UK where the news reports tell me it is a lovely sunny weekend, but I am freezing! Our hope is that it will be easier for us to reunite as a family with only one border closure between us. Plan A being that it becomes possible for me to get back to Chad, Plan B that Matt and the children can join me in the UK. For now we sit and wait.



(if you want to receive our prayer letter, please subscribe at https://www.maf-uk.org/staff/dillingham-becki-and-matt#pray)

Friday, 10 January 2020

A Week in a Tchadian Village

On 13th December Bethan's school gave their Christmas performance based on the Gospel of Luke and the term ended. The next morning we packed up the car and then transferred everything into the aeroplane (Cessna 182) to spend a week in the South of Chad. We were based in a village called Tchaguine, staying in a guest house within the property of a family that I had flown many times. During the week, I flew a team of doctors into various villages in the region, where they spent 1-2 days at each location. The advantage of being based in Tchaguine was that as well as having a fuel stock and good security for the aircraft, Matt and the children could join me for the trip. It was the first time in a MAF aircraft for Bethan and Luke, and their first opportunity to experience village life since we've been in Chad. Here are some of the photos from our visit.

You know your not at Heathrow when..
A sweet old lady sitting out in the shade
Tchaguine
Tchaguine

The movie theatre, it was showing Real Madrid v Barcelona while we were there. 300 CFA a ticket (approx 45p) 

Grains waiting to be ground

Village life

The local Church - At the front right there are big pots of produce given as a tithe from the crops.
The people sitting on the left are the choir.

The church youth group practising marching and playing games

Enjoying the open space of Tchaguine's runway

Coming to meet me and Phillipe after we had inspected the runway for objects dropped on the ground (Avocado seeds, sticks, rocks etc)

Taking off to move the doctors between villages

The aircraft was parked in a pen at night to discourage curious children from getting too close

Refilling Jerry cans to refuel the plane

Doing laundry


Walking to market
Tuesday's market (The rest of the week this area is empty)

Ordering fried bean doughnuts for lunch

It was cool enough to enjoy a camp fire
Sylvie and Bethan got on like a house on fire
Termite mounds near the runway
Climbing trees

Beautiful butterfly

Chasing the aircraft to it's parking spot
The boy with the long hair perplexed many people


The aircraft always draws a crowd

Bethan loved a week of playing with kittens 
Mobile phones, Coca-Cola and football can be found everywhere in the world!

Pounding millet

This little guy was taking a walk right by the aircraft

Pumping water

Desert Rose - for most of the year this plant looks almost dead then once a year it flowers beautifully 

Eating a Chadian staple - rice and sauce

Our host family for the week who blessed us in so many ways

Leaving Tcahguine

Tchaguine from the air

Tchaguine runway