Did I ever tell you how, long ago, we lived and worked in Africa? by Bruce C. E. Fleming
I was at Kala Village on the banks of the Ubangi River in 1981. How did I get there? I don’t really recall. But on my way home I rode my dirt bike more than 100 miles into the interior, bucking a Congolese pastor on the back, so I must have gotten myself up to Kala earlier riding my Yamaha 175 Enduro.
Joy hadn’t come along. Our baby girl wasn’t big enough to make the long trip on rutted two track dirt “roads.” It would’ve taken a whole, very long, day to get there.
Why Kala Village? There was a small Bible School there. It was one of the first ever started and it tried to serve an area as big as all of Illinois. It stood on a rocky bluff that was high and dry far above the wide brown jungle river below. Bye the way, Kala Hill was once the home of a huge termite colony.
(That was an early miracle in the story of Kala Hill. The giant Pelendo had just come to Christ and the terrible termites were going to drive away the early missionaries and their wonderful teaching. That is when God answered prayer and the termites were no more.)
Why Kala Bible School? The denomination was holding a pastors’ conference and I was a new missionary professor learning about life and the ministry of pastors in Zaïre (later the DRC). I don’t remember much about the conference, looking back many years later.
I do remember asking somebody if there was a shortcut home that I could take instead of the long road I had come on. I had seen it once and that was enough for me.
“Well, there is a back way you could take,” my informant told me hesitantly. “Since you’re on a motorcycle with off road tires you ought to be able to make it.”
I should have paid more attention. There would be no modern shops, no gas stations, not even a bridge across the Lua River that I would need to cross. But I didn’t think about any of that. I just wanted to get home to my wife and our baby girl.
As I got ready to set out, following the very sketchy details I was given, a pastor asked me if he could ride along as my passenger. There were foot pegs sticking out from the hub of the back wheel. There was some extra room on the saddle between me and the rack on the back for my back pack if he hugged me tight. “Sure,” I said. And off we went, waving bye to Kala Hill.
There was only one helmet between the two of us. It was barely large enough for my own head. I had done some serious shopping in the Western suburbs of Chicago to find the only one available that would fit my size 7 ½ oversize noggin. It was also way too big for the head of my smallish companion. So with the helmet and face shield on my head, and sitting astride the roaring dirt bike, off we went. I tried to hold a conversation with the pastor as we rode along. But we soon gave that up. He couldn’t hear my words muffled behind the face shield and I couldn’t hear his words that he spoke practically into my back as he hugged me tight on the saddle as we swerved from rut to rut to avoid puddles and potholes.
So we traveled in roaring silence for several hours. That back road took us through sparsely populated areas and we never stopped. Until we came to the river.
And there the road dipped down into the fast flowing river while on the other side there was nothing but a bank of tall lush green trees. There was no bridge. And there was no road at all over there.
I took off my helmet and waited for my ears to stop ringing, at least a bit. My pastor passenger stiffly worked his leg over the saddle and tried to walk around. He quickly gave up that effort and focused on simply standing upright while he waited for the blood to circulate again in his legs.
I had both feet down and balanced the dirt bike between my legs. I didn’t want to turn the bike off because I was not at all mechanically gifted. I feared shutting it down and never getting started again.
But after a couple minutes I too wanted to get off and walk around. What else was there to do?
We were totally alone and the last village we passed was several miles behind us. There were no signs of village life. Not a rooster crowed. Not a dog came for a sniff. Not a child came to peek. So I shut ‘er down.
The stillness was Edenic. The foliage was lush. The air was warm. There weren’t even any insects around to bother us. And so we just stood there.
Before my curiosity turned to panic, while I was wondering why I hadn’t been told about this road to nowhere, I spotted some movement downstream on the other side of the river.
Yes. There it was! Two men struggled to paddle a large homemade 25 foot-long log that had been made into a dugout canoe.
Upstream they paddled manfully. Though they were getting closer, they clung only to the far shore.
“Hey! Over here!” I thought. And then, “I wonder where they’re going.” They certainly were an unexpected sight to see but they weren’t going to be involved characters in the details of my increasingly desperate road trip.
“Hey!” I thought. “Could you tell the people who ran the old ferry boat that used to operate here that we need a ride?” But by then they had passed us and were digging in with their paddles moving farther upstream in the fast moving river.
Until, they began to point their giant canoe out into midstream in the river. As the front end cut into the current I saw what was going to happen. The river was going to manhandle that boat and cut off its upriver progress.
They paddled hard on what had become the upstream side of their craft and I wondered at their strength and skill! The current was turning them around and was rapidly bringing them downstream.
Faster and faster it pushed them downstream but at an angle coming our way. Finally they beached right into the bare mud at our feet!
They worked fast and got the canoe settled partway up the shore. Then they extended their hands gesturing that they were ready to take us aboard. Aboard THAT? With a motorcycle?
The pastor scuttled quickly aboard and moved up past the middle. I began to talk to the one who was obviously the captain of this jungle ferry. How in the world do you intend to carry us AND THE MOTORCYCLE across that torrent AND TO WHERE?
I didn’t speak his tribal language and he didn’t speak to me in the trade language I was learning. The pastor bailed us both out interpreting for us both.
- He says you just climb into the boat like me and he will do the rest. He will get the bike into the boat and will sit on it.
- How will he secure it? Do we have to lay it down somehow? Can we get rope somewhere? What if the gas pours into the stream. What if it gets into the motor the wrong way and chokes the carburetor or something? More than that, how will he keep it from tumbling overboard?
- Not to worry he says. He will sit upright on it with his feet resting on the sides of the canoe.
- You’ve got to be kidding!!
And so that’s what the two rivermen did. The captain smiled broadly sitting on the bike with his legs apart, his feet on the narrow edges of his dugout and holding on to the handle grips.
Grandma Frances had given my Dad and me an 18 foot-long Alumacraft canoe when I was 11 years old. So I knew my way around canoes. I ducked down as low as I could to keep the center of gravity as low as I could.
But good would that do! There was the Captain sitting ridiculously high astride the Yamaha 175 Enduro with my backpack still strapped onto the bike rack in back!
Off we went caught in the rapid current. And the other one maneuvered us in an angle toward the far shore. Eventually, appearing out of the hillside was another dead end road similar to the one we had left. In a swift glide and a flick of a paddle we touched gravel and were suddenly scrambling ashore trying to keep our balance.
I didn’t see how the captain maneuvered our machine up the boat and off onto the desired shore. I was looking up the hill. I was delighted by a pair of monkeys swinging in the trees at the top of the bank and finally running off out of sight. My first and only siting of monkeys in the wild!
We paid the men what they asked for. The pastor advised me it was the going rate. And we resettled ourselves to roar down the road in silence.
We would get home long after dark and only would stop twice more. Once at an isolated and empty parsonage. And once when a pregnant goat just COULDN’T DECIDE which way to run!
Rev. Bruce C. E. Fleming is co-founder of the Tru316 Foundation (Tru316,com) He is speaker on The Eden Podcast and author of The Book of Eden, Genesis 2-3. If you’d like to become a Tru Partner to help support this ministry, click Tru316.com.partner