Out of nowhere
Chad, March 2020: Africa’s largest landlocked nation where over 70 percent of people live rural lives, disconnected from technology, media… and the coronavirus. With 283 hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients for the entire population – 36 of them with intensive care facilities – the nation was far from ready for a pandemic that was crippling the world.
On 9 March Becki Dillingham, a British MAF pilot and Operations Manager based in N’Djamena, left her husband Matt and two children Bethan (8) and Luke (3) to complete urgent training in Uganda, expecting to be away for just a few weeks. Bethan and Luke resolutely circled the 3 April – counting 24 long but necessary days of separation – on their calendar.
Without Becki’s training, MAF’s fleet could be grounded during Chad’s wet season – which would be devastating for the country’s remote and vulnerable communities. Transporting more than 30 Christian organisations and NGOs to deliver life-saving healthcare, food, and relief personnel in some of the remotest areas, MAF offers a vital air-service which sustains hundreds of Chadian communities living in poverty and complete isolation. The airline also helps spread the Good News of Christ to remote villages by supporting local churches and missionaries.
As Europe closely watched one another enter a state of lockdown, in Africa, coronavirus restrictions came more quickly than anyone anticipated – out of nowhere. So, when Chad suddenly announced its borders would be closing on 19 March, the family had two days to plan their reunion.
“I never thought things would escalate so quickly,” reflects Becki, remembering the swift move from plan A to B to complete unknown. “When I left Chad, coronavirus was so far from us. In Africa, you’re quite removed from the rest of the world. It never crossed my mind not to travel to Uganda. We all knew how important this training was.”
Although her job often requires nights away – sometimes stranded by bad weather in a tiny, isolated village – until now Becki had never been apart from her children for more than five days. “We built up to this trip,” she explains. “Bethan’s birthday celebrations were delayed until I got home. The calendar was there to give them focus. Matt could hold the fort.”
Little did they know their separation would extend beyond a month.
Stuck in Uganda, Becki heard of a flight to Chad on Thursday 19 March. She spent a day frantically trying to secure a seat, travelling to Kampala airport, then the city centre and bouncing between fruitless phone calls and emails – only to find the flight was cancelled.
Then Uganda entered a state of lockdown too. The Dillingham family was stranded behind two closed borders.
Entering the unknown
Becki’s return date came, and passed, and mummy hadn’t come home. Without school, Bethan’s routine was uprooted. Luke showed some unusual behaviours. Each day that passed became harder for Matt, juggling parenting, housework and maintenance on their compound without an end date to focus on.
“When our countdown chart ran out – that’s when we really started to struggle,” Becki admits. “The trickiest thing was not knowing. Not knowing what would happen, not knowing when we would see each other. It was an emotional rollercoaster, and things were changing so rapidly. Everything was out of our hands.”
Hearing rumours of repatriation flights from N’Djamena and Kampala, the family began praying for a reunion in the UK. “Because we all have British passports, the government in Chad or Uganda would have enforced a 14-day quarantine in an overcrowded hotel for $100 a night,” Becki explains. “I read a blog by someone who was sleeping in hotel corridors because they’d flown from Europe or the US. That would have put our family at greater risk of infection. We weren’t prepared to do that.”
Glimmers of hope
With the help of an online community and round-the-clock support from MAF colleagues in the UK and Uganda, Becki finally made the long-prayed for journey to London via Dubai, arriving in Heathrow on Saturday 4 April. She stepped onto British soil no closer to finding out if the rest of her family would be able to join her.
“It felt bizarre, and slightly risky,” recalls Becki, “leaving a country with only 20 coronavirus cases for one with thousands of deaths. But everything happened so quickly and there was no chance for us to act. Of course, we wanted to be in Chad – we live there to serve its people and that’s where we call home. But all we could do was pray to be together again.”
Four days passed, and Becki set up an MAF operations desk from a conservatory in Dorset, where she joined Matt’s parents in their new life of lockdown.
A lifeline flight
Finally, on Wednesday 8 April, Matt was thrown a lifeline. “Our MAF neighbours told me about a French military flight to Paris the next day,” he remembers. Immediately picking up the phone at dusk, Matt agreed to be at the military base at eight the following morning. Bethan darted into earshot to catch wind of this new hope. “It was close to her bedtime, so she promised to do all the packing when she woke up,” Matt smiles.
Hope for their reunion was palpable as Matt’s head finally hit the pillow after midnight, racing with lists from Becki’s WhatApp and his own tasks to complete at dawn.
After a dash to Bethan’s school for her workbooks, Matt closed the door on a sea of things discarded from burgeoning suitcases in a vain attempt to keep them under 20kg. The Dillinghams didn’t know when they would return.
The long journey home
“It was a strange feeling, as the excitement of reuniting with Becki was contrasted by sadness and nerves,” admits Matt. “Leaving our MAF teammates who were due to enjoy a well-earned break in Canada felt very unfair, but they were very understanding,” he adds.
On arrival at the French military base, Matt was given three facemasks and the family joined a long line of passengers. They queued before entering tent after tent – temperatures checked, luggage weighed, and paperwork scanned. Matt tried to keep his quickly tiring children entertained. “The highlight for the kids was watching the sniffer dog search through our luggage,” he smiles – a welcome distraction from the 40-degree heat.
“At last we boarded our waiting Airbus, an old aircraft without entertainment or food. We finally touched down in Paris around 11pm,” Matt recalls. “I had packed blankets and pillows, expecting a night on the airport floor – but Steve, our kind MAF Manager in Chad, had booked me a hotel. I was incredibly thankful for a shower and a good night’s sleep.”
Crisps and chocolate for breakfast
But breakfast the next morning proved hard to find. With nowhere open to break a 20-euro note, they pleaded with the hotel receptionist for some change to feed the vending machine and two hungry mouths; desperate to pluck a sandwich and chocolate bar to give the little travellers a final boost for the last leg of their journey.
“In the end another guest heard my begging and gave us change,” says Matt. It was one of a thousand kind acts humanity would show in the face of a life-threatening pandemic, seen and unseen across a desperate and rapidly changing world.
The final stage of the Dillingham’s journey from Paris to London Heathrow saw the children growing more and more excited about seeing their mummy after 32 days.
“As I waited for them in arrivals, I contemplated our reunion,” remembers Becki. “Everyone was standing at a mandatory two metre distance – how would we be perceived when we threw arms round necks and enjoyed a long-awaited hug? It wouldn’t be too different for Matt and me – in Chadian culture, men and women don’t display physical affection in public, but I knew the kids wouldn’t hold back!”
Seeing mummy, Luke and Bethan ran. “Mummy, Mummy!” Bethan exclaimed, “Mummy guess what? We had chocolate and crisps for breakfast!”
A meagre reward for a long-awaited reunion, but one that will be remembered by the Dillingham family long into the future.