Monday, December 15, 2008

SCANDAL IN NIGERIA! ... so what's new?

More Bizarre "firsts"

I continue to have a lot of "firsts", here in Africa. The other day, at the urging of the CEO I was flying for, I walked away from our airport "agent", denying him the money he was demanding, and proceeded to start up the engines and taxi away as he stood on the airport tarmac in Calabar, Nigeria. Let me give you the whole story…

December 11, 2008 marked my first international flight as a pilot- meaning that I actually took off from one country and landed in another. Sure, I'm an American and am flying in Gabon- that seems international enough. Or, take into consideration that portions of my previous flights to the north of Gabon traverse the airspace of Equatorial Guinea. That all seems very international, however, in my book, the trip departing Gabon and landing in Nigeria, in the Beechcraft BE58 Baron, is the bona fide real deal.

For the pilot crowd out there, here's the route:



In a nutshell, the CEO of the agricultural company and I took off from Libreville at around 6:45am, landed Calabar (Nigeria) international airport around 8:30am and went through customs. After meeting our agent there, getting our passports stamped, having coffee and meat pie, and paying the agent $550 for his assistance, we took back to the skies. An hour and a half later we were at our destination- Benin City, also in Nigeria- a half hour drive to the rubber plantation by pickup. The CEO went first and I stayed to help with refueling of the airplane.

Let me describe how "hanging out at the airport" usually goes for me. As a white guy in a pilots' uniform (which is obligatory to wear), you get a lot of stares. This makes you slightly uncomfortable and you really hope you don't do anything stupid. I try to think of all the times I've been in airports and have seen pilots. They always seem to know what's going on and have things pretty much together. So… I try to do that. However, I usually haven't a clue what to expect at each new airport, so looking like I know what I'm doing gets challenging. I have found is that smiling and greeting people seems to get you points.

So when I was approached by a woman in a police-looking uniform, I did just that. She greeted me and let me know that she was part of the airport security detail and her name was Debbie. I was happy that we were in Nigeria, speaking English, and that I didn't have to stammer and struggle as I do with French in Gabon. She was very nice and, later, after she had assisted me to get my fueling people in a gate, refused a tip. That's much different behavior than Gabon where it seems obligatory to tip when helped.

Another worker at the airport also helped me with changing Central African Francs into the local currency of Nira. I hadn't the slightest clue if I got a good rate or not, but I had enough to do a little shopping for nick-nacks and other stuff to take back to the kids and Alace. At one point in this process, I was caught up with the refueling and had to give my Francs to this man so he could do the exchanging for me inside the terminal building. So, I gave him 40,000 francs ($80) and he walked away. It then occurred to me that I had no idea who this guy was and may very well never see this money again. However, he was wearing a day-glow green vest and ear protection… I figured that qualified him for some level of trust! I'm happy to report that I got my Nira!

The crew of three plantation workers had brought 3 fifty-five gallon drums of AvGas (shipped to them from South Africa) to the airplane and, after 30 minutes, a bucket, some filtering, and a large funnel later, we had all the tanks filled up. As thanks, I had the driver of the pickup pull into a fast-food joint to get everyone cokes and meat pies. Everyone seemed to be thankful for that. These expenses are listed as "handling fees"!

The plantation where was immaculate. It was as if someone took a gated neighborhood of one-story homes from the US and plopped them down in Africa! (note to all you LOST fans- it was eerily like a Dharma project community! YIKES!) It was a neat and tidy place with a community center and soccer field. To top this utopia off, it had a small, fenced in, zoo-type ¼ acre of cattle, rabbits, ostriches, peacocks, roosters, and more, living in harmony. It was all quite odd. I expected to see children with lemonade stands, mailmen on foot, yard sales, and the such. My accommodations in the guest house were great- air conditioning!

That night, at the community center, there was a dinner program honoring the best workers of 2008. As people arrived, a Nigerian band played classic US rock- Genesis, the OJ's, Pat Benetar, The Cars, The Police, etc. (Really? Am I in Nigeria!?!) After the meal, there was a prayer full of "amens" from the crowd, and then the CEO addressed the workers. He told them that overall it was a good year, but that there were some things that should not have happened. He then said, "many of you are Christians, so when you see someone doing something that they shouldn't be, you should tell your supervisors." I thought it interesting that he, a Belgium man who has not spoken a word regarding his spiritual beliefs, was using theirs as impetus for better job conduct. Good business move on his part, I'm sure. He told me privately that Nigerians are the best workers in Africa. Hmm. Anywho… During the presentations, I slipped back to the guest house to turn in early, but I hear that the evening went well with much dancing after I left.

The next morning, the cook at my guest house whipped up some omelets and toast, and then it was off to the office to do some emailing. After lunch, it was back to the airport, and to the skies!

We made the stop in Calabar, again, to go through the obligatory stop at customs. This was to be the most memorable part of the journey for me.

It all started out pretty much the same. We found our agent, Festus, and gave him our passports. He disappeared while we sat down at the snack counter- me, having coffee, and the CEO having a beer. Then, our guests started to arrive.

First, it was a gentleman in plain clothes from immigration. He was the one that interviewed the CEO the day before, but had evidently been told by someone that our CEO was a regular and shouldn't be hassled in this way. The purpose for his trip seemed to be to make amends and let our CEO know that further travel through Calabar would go much easier. He had a seat and hung out.

Our second guest was a uniformed immigration person. He seemed to know our CEO very well, and there was much smiling and exchanging of handshakes all around. He also had a seat and hung out.

Our third guest was our first guest's wife. She needed a job and wanted to work for our CEO, but was sad that all of the plantations were too far away. The CEO agreed that this was a shame, but suggested that everyone now present have a beer- his treat. They gladly accepted and the snack bar attendant was called over to place the order. She had a seat and we all hung out.

BUT WAIT! That's not all! Our fourth guest was the control tower supervisor who I had just talked to when landing. He pulled up a chair and let us know how we could better handle our paperwork when traveling through Calabar. He was also offered a beer and also accepted. This led me to wonder if he was off duty for the day or… oh well.

Then the CEO told everyone that the holidays were approaching and he hoped to be back through with a case of the company's products (vegetable oil, soap, etc.) to pass along to everyone as thanks for keeping the process smooth for him when he passes through.

This is a concept that, some may say, borders on bribery. Others would say that it is merely a sincere sign of gratitude. Since it's not plain old money changing hands, I say it's the latter.

Speaking of money changing hands… Festus finally appeared and pulled me aside to say that he needed $250 additional US dollars (for some reason he worked in dollars, not Nira). I told him that I was confused as he had said the day before that the $550 would cover all fees, coming and going out of the country- both days. He said "I know, but I still need $250". Something wasn't right here, in my humble opinion. Since I had given him all of the US dollars that the company had given me to use the day before, the response was easy. I told him that he already cleared me out of all my dollars and that if he wanted more he'd have to ask the CEO. I thought that this may deter him, but I was wrong.

I went back to the table and the CEO was ready to go. We walked out to the airplane with our contingent of guests in tow, and handed out some company products that were stowed in the nose of the airplane. The CEO made sure that all would get something- the immigration crew, the control tower crew, and even Festus. I thought THIS might deter Festus, but he approach the CEO and made his demand. The CEO would have nothing of it and jumped into the back of the airplane and locked the door. Festus then turned to me and explained the there were people in the airport that he needed to give this money to. If we didn't pay him, it would hurt his business. Then I heard knocking and turned to find the CEO motioning to me to get going. So, I apologized to Festus and told him that his partner would have to call the CEO and sort it out later. I jumped into the airplane and, as I shut the door, heard Festus on his cell phone say "they're leaving. They're in the airplane and they're shutting the door."

This was truly a bizarre moment for me.

I haven't heard if this matter has been resolved, but I'll tell Egmont, the company's pilot who I'm filling in for, so that he knows to be prepared for an angry Festus on his next visit to Calabar.

Thank you for your prayers that keep situations, like this, from getting out of control!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Update on Life

Here are some cool things happening with the Straw's:

-Joey, Megan, and Sam are meeting with children from a city orphanage and helping prepare "sponsorship profiles".
-Alace has begun meeting with a language partner. A young lady who is the cousin of my (Steve's) language partner.
-My language partner, Romaric, has told me of his dissappointments with church experiences in the past, but has now said that he would like to go to church with our family!
-In the past two weeks I have been blessed with over 12 hours of flight time. It is crucial that I gain experience in this new environment and the Lord has provided this through the avenue of an agricultural company that needs a backup/vacation pilot.
-A church in California recently took an offering of over $4000 for the airplane!
-While facing a delay at immigration in Nigeria, the CEO of the agricultural company started quizing me about our program and then offered to make a generous donation! Praise God for delays!!!
-We praise God for these signs of HIS faithfulness as we nervously wonder how the "economic crisis" will effect a project such as ours. There are many people (work teams, medical pro's, etc.) re-thinking their trips to Gabon as a result of this fear.
- We praise the Lord for a sense of peace regarding decisions about whether to send Joe to boarding school next year or not. God has shown us how families have great success with homeschooling as well as with boarding school experiences. We are confident that any choice is viable and have a peace from the Lord that we can continue on our present home-schooling track until HE clearly directs otherwise.


-Pray that the "financial crisis" worldwide will not result in cancellations of teams from the US that are important for our work.
-Pray for continued outreach to our neighbors and new friends.
-Pray for new avenues of fund-raising
-Pray for wisdom as we consider the Cessna 207 tubine powered aircraft in Washington.
-Pray for a developing idea of an English-speaking, ex-patriot, Bible study with possiblities of growth to a faith community.
-Pray for the home-school and the education of our children.
-Pray for the possibility of an assistant teacher from the US. She has had difficulty in her arrangements coming here, but will be a great asset for Alace to have time to learn to run the guest house.

Thanks so much for praying for us!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kicked Off the Runway!

I'm back at the rubber plantation for SIAT. It was about an hour and
10 minute flight this morning. The landing was through some low,
scattered clouds, but the visibility was great and the airstrip at their plantation was in great shape.

The takeoff was kind of fun- I got kicked off the runway! HA! After
loading the passengers and taxiing to the runway, we were first in line, so I reported to the
tower that I was ready to take the runway and depart. Then, I thought
I heard him tell me to do so. What he was actually doing was telling someone
else that they could do this- it was a large commercial aircraft
(Airbus) operated by Gabon Airlines. In fact, this is their only
aircraft that just flies to Paris and back about every other day. Apparently, they get to cut in line whenever they are ready
to go. So that's what happened. I had started towards the runway and
the tower controller told me to vacate the runway that someone else had
been cleared. So, I apologized, made a quick u-turn, and got back in
to position.

The fun didn't end there! After this large aircraft departed, the
tower gave someone else permission to skip to the head of the line!
This time it was a Cessna Citation jet who, I happen to know, is flown
by a couple of South African pilots and carries one of the president's
sons around the country. I guess he "trumps" our little agricultural
business' twin-engine prop aircraft too! HA!

So, everyone in the airplane was good natured about this- I had 4
passengers. They all thought it was humorous that we would get bumped
for these particular two aircraft... It's not always "First come, First
serve" around these parts! It's the African way!

That's the update for now!

Oh yeah... SIAT was slated to have me fly their CEO down to Brazzaville
(Republic of Congo- one country to the south of Gabon) to get a new
passport (he lost his old one). However, when he came to the airplane
this morning for the flight, he told me that a kind person had found
and turned in his briefcase with his passport (he gave the person a $400 reward!) and
that the new plan is to fly to Lagos, Nigeria tomorrow! This will be
my first international flight (outside of Gabon), so I'll be excited.
Good stuff!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Death of a Gifted Fish

(aka. “The great fish mystery”; aka. “The one that got away”)

So, my language partner, Romaric, has been talking and talking about presenting a gift to me… a gift of fish from his brother, who is apparently a fisherman. Well, the day came and he delivered on his promise. As we were returning from a gathering at the Solvig house down the street, Romaric approached us as we
entered the gate. There, in the yellow bucket that he was holding, were three catfish! …alive! He told us how much these fish were loved among his people group- the Fang, and how we would love them too. Alace and I looked at each other amused and bewildered!

First, a little background: I am not a fisherman. I’ve never personally owned a
fishing pole, however, I have browsed through sporting good departments at
WalMarts and the such, thinking that it would be a great bonding activity for a
family. The few times that I have been fishing have been great successes! I usually caught 3 or 4 fish, but had always given them to the person that took me fishing, saying that they would have to prepare them so that we could get together again at their place for dinner. In this way, we have another time set up to get together, plus, I don’t have to go through the “fun” stuff of killing the fish, filleting it, and coming up with some type of edible meal for us.

So, what do we do with a bucket of 3 catfish? STALL! We verified with Romaric that there was time- we could keep them in the bucket for a day or two. By then, we’d do our research, find the best and most humane way to kill the fish, and then prep it for eating. We left the bucket on the porch and went to bed.

The next morning, I went to check on the fish and one was missing! The mystery starts! Where did this fish go? Perhaps the fish got up a head of steam and jumped out of the bucket!?! I thought this highly unlikely, considering the measurements of the bucket, however, I did some checking around the bucket, the porch, and then below the porch on the driveway- a 4 to 5 foot drop. All those areas checked out clear. I reported this to Alace and we figured that someone had taken one. We have a new night guard, Sosouli, and perhaps he felt this was a way that we “tip” him. In any case, we were not to broken up about the fact that we had one less fish to murder.

We mentioned the gift of fish to our friends, and veteran missionaries, Arnie and Cheryl Solvig. They said that this reminded them of a similar story from another missionary- let’s just call him “Bave Dill”. It was an identical situation where Bave’s language partner gifted him fish. Bave didn’t want the fish and threw them out. Later he was caught off guard when his language partner asked him how he liked the fish and he told him that they were delicious! He could only live with this
lie for about a day or two before he broke down and confessed his lie. Little did Arnie and Cheryl know how this story would come back to assist me just the next day.

So, another day came and went and it was now the next morning. In my normal morning routine, while unlocking the front door, I again peaked at the fish. More bad news… apparently the “expiration” date on the catfish had come and gone! Dead fish. Yikes. What to do. I decided to use the neighborhood “trash can” and dumped them over that back parking lot, down about 15 feet, to the stream and piles of trash that litter the banks, waiting for the next downpour to wash them downstream and, eventually, to the ocean. Sad, right? I’m happy, and sort of sad at the same time, to admit that, for the first time, I used this system.

I stood, briefly, looking down at the stream and piles of trash. The story that the Solvig’s told came to mind. Could I simply tell Romaric that I had enjoyed the fish? Could I outlast Bave Dill and live with this lie meant to keep our relationship on good terms and growing? How would Romaric take the news that I had mishandled the gift that he had talked and talked about to me. He had looked forward to the day when he could give me the gift. Well now he finally had done it, and my response? How did I handle the great display of friendship and gratitude? I killed it! I killed them! … the fish were dead! Well, at least two were dead and one was missing in action.

With all these feelings and questions being pondered in my mind, I turned to walk back to our apartment and looked up to see Sosouli, our guard, walking towards
me. Had he seen what I did? Did he know about Romaric’s gift to me and was now wondering what I was doing? Well, if he did, he didn’t mention anything and simply informed me that he was observing the Muslim holiday “Fete du mouton” or “festival of sheep”. I wished him a good day and a bon fete, as he continued past me. Woah… close call!

I still needed to make a decision regarding what I would tell Romaric. It occurred to me that I should tell him the truth- neither I nor Alace have any history with killing and prepping living fish. In our ignorance, we had let one get away and
killed the other two! I would pour apologies into the dialogue and let him know that his act of kindness made a great impression on me. Yes! This is the right thing- I was sure.

I was glad to have my mind made up as it was Monday morning and I would be expecting him at 8:30. However, I received a phone call that a passenger on one of my flights was missing a bag and needed me to double check that it was not on the aircraft. I had to put my pilot’s uniform on, I texted Romaric on the cell phone
to see if he was close by and could, perhaps, join me on the ride. However, he was not close, so I was on my own. Upon returning home, I drove down driveway to the rear of the apartment and that’s when things got really bizarre.

There, in our normal parking spot, was one of the dead catfish!!! WHAT is going on!?! It was like that part in the old Hitchcock movies when the main character realizes they are in the Twilight Zone. Alace said that it was a little more like the Godfather movie when that guy woke up and realized that… okay, okay… that’s a gory scene. However, strange, strange things were afoot!

A number of thoughts passed through my head… did Romaric find out and leave the fish there to let me know in some sort of passive/aggressive manner? Did Sosouli see me do it and let me know that he knew? Would there be blackmail
involved? Would I be dropping off a gym bag full of money in a locker at the airport? I quickly checked the rooftops nearby for the camera people that were
certainly filming this. Seeing none there, I kicked the fish off, over the edge of the parking area to the murky waters below.

Back in the apartment, I told Alace and we agreed that we should “stay the course”. “Honesty is the best policy”… or is it, “honesty is such a lonely word”? In any event…

Later, after Alace had returned to the classroom to teach the kids, Romaric came and his first question (you guessed it) was about the fish! Would I tell him? It all seemed so simple before, but now I was face to face with my fish-loving, Fang friend! Would this break our friendship? Would he carry on being my language partner? Just how much money did he want me to put in the gym bag!?!

I worked through my feelings of uncertainty and told him the truth. I’m happy to say that he took it all with a smile on his face and his head shaking back in forth, as if to say, “oh Mr. Steve… you are very interesting”- as he is prone to say. He even came up with the solution- for Christmas, his grand-mother is coming and would love to show “Madame Steve” (his name for Alace) how to kill the fish and prepare it in Fang tradition. Later, I informed Alace that I accepted this offer on her behalf… she can’t wait.

By the way, some of you have probably guessed that the fish that was in my parking spot was the first fish that made the great escape from the bucket and flopped its way down our driveway and under my car. When I left in the morning, I didn’t see it and, upon returning, thought that it had been placed there in the meantime. Romaric helped me to figure this out! Conspiracy theory averted, however, this marked the death of gifted fish.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dogs on the Runway

So, we're still hangin' out in Africa praying that the Lord provides our aircraft soon. We've made great use of the 3 months that we've been here so far and have the foundation set for things to launch. We're looking at an aircraft in the states (Cessna 207 outfitted with a turbo-prop) but are about $160,000 - $170,000 short of the price tag (over $600,000). So, if you guys can just tell all your wealthy friends and relatives, that'd be cool.

Today, I am flying for SIAT, the Belgium agricultural company. Their main pilot, Egmont, has finally taken some vacation time back to his homeland in Germany. I'm sure that he's enjoying his grandson, daughter, and other friends and family about now.
This morning I flew 2 of their executives from Libreville to Lamberene (the place made famous from Dr. Albert Sweitzer) for a meeting. As I right this, they are in the next room- through the glass I see them discussing their plans regarding their company that manufactures soap, vegetable oil, and rubber. They seem to be replacing a lot of people lately... new faces.
The flight was good, but foggy. Lamberene is right on a river and last night it rained quite a lot. Those 2 factors can make for some foggy conditions. I decended over the river to about 1500 feet above the airport and caught a glimpse of the runway through the clouds. Then I was able to maintain visual connection with the river as I descended in a circular fashion while setting up for a landing heading South West.
As is normally the case,there were people using the runway as their walking path. They had all seen my landing light and moved off to the side. However, a dog was rolling around on the ground right at the intersection of the runway and the taxiway to the terminal. Apparently, the dog had one of those "hard to reach" itches and could think of no better place to search for satisfaction than on the town's asphalt runway. By the time that we landed and reached that point of the runway, we were rolling along at "taxiing speed" so it didn't pose a problem. One of the exec's sitting upfront with me pointed at the dog on the runway and said "Only in Africa!" get a lot of that around here.