Snap.snap.snap.snap.snap. A cool and dim dawn hour awakes to the sound of high-voltage igniters firing steadily as the engine compressor spins to life with a speedy whine. The Cessna Caravan begins its start sequence: Starter engaged, igniters on, fuel on, a whoosh and a low rumble as the gas generator lights. Engine revolutions build with a dry, metallic whir as the nine-foot propeller disk paddles the morning air. The rumble becomes a gentle roar, and the prop now slashes the wind as it twists from feathered to flat pitch. Another start cycle is complete and a new day is beginning for yet another flight far to the north.
This airplane engine won’t cool down again until twelve hundred miles have passed below it—until two tons of supplies, missionaries, and bibles have been delivered—until two filthy, tired pilots fall from the cockpit door back at base that night. As many times as I’ve watched the Caravan start, I still love to listen to it. With the power of a jet engine putting 675 horsepower to a massive propeller, and a bulky airframe stuffed with the stuff of missionaries and ministry, it is a beautiful sound.
The sounds of our life and ministry in Africa are often as vivid as the sights. They are the sounds of airplanes and other modern technologies among the backdrop of a world which, in many ways, is caught in the echoes of the past. A day often begins with the universally recognized ringing of an alarm clock or the less desirable squeal of a 5-month-old little boy eager for an early breakfast. A sweeter sound by far is the little girl who regularly meets me downstairs for juice and CNN at 6am. “Good morning daddy! I think it’s morning time, I think it’s light outside. Whatcha eatin daddy? Can I have some? I think I can have manella ogurt (vanilla yogurt.) Are you watchin your news daddy? (…and on and on and on.) My departure from the interrogation is made necessary by beating the morning rush-hour commute, but Renee has no such escape. She smiles and patiently tends to the innocent questions and requests. With a gurgling baby under one arm, and a reverberating three year old at her side, so begins another day of conversing with children (a.k.a. talking to walls.)
At the hangar, I’m busying myself with a preflight inspection on the airplane—A zip of a rope pulled through the cargo net, the clunks and clasps of securing doors, the sound of a squeaky handheld spring-scale weighing every kilo carefully with hopes of taking as much stuff as possible. In the relative quiet of a morning departure and among the clatter of organizing my paperwork and pilot gizmos, the sound that makes the most lasting memory is the voice of my passenger—a “thank you” from a missionary who thinks the world of me, and I of him.
The noise of my typical flight is the throaty rumble of our smaller Cessnas, and the snap, crackle and pop of the HF long-range radio. It is the voice of Nairobi Air Traffic Control giving instructions in a curious form of English with Kenyan accents using British vocabulary. But a flight is relatively short and only takes me to where we are going. The sound of the African bush is not so easy to describe. It is mainly silence—a hot kind of silence accompanied by a chorus of bugs and an occasional crying child in the distance. It’s the howl of a searing wind. It’s the crunch of sand in my sandwich, thanks to the horrendous wind. It is the absurdity of a pilot from New Jersey giving his Swahili a bit of a New York accent, talking to naked children who seem to appear from nowhere and only understand Samburu. Among the laughter, which sounds the same in any language, a missionary arrives in a rattling old Land Rover to meet the plane. This clunky diesel truck come to my rescue is yet another beautiful sound.
In their homes and schools and clinics I hear people from Michigan and Ohio speaking obscure tribal dialects, a surging, whipping wind generator on a creaking tin roof, and the busy tap-tapping of laptop computers recording the translation work of a decade. I hear the sound of human suffering among the long lines at the medical dispensary… and then the sound of celebration at a wedding or a baptism. Recently, I sat outside a Samburu village church and listened in on the women’s prayer group as they sang. Sitting in the dust, I closed my eyes and absorbed the melody of praises sung to God in a language I could not understand. And there in the desert heat, chills ran down my back.
Among the snaps, pops, squeaks, laughter, rumbles and roars of our lives out here, there is the sound of men and women singing praises to God in Samburu, Daasanach, Rendilli, Suba, Swahili, and a hundred other languages. It rises out of the hardships associated with being African against the freedom and new life found in Jesus Christ. It is sweet to the ears, and though I understand not a word, it is sweet to the soul as well. This is the most amazing and beautiful sound I have ever heard. It rises above the noise and chaos of our lives. It plays over and over in my mind, and reminds me why we are here.