Rivercess, Liberia: Reaching the Most Disadvantaged

“We are the lowest disadvantaged district of the most disadvantaged county. There are no roads. It doesn’t get much more difficult than that.” Steve Butwill – Po River Medical Clinic

Story and photos: LuAnne Cadd

There are currently ten airstrips in Liberia that a plane can safely land.

It wasn’t always this few. Old-timers remember as many as 60, maybe more, but that was pre-civil war over 40 years ago. Now that Mission Aviation Fellowship has established a program in the country, one of the highest priorities is to rehabilitate these rundown strips of earth: pock-marked with holes, trees, and even a hand-pump in one case, often used as roads, football fields, and walking paths.

MAF is currently the only commercial operator based in the entire country, so making sure we have airstrips to land on is crucial. Several private aircraft are used for their own people but not for hire. The UN offers air service to NGOs when it’s available, but the process is painful and the service is unreliable, often with booked passengers booted off at the last minute.

The Most Disadvantaged of the Disadvantaged
storypic2Rivers and swamps cut across walking paths all across the district of Lower Yarnee in Rivercess County where Jen and Steve Butwill run the Po River Medical Clinic, the only clinic in their district. The closest hospital is only 10 miles away but it takes two hours to get there: take a motorbike for 8 miles on trails (not roads) to the Cestos River; get in a canoe and cross its three-quarter mile width; catch another motorcycle into the one and only county hospital in Cestos City which at times has no doctors. From Cestos City to the capital of Monrovia is another grueling six to eight hours, mostly on a dirt road that can become so mired in mud that a car can disappear below towering walls of the sticky red goo.

The Butwill’s Po River Clinic sits inside the Pillar of Fire mission compound that once had an airstrip. They have no illusions that this can be rehabilitated. It’s only 500 meters long, and has the unfortunate “water-hand-pump in the middle of the middle of the airstrip” Jen describes. But they are excited about MAF’s plans for the Cestos City airstrip.

Two Airstrips
storypic1MAF Liberia’s Country Director Emil Kündig has identified the first two airstrips for rehabilitation and received government approval. In November, Airstrip Engineer Maurice Houriet will arrive to begin work at Gbarnga where a Baptist mission is based in Bong County, and Cestos City airstrip in Rivercess County.

“We had to do a little bit of ground work,” Emil explained, describing his trip by car and helicopter to assess the three airstrips, taking pictures and measurements to determine the extent and feasibility of repair. “The two missionaries down there will profit from the access to the airplane. They have told us that people die on the way to Monrovia if they have to be evacuated to a good hospital. It’s just a start. It’s a difficult place to get to because there’s no road along the coast. It goes inland and down.”

Making a Difference
storypic3“One of the biggest problems in the past with Rivercess, because it’s so hard to get to, because it’s so hard to work in that area, is that so many NGOs picked places that were easier to access,” Steve explains. “When we started the clinic two and a half years ago, we were really the only people doing anything in the whole county. I’m really excited about this airstrip. We plan to have more doctors, nurses, and teachers coming in and staying short-term. Getting them there on a plane, versus trying to take the road, it makes a huge difference. If you have a dentist coming for two weeks, you want him out there pulling teeth, not sitting on a dirt road.”

It’s the right time for MAF to be in Liberia, to provide a dependable flight option to reach the most unreached, and assist those groups bringing help and healing to a broken country.


Background on Jen and Steve Butwill

storypic4Jen and Steve Butwill moved to New Jersey and began attending a church associated with the Pillar of Fire mission. Jen worked as a Nurse Practitioner and Steve as an engineer. Neither had lived overseas, but Jen took a few short mission trips to Liberia, and seeing the need for a clinic, the couple determined to set one up.

Jen explains. “We each had good jobs that we loved in the states, so we thought our calling would be to help fund a clinic from stateside. But then we realized that you can’t do anything without somebody on the ground to actually get it started, figure everything out. We realized that God was tapping us to look in the mirror – ‘You’ve got someone who can do it. You just have to let go.’ So that’s when we realized that God wanted us to do it for this season of our life.

We’re doing something that is really good for the people who live here, but on the flip side, I’m getting so much out of it, because through this whole process, we wanted to trust God more. You need to rely on Him because there’s just an awful lot of stuff you don’t know – what’s going to happen, how it’s going to work out.

As a Nurse, there are times when I have no reason to do a test, but something tells me, ‘Do this test.’ And you get the test result back and it’s positive. Normally I would not have done that. For me that’s been huge, because I’m limited. I do not know everything. God gives you more than you can handle so that you have to lean on Him, so that you can see that He’s going to support. He’s really my covering physician.”

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