A Fredericton pilot's view from Uganda

A pilot from Fredericton is home on furlough with his family after four years working for Mission Aviation Fellowship, based in Kampala, Uganda.

Pilot Matt Eagar gives flights to groups helping refugees in Africa

Matt Eagar doing pre-flight checks in preparation for departure from Adjumani, Uganda. He had just dropped off aid and relief workers for the nearby refugee settlements. (Submitted by Chaundra Eagar)

They say distance can help give a person perspective.

Matt Eagar has had the benefit in at least two ways.

First, he had the chance to soar above New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, as a pilot for Capital Airways, Prince Edward Air, Cooke Aquaculture and Moncton Flight College.

Then, four years ago, he transported those skills halfway around the world to Africa to fly for a mission group.

Eagar says things look different to him now, as he visits his former home of Fredericton for a six-month furlough.

"There's a renewed appreciation, just this huge appreciation for what we have here," Eagar told CBC's Shift NB.

Fredericton pilot Matt Eagar flies NGO workers and supplies to refugee settlements in Uganda. 0:58

"It's funny when we're talking to family and get a chuckle out of the things that they fuss about, you know, the kinds of things that bug them. When I think of life for the average Ugandan, I think, 'Well, why does that bother you? That's nothing.

"Life is easier here. It makes us think more about the people that we've left behind."

It also makes him prouder of the work the group in Uganda is doing.

Eagar serves with Mission Aviation Fellowship based in Kampala.

He usually takes people from "dozens and dozens" of non-governmental organizations in and out of refugee settlements in northern Uganda. 

The flights are subsidized by donors to the organization, and the NGOs who use them include UNICEF, World Food Programme, UNHCR refugee agency, Samaritan's Purse and World Vision. They are all working to assist more than two million people now living in the settlements, having fled violence in south Sudan and eastern Congo.

A view on final approach to a landing field in the village of Matot, South Sudan, as Matt Eagar transported supplies for the Samaritans Purse outpost there. (Submitted by Chaundra Eagar)

"They're coming in at about 1,500 to 2,000 people a day on foot across the border," Eagar said.

The pilot praised the Ugandan government's handling of the situation. He said rather than the classic refugee camp, where everyone is crammed into a small area waiting for things to improve, refugees are being given a small parcel of land and some tools and are encouraged to farm.

"From the air you can see the road grids that the organizations are preparing so that they can have a proper structure to it," he said.

Eagar is sometimes faced with dangerous conditions on cross-border flights.

"Uganda is very stable," he said. "We don't have any concern about being shot at from the ground. That is a concern in south Sudan and parts of Congo."

Offloading supplies for a mission station in Tonj, South Sudan. (Submitted by Chaundra Eagar)

Occasionally, flights are redirected or cancelled at the last minute because of safety concerns.

"There will be a week of buildup, then some clashes, then it will die down. There will be nothing for a week or two. Then in another part of the country, they'll fight again for a couple of days."

The greater danger, said Eagar, is caused by the government's limited control and the declining economy.

"Banditry and ambushes on the road is a major concern for aid workers," he said.

Eagar said he was drawn to Africa partly because of his Christian faith and partly because he grew up there — in South Africa — until the age of 12.

Now, his own children have started to see it as home too. They had to get used to wearing shoes again when they came back to Canada, although the onset of cold weather helped. One of his sons is having a hard time deciding which country he likes better.

The Eagars in Kampala: Chaundra, Matt, and children Charlotte, 9, Fred, 11, and Theo, 5. (Submitted by Chaundra Eagar)

"He was excited about coming back to Canada before we left Uganda. And now that we're here he says, 'When are we going back to Uganda?' His heart's in two places as well."

Mom Chaundra has also firmly transplanted herself.

She works as a visitor liaison for Mission Aviation Fellowship and, now that their youngest child is in kindergarten, she's also started working as a communications director for Tutapona, one of the NGOs that flies with them.

Tutapona runs group-based trauma recovery programs, facilitated by Ugandans and former refugees, at five bases in the refugee settlements.

The Eagars are currently trying to raise money to support their mission and expect to be back in Uganda in January.