Editor’s Note: Longtime readers might recall Comboni Father David Baltz as the bicycling missionary who logged more than 50,000 miles in the saddle during his fifty-plus years of ministry. This story is taken verbatim from a diary he kept in his first five years of missionary service in Uganda. After reading his harrowing, yet heartwarming, tale, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was the experience that first helped him fall in love with a different mode of transportation. I think you’ll enjoy reading his story. It’s the sort of extraordinary adventure that passes for everyday life in the missions. – Kathleen Carroll
About 5:30 PM I was sitting in the mission eating a very late lunch when a man rode up on his bicycle looking for a means of transportation for a sick woman. Fr. Salvano said he was quite tired, so I offered to go out again; but first I filled up a can with water to carry with me for the radiator of the pickup.
I drove about nine miles from Maraca, passing the Eucharistic center of Kijomoro and then following a path for a short distance until it was impossible to go further. The man with me had explained that his married daughter had given birth yesterday to the first of twins, but the second baby would not come out. The mother and the twins were all still alive.
Throughout the morning an attempt had been made to find a car to carry them to the hospital, but nothing was found. In fact, since the war with Amin and the flight of his soldiers, vehicles for transportation are practically nonexistent. Finally the man had come to the mission to play his last card. I waited in the pickup along the path while the man hurried almost a mile to a village on the other side of the valley.
I became more and more concerned as the sun set, it got dark, and a terrible looking storm came over Mt. Eti and kept getting closer and closer. Several times boys arrived telling me that the sick woman was being carried on a reed stretcher along the path. Then I would wait some more in vain—hoping against hope that somehow the party would reach me before the storm, which was by then flashing excitedly and sounding its alarm. The wind was blowing strongly, bending the tall grass over the path. Walking single-file down a narrow path through the tall grass is not difficult at all—but walking side by side while carrying a woman on a pole-and-reed stretcher was obviously causing some problems.
The storm, blown on by the wind could wait no longer, and the rain began to fall. All the little half-clothed boys (and a couple small ones who were a lot less than half-clothed!) who had been attracted by my pickup truck ran in various directions towards their huts. Finally the long-awaited party arrived—and I got out of the pickup into the driving rain.
Everyone seemed to be moving too slow, so I began shouting to get the sick woman into the front of the pickup with me so she would be out of the rain. But the people explained to me that this was impossible because the twin babies had both come out of the mother but they were still attached to her through the placenta that had remained inside her. Obviously she could not sit down inside the pickup.
I had no canvas cover to put over the bed of the pickup we were along a path out in the middle of the bush; the rain was increasing; the roaring thunder drowned out my shouting as the lightening gave me glimpses of the crisis we were in.
Other mothers in the group had their own babies tied as usual on their backs, and a couple women were crying loudly. The stretcher with its precious load of a mother and her newborn (or rather, almost born) twins was placed on the bed of the pickup with a leaky papyrus mat as their only protection against the fury of the elements. I started driving along the path towards the dirt road, but with the rain on my glasses and my headlights buried under the wind-swept tall grass I could hardly see where to go, two of the women who climbed onto the pickup to come along had babies on their backs, so I told them to get in front with me— otherwise I was afraid they might end up losing their babies too in the terrible storm.
As we moved slowly up the path the storm let loose in all its fury. The people in the back with the sick woman shouted something but I could barely hear them because the rain was beating so hard on the metal roof of the pickup. I stopped near a village and someone ran toward the huts to look for another papyrus mat. When I would open my truck window the rain would blow inside. After what seemed to me like a terribly long time, I started forward again—without another papyrus mat, but I don’t know why another was not found. A few minutes later we reached a “kirabu”—the Logbara word corrupted from the English word “club”—a mud-and-grass hut where women gather in the afternoon to sell their homemade beer to the men while they rest and socialize together. I decided that we had better seek shelter inside or else those tiny twins would die from drowning if from nothing else!
The storm continued like all wrath of hell had broken loose around us: driving rain, blinding lightning, and crashing thunder. The stretcher was pulled out of the pickup, and the mother and twins received one last wave of water from the rain rolling down off the grass roof like a waterfall. In the darkness I could see nothing except for brief glimpses during the flashes of lightning. When everyone was inside the hut, I climbed back into the pickup to wait out the storm while praying the rosary. Lightning was striking all around me, and I was really afraid we were going to be hit. It has happened many timed in this area during the five years I have been here in Maraca.
Someone in the group went to a nearby village and returned carrying a flaming torch of dry grass. For the first time I got to see the mother and the tiny twin babies between her legs. Everything the woman was wearing was soaked and she was shaking from cold. A piece of cloth was found to cover her, but it didn’t help very much. Practically everything the people were wearing has also been soaked by the heavy rain so they really had nothing to offer.
A man wearing one of those long, heavy army coats came out of a nearby house; he was the brother of Lt. Col. Baker, one of Amin’s soldiers now hiding in Zaire. I was hoping he would offer his coat for the emergency, but he did not. Instead someone got another stiff papyrus mat from his house. I took off my white cassock which was already quite damp and placed it around the babies to give them some protection from the wind and cold. I was left wearing a damp, sleeveless T-shirt, so I got back in the pickup to try to keep warm.
As I sat there thinking things over and the storm continued, I decided that it would probably be prudent to baptize the babies now. I still had that bottle of water with me that I had taken to drink on safari today, so I carried it into the hut. I asked the mother if she wanted her children baptized; although quite weak she was very aware of what was happening around her, and answered that she did. The husband also assented.
I had to bring the flaming torch a little closer so that I could see the heads of the twins. We prayed briefly together, and then I baptized the two babies as they were lying peacefully side-by-side between the legs of their mother on a stretcher in the dimly lit beer club house.
The storm by this time had diminished in strength, although the rain continued. I felt that the sooner we got to Maraca Hospital the better it would be, but I was worried about the cold air hitting the mother and those tiny newborn babies during the windy ride in the back of the pickup. When the rain had finally reduced itself to a drizzle, we decided to go on.
I was wondering whether to drive fast and try to reach the hospital as fast as I could. After I got out on the main dirt road, it didn’t take long to realize that I would have to drive very slowly because the fresh mud made the road as slick as ice. The pickup fishtailed several times as I struggled to keep it on the road, and once on an upgrade it almost came to a halt in the mud before finding more traction on a few stones. I had added water to the radiator earlier in the evening while I was sitting on the path waiting for the sick woman. But because of the leaky hose, a red light continued to warn me of the danger of an overheated motor again.
On a slight downgrade about a mile and half from the mission I decided to turn off the motor to give it a chance to cool down. That was a mistake because after that the motor did not want to start again.
Three men got off and pushed, but the motor was terribly hot and did not want to run again. I got out and helped the men push for a while until I had no breath left, then the good Lord helped us through another little crisis and somehow the motor started once more. It was just past 8:30 PM when we entered the mission and reached Maraca Hospital.
I ran inside to tell one of the nurses; and when I went back out I saw the people who had come with me just standing there, so I had to yell at them to unload the poor mother. Next I took the pickup to the fathers’ house and ran in the dark over to the doctor’s house to ask him to come quickly. I didn’t feel much like eating supper, so after a couple bites I went back over to the hospital. The doctor told me that the twins were in excellent shape, but that he was a bit concerned for the mother. She was still lying on the table in the emergency room, and a pool of blood was on the floor. She answered me when I called her but she was, of course, very weak.
The twins were lying peacefully under a blanket on another little table. I finally found out that they are both girls, and after their stormy entrance into this world they ought to make a name for themselves. I always thought these African mothers were strong women, but now I have found out that they are born that way!”