Full Circle

by Grant Strugnell

How one pilot saw it all come together

Every new South African commercial pilot has a rite of passage: to visit Lanseria International Airport to hand a resume to as many companies as possible. Grant Strugnell made this pilgrimage in 2005, when he was ready to switch jobs and itching to fly bigger, cooler planes. As he drove around the airport that day looking for places to drop off his resume, he noticed a sign that said Mission Aviation Fellowship.

It was Grant’s first introduction to MAF, and he was ready to sign up then and there. As a Christian and a commercial pilot, he was sure they would want him right now. Little did he know that it would be 13 years until he would actually be ready. After a few interviews, tests and discussions, MAF South Africa nudged Grant in what he describes as a wise and safer direction: Get some life experience, they said, before you go alone to fly a plane in a far-away land.

A year or so later, Grant had resigned from his job as a flight instructor and was setting out for a non-aviation volunteer position in the mountains of Lesotho. “I’ll do this for a year,” he told himself (without irony). “Then back to MAF, because I’ll be ready.”

Two years later, Grant was still working as an administrator at Semonkong Children’s Centre. He ended up doing almost everything—buying food, fixing things, playing with kids, etc. Every now and again an MAF plane would land, bringing a doctor, and Grant would reset his resolve to be that MAF pilot one day.

Grant with kids at Semonkong in 2007, holding the hand of the shyest child, Margaret, on his left. Photo courtesy of Grant Strugnell.

Overriding Grant’s time at Semonkong Children’s Centre was his hope to somehow improve just one child’s life through a game, special attention, or a church service. Children’s church in Lesotho is a whole lot of kids, singing, clapping hands, and singing worship songs. One child, the youngest girl in the whole Centre, stood quietly at Grant’s side, gently holding his hand. She was the shyest, so Grant picked her out to make sure she got some attention, which was so often stolen by the cute, loud, extroverted kids.

A close-up of Margaret. Photo by Grant Strugnell.

Fast forward 10 years. After founding an orphanage called Pulane Children’s Centre and flight instructing, Grant and Emily Strugnell join MAF in 2017 and are assigned to Lesotho, where Grant is a pilot and Emily manages Pulane Children’s Centre. Grant is that pilot, like the one he saw flying the MAF plane so many years ago at Semonkong, and now he is the one engaging in the life-saving ministry of MAF in Lesotho.

In July 2020, Grant received a call from the lady who now runs the Semonkong Children’s Centre. She sounded pretty desperate: “Hi, Jill told me I could contact you. We have a child who needs to get to Maseru as fast as possible for a blood transfusion. We can’t drive as the mountain pass has snow and our car might not make it. Can you help?”

Descending into Semonkong with snowy peaks. Photo by Grant Strugnell.

Grant was the on-call pilot. He had just arrived home from getting the plane ready for the day. As soon as she hung up, Grant was getting in the car and heading back to the airport. He didn’t know yet if MAF could help, but he knew he should at least start moving in that direction.

This was an unusual call. MAF normally receives calls through the mountain health clinics, with an official go-ahead from the Department of Health, who pays for the flights. Regardless, Grant knew the team could figure out those issues after the child was safe. With permission from the MAF country director to do the flight and figure out the rest later, Grant was on his way.

Semonkong is a short flight, only 25 minutes. MAF aircraft very rarely go to the clinic there because there is a good road between Semonkong and the big hospital in Maseru. This day, with the road covered in snow, was a special situation.

Grant’s plane touched down in Semonkong exactly one hour after receiving the call. The Children’s Centre director arrived soon afterwards, from the clinic, along with the child and a house mother. The child, a girl of about 15 years old, was anemic, and had some complications with her kidneys.

As he was loading them up, Grant asked for the girl’s name. They struggled to remember her English name. Most English names are used just for the sake of Westerners who struggle so much with Sesotho. So, Grant asked for her Sesotho name, and then it all clicked.

Margaret, in the pink jacket, on her way to Maseru. Photo by Grant Strugnell.

“Her English name is Margaret,” Grant exclaimed. This was the shy little girl who had stood by him in that church service! She has been at the Centre all this time. Grant instantly felt a deep connection to this patient. No patient is more important than any other, but Grant felt his eyes opened to how valuable and precious each life is. It is easy to lose that perspective when dealing with dozens of patients. This one reminded Grant that each one has history. Each one was once a small child, shy or extroverted, raised in a village or a Children’s home.

By evening, Margaret had been admitted to the hospital in Maseru and was receiving treatment. Her condition required several blood transfusions. Grant and Emily appealed to the MAF staff for prayer and for blood donations. Three times, MAF staff members gave blood for Margaret. Praise God that because of the treatment, Margaret was discharged from the hospital and returned home to Semonkong the next week.

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