by Scott Zibell
It was July—winter in the African country of Lesotho. My pilot guided the red and white turbocharged Cessna into a valley for an approach to the mountain village of Methalaneng.
It was July—winter in the African country of Lesotho. My pilot guided the red and white turbocharged Cessna into a valley for an approach to the mountain village of Methalaneng. Situated at 7,200 feet above sea level, the airstrip was oriented perpendicular to the valley and was perched on the edge of a plateau. Once the ninety-degree turn onto final approach was made, we were committed to land. Landing short was not an option. After a successful touchdown on the dirt and rock runway, we unbuckled our harnesses, removed our helmets and met with the two missionaries who called this desolate village home. While they could drive the six, kidney-crunching hours to the capital city, the airplane provided something a vehicle could not—a connection with people. At this remote outpost, I began to clearly understand how the aircraft served to unify people and generate centripetal force on the mission field.
In the summer of 2000, I embarked on a ninety-six-day journey around the world to do field research for my doctoral dissertation in geography. My goal was to identify and document the effects of mission aviation. More specifically, I wanted to find out exactly how the aircraft helped missionaries do their jobs and how it affected communities where it landed. My study was done in conjunction with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF-US). The MAF Research Department worked with me to develop a topic that would be of benefit to their organization and to the missions community as a whole. I visited seven flight programs, starting with Irian Jaya (New Guinea Island), and then on to East, Central and West Kalimantan (Borneo Island), Lesotho, Mali and Ecuador. During the trip, I interviewed 164 people in eighty-one interviews. The respondents ran the full gamut— from villagers who’ve had little contact with the modern world to an ambassador-turned-businessman. A majority of the people I talked with were either missionaries or common people from remote villages.
So what is centripetal force and what does it have to do with missions? (As you read the information below, think about how it applies to a group of people rather than to a country.) In 1950, geographer Richard Hartshorne first outlined the concepts of centrifugal and centripetal force (1950, 106). Centripetal forces tend to unify a country and hold it together. They are the factors that “bind regions together into an effective unit.” By contrast, centrifugal forces work toward causing a country to dis-unify and break apart.
Hartshorne emphasizes the most basic centripetal force is a country’s raison d’être, or reason for existing. Without “some concept or idea” serving to justify the existence of a country as an organized political unit, it is highly unlikely individual regions will form a country. If a country does exist, and its raison d’être ceases to remain valid, it will break apart into its constituent regions. It is the dominance of centripetal forces over centrifugal forces that allow a country to form and remain intact. Hartshorne indicates countries need “to establish centripetal forces that will bind together the regions of that country, in spite of centrifugal forces that are always present” (1950, 110). This concept can be paraphrased in saying: “for a state to function properly, it must have unity” (Cohen 1973, 15). If you think about it, these concepts also apply to any group of people, including national churches and expatriate mission communities.
As an Air Force officer specializing in political-military affairs, I witnessed the unraveling of Somalia (1992) and Yugoslavia (1991-5). I also had a front-row seat to the reunification of Germany (1990). I was assigned to military airlift units and participated in humanitarian airlift operations to Somalia, Bosnia and the former USSR. I observed how these operations seemed to help these areas function. Several years later, in contemplating a dissertation topic, I wondered if mission aviation aircraft were able to generate centripetal forces as I had seen military transport planes do. Hence, I built questions regarding political centripetal force into my study. I wanted to find out if mission aircraft were contributing to the functionality of an area in a political sense. During the field study, I asked respondents if they thought the plane helped bring their country together, if they felt like they were a part of their country because of the air service. While anticipating responses of a political nature, the responses were unexpectedly of a different type—social.
Functions of Mission Aviation
My survey was based upon the five benefits or functions of mission aviation as originally put forth by MAF pilot Jim Truxton in the mid-1940s (Martin 1950, 37). These five are: the saving of time, the preservation of energy and health, the availability of equipment and materials, the facilitation of work, and the provision of emergency transportation. Responses from those interviewed yielded three additional functions of mission aviation: increased access, the human dimension and centripetal force. Increased access suggests people, materials and information can be moved between a central place and a hinterland (remote or less developed part of the country) location with increased speed, frequency or ease. The human dimension includes factors of psychological support, relationships and family. Centripetal force is associated with a connectedness, a unity and a sense of togetherness experienced by the people who use the air service. It is an intrinsic need for people to be connected with other people, as we are designed to live in community with others.
Social Centripetal Force
The following material on centripetal force (both social and political) is derived directly from comments made by respondents in the field. The most obvious place to start is to explain just exactly how the aircraft generates centripetal force. In the simplest terms, it does so by physically bringing people together. This may be in the form of assembling people for conferences, permitting people to visit relatives in distant cities or by flying personnel to a work site. The plane enables people to know people in other places and to establish relationships and friendships. It increases the ability of people to meet, interact and see they have things in common with other people. In analyzing the field data, it indicated the aircraft was functioning as a centripetal force amongst three groups of people: local citizens, the expatriate community and the national church.
Through the aircraft, communities are unified within themselves and with other communities. This comes about as people in villages frequently have to work together to maintain the aeronautical facilities. For instance, when a tree fell on the floatplane docking area in Joloi, Central Kalimantan, many villagers helped remove the tree. The plane unifies communities at the local level and definitely helps them feel connected with neighboring villages. Aerial visits by the head civic leader in Long Layu (East Kalimantan) help the surrounding villages feel connected and “together in one vision.” The airplane serves as a centripetal force by connecting small villages with larger cities. Similarly, the plane links the three disparate regions of Mali with the capital Bamako. This connection brings unity as workers travel between Bamako and hinterland locations. According to evidence provided by the survey, the plane can help unify different religious communities as well. At Pujon, Central Kalimantan, my translator and I talked with the local pastor. He explained how the Muslims felt superior to the Christians before the air service started, yet admired the plane’s availability. As the Muslims began using the service along with the Christians, the two groups started talking, relationships became stronger and the social distance between them was reduced.
The connection provided by the aircraft helps service workers feel like they are part of a bigger effort and working on the same team. The plane promotes team morale. They are motivated and comforted by knowing others are going through the same challenges. In Mali, where great distances and a harsh climate make interaction very difficult, the plane facilitates a communication network that fosters a sense of community among the service workers. This network allows them to learn things from each other that help them in their work. A veteran construction specialist working in the Gao and Tombouctou areas (of Mali) was able to share his expertise with other missionaries much more readily because they were joined by air. However, the prominence of the link provided by mission aviation is not as pronounced in Mali (where roads and trains are available) as it is in Irian Jaya (where the plane is the primary mode of movement).
The gravel airstrip at Holuwon, Irian Jaya, was scraped out of the side of a mountain and had a sixteen percent slope, which meant we had to land going uphill. A Dutch nurse was there, and she talked with me under the wing about how the air service provided encouragement, and enabled her to meet with others and not be isolated. She said the local men could make the trek into Wamena (the nearest town) in three days, but she would not even attempt the trip due to the high probability of injury. The aircraft was her connection to the outside and to the community of missionaries. Just as a log pulled from the fire will rapidly go out, so will workers cut off from their teammates. Relationships bind us together, motivate us and strengthen us.
Finally, the air service makes connectivity between geographically separate portions of the national church possible. For example, it gives Indians in eastern Ecuador a sense of belonging, unity and togetherness with the Christian community. An Indian woman named Elsa, from the jungle village of Mashient, is perhaps the most highly educated female from eastern Ecuador. During our evening interview, she told me how the air service contributed to the Indian’s sense of unification on a “world level” as a part of the body of Christ. This was more important to them than a political identification, and aviation was an important element in the process.
Political Centripetal Force
The starting point for understanding political centripetal force is the quantitative responses derived from the field survey. One question inquired about the aircraft’s role in unifying the country. Of the twenty people who provided a response, eighteen indicated the aircraft does help unify or bring the country together. When asked, “how much more compared with surface transportation?” their responses averaged sixty-five percent. Albeit weak statistical evidence, it does indicate that the aircraft has a positive role in generating political centripetal force.
To further examine this topic, I had to rely on the qualitative comments obtained during the interviews. They indicated the air service is functioning as a political centripetal force by enhancing connectivity, giving people a sense they are a part of a greater whole, increasing interaction (which increases unity) and by dispersing government medical and educational personnel. The plane also gives the government access to hinterland locations, thus promoting nationalism and citizenship, as well as giving the feeling that the government includes, cares for and pays attention to them. After landing at his base of Kelansam, West Kalimantan, my pilot put me in a small, blue power boat and took me twenty minutes up the wide Kapuas River to the town of Sintang. We interviewed a middle-aged, Indonesian gentleman who told us how air service generated political centripetal force—before I had a chance to ask him.
Likewise, citizens have increased access to government functions. Aerial postal service generates feelings of unity within people for their country, and similar sentiments are also generated by the plane in that it helps them to feel like they are a part of, or belong to, their province or country. It provides a connection and interaction with other parts of their country, and gives them the opportunity to participate in the political process. The aircraft brings education to hinterland locations, which, in itself, promotes the centripetal entity of “similar education levels.” It also contributes to the formation of “similar political philosophies” in that the educated people understand they are a part of their province (and country) and know where they fit into the political structure.
In the area north of the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan, the government used the plane to reinforce similar political philosophy and to counter perceived threats by visiting peoples who were susceptible to communist influences from the Malaysian border area between 1965 and 1979. At Tanjung Lokung, deep in the heart of Borneo, missionary planes facilitated the recognition of remote peoples by bringing government officials to the Punan tribe. This case represents the discovery of “similarities” and “friendship” between differing peoples. Before this contact, outsiders considered the Punan to be subhuman, as having tails, living in trees and feared. After the contact, both groups felt a rapport and established a good working relationship with each other.
The evidence also suggested the plane does not create political centripetal force in all locations; it may be neutral, or even serve as a centrifugal entity in some cases. For the people to experience increased centripetal force generated by air service, their lives must be touched by it. In Lesotho, where local people do not use the plane, it does not draw them together, nor unify them. Yet, when the Lesotho government uses helicopters to bring officials or medical programs to remote locations, sentiments of connectivity, feeling cared for and paid attention to, are experienced by the people. In West Kalimantan, where roads, navigable rivers and closer proximity to the center of power (Jakarta) reduce the effect of the plane as a centripetal force, other entities fill this role. Radio news, increased use of the Indonesian language and greater political activity serve as unifying forces.
The plane can also generate centrifugal forces. For example, the plane has brought government officials who attempt to impose a “different religion” (Islam) on local people in Irian Jaya. Likewise, the plane brings service workers who promote concepts like freedom and human rights. In countries where these concepts are not well regarded by authorities, the plane indirectly serves as a divisive force.
The air service can also change the central place used by a hinterland community from a neighboring country to the home country. Prior to the initiation of air service to East Kalimantan, the people obtained supplies from, and felt closer to, nearby border towns in Malaysia. Food and materials could be acquired within a one- or two-day walk. (This phenomenon reoccurs when air service is interrupted.) Since the arrival of the plane, the central places for these towns have changed to the more distant cities of Tarakan or Samarinda. As a measure, one resident indicated without the air service, they felt seventy-five percent oriented towards Malaysia and twenty-five percent towards their home country of Indonesia. In Mali, correspondingly great distances separate the country’s core area (Bamako) and the northern and western regions. Because of this lack of connectivity between Mali’s core and periphery, the remote regions are naturally oriented toward neighboring countries. For example, if a person in Tessalit experiences a medical problem and the plane is not available, he or she is better served by traveling to Mauritania or Algeria. Thus, the aircraft creates artificial central places by providing increased access to them from hinterland locations. By overcoming the friction of distance, the air service effectively “reduces the distances” within, and “shrinks the size of,” a country. In these two instances, the plane changed the central places of distant stations from adjacent countries to ones within their own country. By doing so, it functioned as a centripetal force for the country.
Generation of Centripetal Force
Centripetal force is a result of four functions of mission aviation: equipment and materials, facilitation of work, emergency transportation, and the human dimension (Figure 1 on page 205). How does this work? First, equipment and materials constitute the physical items required to exist and to be a part of a community. Service workers can build houses, run generators, use radios, employ computers and carry out development projects. Also, because the workers in third-world locations generally have similar material needs and face the same technical and logistical challenges, the equipment and materials provide a common denominator amongst them. Second, the airplane facilitates work predominantly by getting people together geographically. This may be for meetings, conferences or project supervision. The ability to get things done serves as a raison d’être for the missionaries. Because the plane brings the supplies and people needed to carry out tasks, it facilitates work. Since work is the raison d’être of mission personnel, the plane facilitates this centripetal entity.
Third, regarding emergency transportation, the aircraft gives people the ability to access hinterland stations from the outside or to return to the central place when needed, thus providing the physical connection required for togetherness. Centripetal force cannot be experienced in geographic isolation. The ability to access other locations, people and necessities (like medical care) negates isolation and thereby establishes the physical linkage with the resources needed to exist, and to physically remain a member of the community. Fourth, the human dimension of mission aviation produces a unifying effect by creating and maintaining relationships between people. The plane is the (literal) vehicle that geographically connects individuals and families. The ability to see a face generates centripetal force by doing many of the things listed by Hartshorne (Table below). Spending time with people who share the same language, religion, standard of living, education level, and economic standing fosters similarity and unity. This human connection is essential for the personal interaction and relationships essential for psychological and emotional health. Shared experiences occur and bonds are strengthened through those relationships.
great distances within a country
large size of country
sparsely inhabited areas
different, unfriendly people
diverse character of population
varying education levels
disparate standards of living
diverse economic attitudes
differing political philosophy
no raison d’être
small distances within a country
small size of country
densely inhabited areas
similar, friendly people
homogeneous character of population
one or similar langauges
one or compatible religions
similar education levels
similar standards of living
common economic attitudes
absence of class distinctions
absence of racial distinctions
similar political philosophy
presence of raison d’être
The data strongly suggests mission aviation is functioning as a centripetal force both politically and socially. In a social sense, the aircraft creates centripetal force by transporting people between central places and hinterland areas, thus providing a circulation system. This system provides the physical connectivity required to build and maintain relationships. Solid relationships have a synergistic effect on accomplishing missionary tasks. In the political sense, the airplane provides the movement necessary for government programs to reach hinterland areas, for postal service to function and for people to move about within their country.
Implications for Missions
First, we should recognize that aviation generates centripetal force. Only then can we begin to capitalize on the unifying benefits brought forth by the aircraft. Second, mission leaders may wish to take advantage of aviation-induced centripetal force in three areas: member care, retention and recruitment. By using aircraft to connect isolated workers with their families, associates and specialists, several benefits can result: differences can be resolved, a raison d’être promoted and personal/relational needs met. As a result, there may be less inclination to leave the mission field. Increased connectivity may be a particularly poignant issue for families with school-age children. In terms of recruitment, the existence of stations adequately accessible by aircraft could be a decisive factor for mission aspirants. Third, I would encourage non-flying mission organizations to assess the transportation situations faced by their people and to consider the possibility of using aviation (or other suitable means) to improve access to remote locations. Both MAF and JAARS have developed assessment tools for this purpose, and are actively engaged in finding ways to overcome transportation challenges. For aviation organizations, I would recommend they build time into daily flight operations for developing relationships with the people they serve. The pressure to fly tighter schedules should not degrade the critical importance of person-to-person contact. Such relationship building would be of great benefit to the workers, pilots and their families. Aviation groups must also be very cognizant of, and appropriately handle, the power they possess to affect the political centripetal forces in a country.
After our visit with the workers at Methalaneng, we strapped back into the Cessna and pointed it down the airstrip—towards the mountain looming at us from across the valley. As we launched, my pilot made a very hard left turn, keeping us a safe distance from the wall of rock. I was beginning to see exactly how mission aviation was unifying people and providing connectivity. While centripetal force cannot be detected from cargo manifests, it was readily evident in the hearts and minds of those laboring to fulfill the Great Commission.
Cohen, Saul B. 1973. Geography and Politics in a World Divided 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hartshorne, Richard. 1950. “The Functional Approach in Political Geography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 40: 95-130.
Martin, William E. 1950. “Field Surveys for Mission Aviation Service.” Diss. Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Kansas City, Kansas.
If you have comments, questions, or would like to obtain a CD containing Scott’s full dissertation, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Zibell served as an Air Force officer for nearly 10 years. As a specialist in political-military affairs and airlift operations, he flew on missions in Somalia, Bosnia and Saudi Arabia. In addition to flying over 250 hours as an additional crewmember or mission observer, Scott is a former freefall parachutist and has traveled to more than 20 countries. He has a Ph.D. in geography from the University of South Carolina.
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