When Faith Really Matters
by Keith Frew, as told to Raymond Mercer
I stood motionless on the bank of the Kabompo River, my heart throbbing, my eyes riveted on the turbulence near our bank. God, please don’t let it be a croc! Ian, my youngest son had just dived into the water from the south bank. Every fibre of my body wrenched as I watched in horror. The croc exploded, clamping its vice-like jaws on Ian’s legs.
Our family worked hard as full-time missionaries. Cindy, the mother of our four children was head of the Women’s Bible School while I served as principal of Chizela Bible Institute, Zambia.
I unequivocally knew my faith was anchored firmly in God’s Holy word, the Bible. I taught faith, preached it and lived it on a daily basis. Cindy and I knew the physical dangers of living on a remote mission station. This is Africa, with wild animals, warring tribes and diseases too numerous or heart wrenching to describe; but nothing could have tested our faith like losing our child.
There was not a lot of time at the mission station to bond with Ian my youngest son, especially now that he was away at school. I decided that a father and son trip would allow that quiet, emotional interrelationship on his next vacation break. We finalized our plans just as Ian’s vacation time arrived.
Ian was delighted to be home on vacation. He enjoyed the early morning, playing his guitar. Strains of “As the deer panteth for the water…” filled our home. On this day, Ian with his music book on the stand was never to return.
Our plan was to boat down the Kabompo River out in the wilds of Zambia, drift quietly downstream past the game park, view the birds and animals and hopefully get in a little fishing. Ken Askey, my long-time missionary friend, planned to join us, as he loved Ian and enjoyed the camaraderie while enjoying God’s great creation. Our discussion about the trip was so exciting that Gordie Engebretson, a co-worker and friend, decided to join us on this outing.
We planned this trip not only around Ian’s vacation time, but at a time when the river reached its peak flow. This would enable us to navigate the rapids more effectively. We would start ten kilometres north of Kalende, the location of our mission station and Bible School, then drift downstream to the game park base camp, Jivundu, about forty kilometres west.
The plan was for our wives to take us to launch the boat, and then drive down on the main road to Jivundu and meet us the following afternoon. We prepared our food, sleeping gear and a tent, and before we ventured out on the river, we all bowed our heads and together prayed for safety.
The morning was going nicely as planned. Two hours passed, and we stopped for a packed lunch at the Kakula Rapids. We pulled the boat up on the bank, fellowshipped over lunch and enjoyed a swim around the rocks. Ian, now a lean, athletic teenager, was a strong swimmer and enjoyed any chance to test his swimming prowess.
It was time to face the rapids. The team launched the boat and waved as we passed two Zambian boys fishing. We instructed Ken, who was steering the boat, to go mid-stream between two large rocks, and then try to skim along the top of the water. In hindsight we were a bit too presumptive. The water was much lower than expected. The river’s turbulence sent a wave crashing into the boat.
We capsized, dumping contents and ourselves into the river. Ian, Gordie and I swam quickly to the north bank. Ken, who could not swim and was wearing heavy boots, clung to the boat until it got caught precariously in the rocks down stream. When the three of us reached the north bank, we assessed our situation and discovered all our gear was being carried by the current down stream.
Immediately, Ian dashed after the supplies, diving in and retrieving boxes, sleeping bags and any food he could find. We were all barefooted. Ian had exceptionally tough feet, conditioned as a boy playing around the mission station. Ian was also much quicker than we were and retrieved more than Gordie and I combined. I watched my son with admiration, his blond hair unmistakable as he crashed through the elephant grass and thorns along the riverbank. Ian was tall, strong and had a mind of his own. I thought, “Ian loves the Zambian bush."
Four kilometres from the rapids we concluded that we had recovered all we saw in the water. Ian suddenly spotted something on the south bank and thought it was his precious Beeman air gun that he had tied earlier to a small dry log, just in case we capsized. He dove into the river, only to discover it was a shoe. We then decided we’d best go back and find Ken and the boat. Ian was now on the south bank, and Gordie and I were on the north bank.
We walked carefully along the river toward the boat. Ian called over and asked if he could come over and join Gordie and me. We discouraged him, saying that he was on the best side of the river. A few minutes passed, and he asked again. I responded that there would be shallower, safer places up stream, and that we would cross over to his side.
Suddenly, Ian called out and said “I’m coming,” and he dove into the water. We stopped and watched him intensely. Then suddenly there was a swirl in the water near our bank. Gordie called out, “Ian, go back.” Ian turned immediately and headed back toward the south bank. Fear gripped my heart.
I turned to Gordie, “Is it a crocodile?” My heart was pounding. I felt helpless. Ian reached the other bank about seventy meters from us. He began scrambling up the muddy bank, but it was too late. The huge croc came from behind and clamped its massive jaws on both of Ian’s feet and dragged him back under the water.
Words cannot describe the mind-numbing rush that gripped me. The quietness of the jungle at that moment was deafening. Our eyes transfixed on the river for what seemed an eternity. I was paralyzed with concern. Suddenly, Ian resurfaced. His blonde head came clear out of the water. Disoriented, he looked around and screamed, “Help!” It was too late, the croc pulled him under again.
My verbal groans fail to articulate the cold, spine-tingling pain I felt at that moment. I was unable to help my son. I fell against Gordie and cried out to God, “Please release Ian from the jaws of that croc.”
We stood motionless by the river’s edge waiting. Nothing happened. We never saw him again.
The screen of my mind froze—the image of Ian indelibly etched, triggered tears of grief to which only a father’s love can relate.
We turned and walked the three kilometres up stream, shirtless and barefoot, crying uncontrollably all the way. The ache within my heart and the burning tears blinded my senses.
We found Ken near the boat sitting on the south bank. Gordie told Ken the devastating news. Ken’s head fell and he cried. He loved Ian as much as we did. He looked up at us and asked, “Will our wives ever forgive us?”
Gordie and I knew that we had to get help. Ken could not walk very far. We were about twelve kilometres from our mission base. We had to cross the river somewhere. It was getting very late. We remembered the two Zambian boys fishing upstream. Perhaps they could help. The heavy grass and thorns made walking barefooted physically torturous.
We were relieved to find the boys still fishing. We asked them if they had seen any crocs? Fear gripped us when they answered yes. We had to cross the river. We asked them if there happened to be a canoe nearby. They called out “Yes, but we don’t know how to paddle.” They probably couldn’t swim either. We could not risk their lives in the fast flowing river. I found a dry log, threw it in the water and asked Gordie to take hold of the log with me. Together we pushed it ahead of us across the river. Gordie was a poor swimmer, and he was completely exhausted by the time we reached the south bank.
The boys helped drag him safely to the bank. Gordie had suffered a severe cramp in his leg so the boys massaged the leg giving some temporary relief. We inquired of the boys if they knew the way back to Kalende. They only knew a path that led back to the main village of Chizela. That should take us close to our base home.
We walked for about ten kilometres. We could faintly hear our station generator. We began picking our way through the jungle darkness when we heard an elephant trumpeting. It was too risky to continue in that direction. The boys then took us on to the village where they lived, and from there we were able to walk toward home.
The last seven kilometres on a gravel road, wearing only our bathing trunks was excruciating, but nothing compared to the internal agony I was feeling. We arrived home at 9:30 pm absolutely exhausted, cold and miserable, praying that God would help us break the news to Cindy. We arrived just as the generator was due to be turned off.
Cindy and I have been through a lot in our years on the mission field, but the emotional impact of this tragedy was overwhelming. I cried and stammered as we embraced each other. Cindy was devastated and felt that perhaps Ian was still alive somewhere.
In the days that followed, I found a quiet spot in the bush near the mission station where I could get alone and talk to God about the hurt I felt.
Ian’s siblings, Renée, Nadine and Mark, were in Canada in three different universities when the accident happened. They immediately returned to Zambia to be with us. We needed to grieve the loss of our loved one together as a family.
Our faith in the God who understands disappointment and tragic loss sustained us through the days and years that followed. We remained on the mission field for eighteen years following Ian’s death. We knew that Ian would have wanted us to stay. The hope we share is that one day we shall see Ian again.
As a family we remember the good times we shared when he was with us. The memories of his laughter, his talents and his faith allowed us to face the tomorrows of our lives, knowing that our God understands and cares for each one of us.
“The Lord is GOOD, a refuge in the time of trouble, he cares for those who trust in him.” Nahum 1:7
—In Loving memory of Ian Frew