Jungles, AK-47’s and airports: A tale from the life of Mark Volkers

Janelle Cammenga-Staff Writer

The hallway in the classroom building outside the digital media lab does little to draw your attention. There are some pictures on the walls and, yes, there’s a glass display case with some posters and pretty lights, but nothing out of the ordinary. Students plod by on their way to Core classes, maybe talking with their friends, maybe staring blankly ahead if it’s early enough in the morning.

But if you take the time to turn into the smaller hallway and walk through the door of office 1312, you see something completely different.

Beyond the door, stories cover the muted green walls. Not the stories found in books, although there are a couple of bookshelves. You’ll find the stories in objects around the room, silently speaking volumes. The silver and black of old cameras capture your attention first. A carving of dark wood juts out from a wall on the right side of the room. A dark wooden frame introduces the face of someone in tribal dress, complete with piercings.

Even a plain black and gold frame with a plain page of Times New Roman typing tells a story. It has to do with a man named Chris, who is “350 pounds of evangelistic power.”

There is one thing that draws all these stories together, and that is the man sitting at the desk in an ordinary wheeled office chair.

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Volkers, a professor at Dordt College

 

A world traveler. A movie buff.

Mark Volkers.

After several different careers—first a missionary, then a photojournalist and documentary film maker, then working as the director of the CRC in Grand Rapids—Volkers accepted a position in 2005 as a Dordt digital media professor.

A reddish grey beard accents the lower half of his face. His hand holds a silver thermos full of Kericho tea that he sips occasionally. He wears a pink shirt, but his pants and suede boots match the dusty green of the walls.

Today, he remembers something else green—not the dusty green of boots or office walls, but the green of jungle plants.

It was around September of 2003 or 2004, during Volkers’ days as a photojournalist.

He flew into Freetown to do a follow-up story on the war in Sierra Leone. The country had been engaged in an 11-year civil war, centered around the country’s abundance of diamonds, with almost 50,000 casualties. People fought over the diamonds themselves and sold the stones to pay for more weapons.

Since the airport is way out on a peninsula, most people prefer to take a helicopter shuttle to the mainland, rather than drive the extra distance. Volkers was thrilled, as he had never ridden in a helicopter before. He and the other passengers lined up on opposite walls facing each other. Through the open doors, he could hear the low fwoomp, fwoomp of the blades.

This Sikorsky helicopter just happened to be piloted by a couple of Russian mercenaries who passed a bottle of Jack Daniels back and forth throughout the flight.

Did he fear for his life? No. He just thought, “Well, this is going to be an adventure.”

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Volkers during the filming of his documentary The Forth World

Over the course of his trip, Volkers spent time filming and reporting in Kabala, a place deep in the jungle around 190 miles from Freetown. He met victims of the inhuman cruelty of the war. One particular woman was coming back from insanity after being starved and tortured. To this day, Volkers still remembers her vividly.

“There’s not a week that goes by that she’s not in my mind,” he said.

After he finished filming, a military action shut down the airport in Freetown. It wasn’t anything as major as a coup, but it still put Volkers in a tight spot: He had to get back to Detroit in time to attend classes for his PhD, and the airport was his only way home.

Knowing his situation, a local missionary friend of his, put Volkers with a local Sierra Leonean man who owned a four-wheel drive truck. Ordinarily, a truck like this would make for an easy trip.

But there are no roads in Kalaba. There’s only jungle.

Undeterred, Volkers and his guide pressed on, riding the truck on its lowest gear the whole way, lumbering and bumping over rocks and ravines.

After some time of this jostling around, they stopped. There was nothing visually important about this part of the jungle; it was the same as everything they just drove through, with the exception of a hut and a bamboo pole. They had reached the border of Sierra Leone.

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Volkers and his team filming in Tanzania

A man came out of the hut, lifted up the bamboo pole, and said, “Welcome to Guinea.” He stamped Volkers out of Sierra Leone in the middle of the jungle, and they continued on their way.

But they weren’t actually in Guinea yet.

In about a quarter mile, they reached the Guinea border, driving right up to a bunch of soldiers with guns. The soldiers looked at the white man sitting in a truck with $10,000 worth of camera equipment and said, “You’ve gotta go see the commandant.”

The commandant. Like a character out of a movie, the sunglasses-clad man lazily swung in a hammock while his surrounding soldiers held their AK-47’s.

The commandant wouldn’t even look at Volkers.

So he stood, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

And fuming. What an arrogant, insolent jerk, he thought.

Eventually, the commandant motioned to the soldiers, who started talking to the two men.

When he finally condescended enough to speak to them himself, he simply said iterations of, “Why should I let you into Guinea?” and “I’m not gonna let you into Guinea.”

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Volkers during the filming of My Passport to India

Eventually, Volker’s guide had had enough of this. He turned to him. “Mark, why don’t you go back and watch the gear? I’ll deal with this guy.”

He came back 10 minutes later with much emptier pockets. But they got through.

That meant more low-gear crawling and bouncing through jungle. Eventually, they hit a road and spent the night in Dalaba with some missionary friends. The road made driving a lot easier the next day, but the police checkpoints dotted the approximately 165 miles between Dalaba and Conakry, where Volkers hoped to fly out of. The war had made a mess of Guinea.

“Mark, it’d be better if you weren’t seen,” his friend said.

Every time they drove up to a checkpoint, Volkers got down on the floor of the truck and covered himself with a blanket. As he lay hidden this way and a police officer looked around the vehicle, he thought, What have I gotten myself into?

Conakry. Finally. His friend dropped him off at the airport. He could see his plane on the tarmac.

He walked up to the man checking tickets and handed him his passport. The man glanced at it and said, “You’re here illegally. Next!”

Volkers couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong. He slipped back in line and asked the man what the problem with his passport was.

“You never got stamped into Guinea. You’re here illegally.”

The commandant had let them through, but had never stamped him into Guinea. The man was right.

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Volkers filming in India

Volkers had never paid a bribe in his life, but he really had to get back to his class and was already behind schedule. So he fished around in his pocket and found his last 500 Guinean franks. He slipped them into his passport, got back in line, and passed it to the man one more time.

“Are you trying to bribe me?”

Oh crap, now I’m really in trouble, Volkers thought.

Aloud, he said, “Sir, that’s all the money I have left. I don’t know what to do. The guy at the border didn’t stamp my passport and I really need to be on that plane. I don’t know what else to do.”

The man slipped the money into his pocket.

Volkers got on his plane.

And then the plane landed prematurely due to technical problems.

This stranded Volkers in an African airport with no air-conditioning for over 24 hours, until a lady at the Italia counter had pity on him and found him a flight out.

When he finally touched down in Chicago, he decided to call his wife. But she didn’t answer him right away. Instead, she broke down into tears, unable to speak. She finally calmed down and choked out, “Are you ok?”

As things turned out, he had ceased to exist ever since he missed his plane in Freetown. No one had heard anything about him in four days. The organization he worked for was looking for him. The missionaries were looking for him.

He could’ve died at any point on his trip and no one would have known.

And so the green of the jungle fades back into the muted green of office walls, but the jungle and the experiences stay with Volkers. He’s learned from the things he’s experienced, and he’s moved beyond being cavalier about traveling.

“Don’t take goodbyes so lightly,” he said. “No one’s immortal.”

He’s also learned that God works in ways you can’t predict, putting people in your path at just the right time and place. According to Volkers, you never know when you might meet an angel.

“Have your eyes open and your wits about you,” he said.

The experiences gather and shape the man sitting in office 1312. They also shape the office itself, as mementos of Volkers’ travels and interactions cover the walls.

But the stories these objects tell—the story of Chris, the full story of the woman who used to be insane, the story of the man with 85 wives, and so many other stories—will just have to wait.

For now, they will have to stay on the wall with the others.

To hear them, you’ll have to ask Volkers yourself.

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