It came up on their first date.
Steve Letchford had a yen for the missions field.
"We talked about it," said Sherri, his wife. "(But) I didn't know I would be going with him."
The Letchfords and their four children will leave the United States for a remote mountain hospital in Mukinge, Zambia, in early June, said Dr. Letchford, an Augusta medical internist and pediatrician.
They plan to stay indefinitely, he said. His predecessor stayed 38 years, though most medical missionaries stay about four.
Zambia, a landlocked country in Central Africa, has been racked by AIDS. About 5 percent of its children have been orphaned by the epidemic.
Dr. Letchford, born in Toronto and raised in Albany, N.Y., was intrigued by missionary doctors he met as a child, he said. "That's what got me interested in medicine." He graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1987.
He has served on brief medical missions to Ogbomosho,Nigeria, and Amp Pipal, Nepal.
Mrs. Letchford worked in missions for a couple of weeks each summer for five years, painting buildings or helping lay foundations.
The Letchfords, who attend First Presbyterian Church, moved to Augusta in 1991.
Mukinge Hospital, built more than 40 years ago by the Africa Evangelical Fellowship of Charlotte, N.C. -- the Letchfords' sponsoring organization -- is now owned by the Evangelical Church of Zambia, he said.
The 200-bed hospital has three doctors, counting Dr. Letchford. Many mission hospitals have no doctors, he said.
The mission is eight hours from the nearest grocery store. Every two weeks they will get a truck delivery, said Mrs. Letchford. The family will also raise chickens and cultivate a garden. "Someone is planting a garden for us before we get there," she said.
Mukinge has a boarding school with about 500 girls. About 30 to 40 homes, half belonging to missionaries, are clustered near the hospital. Villages dot the outlying area, she said.
The family will camp the first two weeks in the bush in an effort to pick up the native language, Kikaunde. "They will send us out to the villages where there's no running water. We'll eat their food and get sick with them. We have been looking forward to it," said Dr. Letchford.
Mrs. Letchford will home school their children: Jessica, 9; Thomas, 5; Hannah, 3; and Daniel, 2. The first year they will spend studying Kikaunde. "We hope to develop some ministry in our home," she said.
Jessica, the oldest and a third-grader at Westminster Presbyterian School, understands better than the other children that Africa is going to be different, her father said. "She is sad about leaving her friends, but the excitement is outweighing it."
They will have a computer and be able to e-mail family and friends, although not necessarily with the customary speed, Mrs. Letchford said. "Sometimes the lines are down for a few days, but it's still faster than the regular mail."
They have sold their home. Dr. Letchford has taken in a new partner to care for his patients during his absence and is busy preparing a shipment of donated medicines to send to Zambia. It costs about $7,000 to ship an 8-by-8-by-20-foot container.
The family also needs about $20,000 for a vehicle. "We need something that will last 10 years in the middle of nowhere," he said.
Neither the mission awaiting them nor the demands of packing for a four-year stay have dulled their enthusiasm.
"We have looked forward to it for our whole marriage. It's taken that long for all the pieces to be in place," said Mrs. Letchford. "It's not like we just decided last year."
Funds can be sent to Africa Evangelical Fellowship, P.O. Box 411167, Charlotte, NC 28241-1167.
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