Preamble

We are a family of three; Andrew, Jodie and Jessica (aged 17) from Tasmania, Australia who are currently serving in Cotonou, Benin West Africa on the M/V Africa Mercy, the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world, through Mercy Ships International. God has called us on a journey that has been many years in the making. For this season we call West Africa home as we seek to bring hope and healing to the poorest of the poor.



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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Aisha

She looks shyly up at me with big brown eyes, the hint of a smile on her lips. I can tell she is pleased to see me, quite though she is. Thirteen year old Aisha, my first student is a quick learner, picking up English far quicker than I could ever imagine picking up French or Sousou her languages. One of the first patients to arrive this field service, Aisha spent over three months in wards A and B on the Africa Mercy while surgeons worked hard to correct her deformity. You see Aisha's feet were bent under and were facing backwards, making it almost impossible for her to walk. Aisha was accompanied by her faithful mama, Mariam and her little baby brother Mamadou who quickly stole the hearts of anyone who spent any time in his presence.

Aisha, Mariam and me on deck seven. The patients spend an hour everyday out on deck seven to get some fresh air. Aisha had to go up in the lift in a wheelchair, as do most of the ortho patients, for a large part of her stay in the wards.

Mariam, Mamadou and Aisha in her first full length casts.

Aisha and her mama.

Mamadou

The wards of the hospital on the Africa Mercy are very far removed from what we expect in the West. They are chaotic, noisy, mamas and babies sleeping underneath their children's beds on mattresses, the noise of the drums and joyful singing dispersed with the sounds of retching and screaming children and Madagascar on the TV. Above I am visiting Aisha, her mama and brother.

The hospital employs over 100 day workers to assist in many different areas such as the wards, hospital housekeeping, hospital chaplaincy, the Hope Centre, x-ray, rehab, outpatients, screening, eyes, dental, dietitian and admissions. The primary role of the ward day workers is translating, an invaluable service that we would be lost without! But in their downtime they can often relate to patients in a way that we cannot through the sharing of their culture and language. Above a ward day worker does Aisha's hair.

This is an amazing photo that captures a rare smile form Aisha as she walks for the first time in her new, less cumbersome casts. It is hard to describe how you feel when you witness things like this. Seeing a patient walk on straight legs or watching a patient see the world for the fist time through eyes healed from a half hour surgery, seeing a patient "dry" after a successful VVF surgery, seeing patients relieved of years of pain and suffering when a rotten tooth is finally removed. It is hard to tell whether the blessing is more ours or theirs!

Joy!

Another nice family pic minus Dad and the rest of Aisha's siblings who lived apart for three long months in order to get their little girl healed.

Sam from hospital chaplaincy talks with Aisha.

The best day of all....going home!! But it is a day of mixed emotion as the patients form strong bonds with those who spend time with them. The hosptial becomes a home away from home for those who stay with us for months on end. The night before Aisha left I went to visit to say goodbye in case I didn't get to the dock to see her off. Try as I might I could not hold back the tears threatening to spill over. Despite the fact that our communication is only through translators and various hand guestures, tears are universal, as are a hug and a smile. As tears started to roll down my cheeks, Mariam began to quitely cry as I leaned over Aisha and stroked her hair as she sobbed in her pillow, her back turned from the world. I had underestimated her pull on my heart and mine on her's.

An awesome moment, Aisha walks along the dock unaided.

We are not allowed to give gifts to patients and day workers until they leave us so I had been waiting for many weeks to share some gifts with Aisha including a little clip on koala and a photo book of her journey with us.

Aisha and I say goodbye.

The  patient transfer land rover takes Aisha, Mariam and Mamadou home where they belong.

Fortunately Aisha will be returning at regular intervals throughout the rest of the field service to have her casts changed and for rehab appointments to allow the maximum healing we can give her before the ship leaves. Above Papanie, head of hospital housekeeping brings laughter to Aisha and her mum as they wait to be seen by the physios.



The ortho kids are some of the bravest I have ever met. They rarely complain as they endure many surgeries on a strange white ship that has docked in their land and months of painful rehabilitation, placing their hope and faith in strangers to bring about healing to their broken bodies. Above Aisha is all smiles on her last visit just before Christmas. She will be back in February for her next appointment and I can't wait to see her progress!!




 

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Finding the Balance

Recently I heard the term "finding the balance" with regards to our lives on board the ship and it really resonated within me. At some undefined point in time we begin to think of our lives are "normal" and we become desensitised to the poverty, corruption, disease and illness around us. No longer are we shocked by the sight or a face destroyed by the flesh eating cancer, Noma, on the way to drop off our garbage, no longer do we notice the rubbish and the human excrement on the sides of the road, no longer do we see the torn and dirty clothes on the children. No longer do we bother about sitting for hours in traffic that does not move an inch, no longer do we expect to receive our mail or packages at any set time and no longer do we flinch at the smell that rises up from the ocean as we go down the gangway.

What are our coping mechanisms? Yes we are desensitised but we also laugh a lot, we play a lot and we have FUN! The ship is in a constant state of social activity and with the huge number of nationalities represented on board we are in a constant state of social activity from all over the world!


The Mercy Ships Academy also offer time out for the kids to participate in various activities each Friday afternoon. This program is called Student Life and offers the kids all kinds of options from painting to woodwork to the "Blessing Others" course which visits the wards and the Hope Centre and helps out other departments on the ship with their daily work. Above Jess is participating in "Blessing Others"-assisting the dining room staff.

Jess in the Student Life painting class

Another fun thing the Academy does is Spirit Day. I have posted about this before. It is a nominated day approximately every six weeks where the kids can dress to follow a certain theme. One of the latest Spirit Days was hat day. Jess is sporting her Aussie fly swatting cork hat.

Special occasions are not forgotten even if family and friends back home are not around to help celebrate. Above Jess and I at fellow Aussie crew member Leah's engagement party. Never mind that her fiance is home in Canada, we partied on none the less!! It was great girl time. I took the photo if you are searching for me!

The American tradition of welcoming in the new harvest is celebrated each year on board with the Fall Festival. It is like a fete for those back home minus the pony rides! Jess decided to Google how to make sewless bags and she found these bags made out of t-shirts. Shhhh-I helped make most of them! Since then I have helped some of the patients make them down on the wards and they are very popular! Jess sold eight out of ten bags.

The Fall Festival also featured something that is always a hit at anytime of the year, on board-the photo booth!! We love photo booths! Above Andrew and below Jess break out their inner photo booth persona's!

 

There is also a strong youth group on board which the chaplains run alongside some other younger crew. We are extremely grateful for this opportunity for Jess! They participate in all kinds of activities from sightseeing day trips, ministry events, small groups, worship times, games, movies, dinners and overnight trips. Above the youth enjoy a visit to Dubreka Falls about an hour and a half outside Conakry.

Okay, okay-this may not be everyone's cup of tea but I look forward to my once per field service "observe a surgery" day with great excitement and it sure beats the daily grind. Above I observe an ortho surgery and below a max fax surgery. Cool!!!

 

Happy 39th birthday to me!

 Birthday lunch with friends at local hotel "The Riviera"

Each year the Africa Mercy chaplains organise a weekend of Spiritual Retreat. They put a great deal of effort into this weekend and offer all kinds of activities and areas of reflection and retreat around the ship. This year's theme was "Spiritual Armor" and of course there had to be a photo booth. Love this one of Jess and friend Savannah.

One last fling in Engineering-a dinner with the Africa Mercy electricians. We were invited as honourary guests to local restaurant Le Refuge. Andrew having a good time. Below our bill for twelve people-over one million Guinea Francs.

 

A few weekends ago Andrew and about 40 other male crew attended a men's retreat at Roome Island, a leisurely 40 minute boat ride away. Promising lots of BBQ meat and male bonding, the retreat delivered and Andrew had a great day out!

Andrew climbing out of the boat/oversize canoe.

Once again the crew/day worker BBQ's and community meetings have proved to be a big hit. After several in Togo we had our first one in Guinea in November. If you want peace and quite this is NOT the place to go!!!



As we are in one port usually for ten months we see many ships come and go. Everything from huge container ships to cruise ships and navy vessels. Sometimes our crew are given the opportunity to tour these ships. Recently a French Navy ship came into port behind us and offered tours to our crew. Above I am standing on their bow, a little smaller than ours! Below, with a French sailor. No wise cracks girls!!

 

One of the most relaxing areas on board the ship is our very own Starbucks Cafe. Most definitely the only Starbucks in West Africa. Jess often works as a barista so she will be well trained for a job at McCafe on our return! Starbucks in located in what is referred to as Town Square. It is the hub of the ship and very often the centre of many of the ship's events. Every Thursday night after community meeting ice-cream is served to the crew in Town Square and on New Year's Eve the crew welcomed 2013 in.

 This is just a small window into some of the dozens of activities and events that take place both on and off ship. We are very fortunate to have so many outlets to help us find the balance!