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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Monday, October 28, 2013

ANZACS


Right now the Africa Mercy is bursting at the seams with Aussies and Kiwis. It is so comforting to hear the familiar accent throughout the hallways. We connect straight away because our culture spans the divide. We can reminisce about home, complain about the foods we miss or discuss what is happening in Aussie politics, TV or sport. Or in our case-technology as well! Some are returnees and we are always excited to see our friends coming back year after year. It is fun to receive a quick email or Facebook message, "Hey, I'm coming back to the ship. Is there anything you want from home"? We were very excited to have another Aussie family join the Africa Mercy in July. After being the one and only ever Aussie family on the Africa Mercy we were very happy to welcome on board the Dunne family with their three boys, from Sydney NSW.

It is always wonderful when we get together for an evening out. Where would you expect a group of Aussies and Kiwis to go in the Congo? You guessed it- a Chinese restaurant! Before we left the ship we gathered for photos in Town Square in the middle of the ship. Above are most of the Aussies on board. As we were having our photos, the founder of Mercy Ships, Don Stephens, happened to stroll by and being the shy bunch that we all are we asked him to join us. He is such a good sport. He is in the photo below, next to Andrew, behind Jess.

 

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie-Oi, Oi, Oi

Me and Andy

Spring rolls-a rare find in this neck of the woods!

What the?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Despicable!


Academy Spirit Day happens about every six weeks. It is grass roots a dress up day for the kids. The fun theme for the most recent Spirit Day was your favourite TV/Book/Movie character. Jess and her friend Iona decided to go as Minions from the huge hit movies Despicable Me 1 and 2. Don't you think they did a great job with their outfits! It's tough finding costumes when you live on a ship in Africa!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Screening Day; Memoirs of a Patient Escort

I think it's a forgone conclusion that I am the very last person to write about the Congo screening day, who intends to so (or selection day as is the French interpretation). Since this was my fourth screening day (and fourth subsequent blog post) I was wondering what new and exciting ways I could possibly present a post. Having thought about it for a bit, I have decided brutal honesty about my day should be a good read. So stop now if you are after a fluffy piece because this 'aint it!
 
Frankly I did not want to go! I couldn't be bothered. I don't know why exactly; maybe because it WAS my fourth screening day and I have pretty much seen it all now from senseless death to ecstatic jubilation. It was too early in the morning, I hate sunscreen and sweat and I can't speak French, let alone any local dialects.
 
Well I got up at the crack of dawn, long after Andrew had left at 4:30am in the first land rover convoy. Good he remembered his water bottle (unlike last year)! I had all the bags packed one for me, one for Andrew and one for Jess-all of us leaving at different times of the day, to pitch in. That was a problem in itself. Who owns three backpacks anyway? I gathered with my group in the cafĂ©-the last convoy to leave the ship at around 7:30am. I felt a bit better, after all I was awake, dressed and breathing.
 
Our landie was mostly full of mums who had found babysitters and on call parents for all their kids so they could assist and feel a sense of purpose. (I have to shout out to the mums who stayed behind to mind all the rug rats!) They worked pretty hard too. We piled in, full of energy and expectation. What would this day be like? How many people were lined up? Was everything peaceful? The sky was overcast and grey with a bit of a pre-rainy season nip in the air. The mosquitoes were still thick. Our drive was uneventful.
 
On arrival we all placed our belongings in the crew break room where many crew, who had already been hard at it since well before sunrise, were resting. We heard the lines were beating all records. I felt the adrenaline rush through me. This was it-the day that we talk about, pray about and dream about every, single field service. I felt as if all of my days had led to this, as if God had placed me there with his very hand. I am not a doctor or a nurse but I can feel and I can love.
 
Our little group soon dispersed to their various areas and I found myself working as a patient escort at the prayer station. Great-not! I had worked this station at previous screenings and it was hard, gut wrenching work. It is the last stop. After lining up for hours and hours in the heat and humidity, praying and hoping for a chance of healing only to be told there is none, people are asked if they would like to receive prayer. Sometimes that is all we can offer. Brokenness is so very raw, painful and personal. Sometimes it is better to say nothing. As I escorted patients to the "sortie" (French for exit-I learnt that word pretty quick smart) I saw all range of emotion from laughing to weeping to ambivalence to confusion to anger. Have you ever wondered how you would react if you were at the end of hope? I watched a man argue vehemently with many different crew as they tried in vain to escort him out of the screening site. He refused to budge for a very long time, begging and pleading and finally loosing his temper. I found out later on that a couple who sat silently at the prayer station for a large part of the day had lost their young child in the crowd. Everybody has a story.
 
After a few hours at the prayer station, during which time I did my best to organise the patients into some kind of "order", I took a short break for a much need drink. The temperature was rising. I was switched to another area of patient escorting, between individual surgical stations to either the prayer station or the "yes" bit". Well at least I could now make some people happy. As the sun beat down and I struggled in the soft, sandy conditions, dozens of patients and their caregivers made their way to the various stations, some needing an arm to lean on, some needing to be carried, most looking bewildered and lost. I wished I could have conversed with them to offer some words of comfort or join in their joy. We would have been lost without our newly employed day crew, but what a baptism of fire for them. Most of them had never before seen the conditions we look for and yet they worked hard, side by side with the crew, their translation skills invaluable.
 
While I was working this area I was watching Andrew with pride. There are many unsung heroes of screening day and Andrew was one of them. The first to arrive and the last to leave, he worked behind the scenes tirelessly, ensuring that all the crew were transported all day long. The land rovers were also used as barricades and to aid in security.
 
Time to stop for lunch. I found myself wondering if my chicken sandwich had survived the heat, even in a cooler bag with an ice pack. Using liberal amount of hand sanitiser, I took the risk. Time for the Academy kids to take a break too. Jess took this moment to tell me that she had not used hand sanitiser after helping to run the children's ministry. Gross! I prayed against gastro right then. I was pretty proud of those kids. They worked as hard as the adult crew and were shining examples of the hands and feet of Jesus. 
 
Being of the pale skin variety it was time for me to move undercover. I relocated to the escorting station between registrations and medical history. Whew-stations BEFORE the big bad "no"! WARING-ABOUT TO TALK ABOUT A TOPIC THAT NO-ONE ELSE DOES BUT HAS ITS FAIR SHARE OF LOGISTICS DEDICATED TO IT(true fact).......Not long after arriving at this station I found myself needing to go to the loo. Now this sounds trivial but noooooo, not in Africa. Those stupid anti-diarrhoea tablets had not worked as planned. A small hike later I made it and fortunately there was enough water in the bucket to bucket flush-praise the Lord!
 
I worked this station for the rest of my time. "Bonjour, cava", followed by wild hand gestures beckoning patients to follow me then, "Au revoir". Over and over and over......A man accompanying his son mumbled something to me in French. "Pardon", I say in my best French accent. "Piss", he says. "Ohhhh". Seems some words are universal. Back to the toilets I go. Ohhhh my feet are sooooo sore. I have seen everything today. My heart is heavy and light all at once. I am exhausted beyond belief. It was at that time that the day worker helping to translate at this station took the opportunity to tell me I am fat and I should have more lunch because I like to eat. I took the opportunity to let him know that he should never tell a white women she is fat-EVER! Culturally speaking he was paying me a compliment.
 
The mood did not stay light for long as I noticed a young women, carrying a small child on her slim hip, looking lost and wandering aimlessly. Another crew member, who spoke French, helped me to translate. The women had a ticket to proceed though the screening but her child had not. Turns out there was nothing we could do for the child. She began to weep. This was the low point for me. I began to cry alongside her, helpless and frustrated by my lack of communication and the situation. Through translation she begged for her child to take her place. It reminded me of Jesus and how he took our place. I was thinking about what I would do as a mother, the same without a doubt! Whatever it took. I convinced her that giving up her surgery would be of no benefit to her child and she could help her child by getting healthy and living a long life. I clumsily tired to hug her. It was awkward and I don't know if I helped any but I tried the best way I knew how and that is all God calls us to do.
 
While in this area I was able to watch Jessica interact with children, some potential patients, some accompanying their mamas and other relatives. Her ability to look past defects and to see the child inside bore witness to her blossoming maturity and testament to all she has seen over the past three years, far more than most kids her age. Balloons, stickers, pipe cleaner glasses, face painting and colouring wiled away the long hours.
 
Finally, when my feet and back could take now more, as the sun began to lower in the sky I made my way over to Andrew to catch one of the dedicated crew shuttles back to the ship. The line still stretched and many worked longer and harder than I, continuing by torch light into the night, finally having to send some away to return to the ship for screening the following day. Still the work continued as all the desks and chairs from the classroom of the school we used for the day had to be returned, tents and marquees needed to be dismantled, rubbish collected and the site fully cleared.
 
 I was spent emotionally and physically but I would do it all over again. It was hard for me to sleep as the images of the day washed over me. We did the very best we could. Today we have lived with abandon.
 
"......I want my life to count, every breath

I wanna live with abandon
Give You all that I am
Every part of my heart Jesus
I place in Your hands
I wanna live with abandon

I'll drop everything to follow You
It's only Your hands I hold onto....."
 
Newsboys: Live With Abandon
 
Photographic memoir.......

The line wrapped around the corner......
 

A land rover is used to gain an eagle eye view over the screening line.

Mercy Ships founder, Don Stephens greets a patient waiting in line, with a large tumour.

A little girl in the line with orthopaedic deformities.

A blind lady is assisted by a friend or relative.

A couple of pics for Andy. Below the land rovers bringing crew into the screening site.

 
 

Some prospective patients.....

 

 

 

 

 

Little Emmanuel with his mum and dad. Looks healthy right? Emmanuel was one of the first to be operated on due to a rapidly growing tumour in his airway. Several times a day Emmanuel would lapse into brief periods of unconsciousness as he struggled to breath.

 

 

 

Sixteen year old Grace had a massive facial tumour that would soon kill her. Now she has been successfully operated on and has made a wonderful recovery at the Hope Centre.

We also always try to feed the patients during the day with bread, apples and water. One of the biggest requests of the day was for a "pomme" (French for apple).

Some patient escort photos. Patient escorts walk all day and are a vital link between various stations, especially at this screening day where the screening site was particularly large. This wonderful photo of John, the Africa Mercy Finance Director went viral shortly after the conclusion of the screening day, even making it as far as Fox News in the USA.

Me and another patient escort in our Congo field service t-shirts.

I just like this photo.

Jess and another crew member working in children's ministries.

Jessica's arm working in children's ministries.

Registrations- look to the far left corner to see Jess (with the cap on).

Most of the Academy Junior High and High School.

Mercy Ships founder, Don Stephens handles the media.

Prayer-one last hope.

The sun sets on the end of a long day with the packing up still ahead.


Final Numbers:
7,354 showed up in total.
4,236 patients came through the gate
Peak crew at site: 311
Line was open for 12 hours and 20 minutes.


“We made history on Wednesday. We broke all of our Selection Day records – it was a remarkable day for Mercy Ships and for Congo-Brazzaville. It could not have happened without the continued support of our donors, volunteers and local partners like FELBO.” Donovan Palmer, Managing Director Africa Mercy 

“Thirty-five years ago this was just a dream. Selection Day only got me more excited for the future. The best is yet to come.” Don Stephens, Founder Mercy Ships International
 
 
 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Big 4-0!


Why does Andrew looked so surprised and pleased? Well he has just walked out of our cabin on the pretence of going out to dinner with me but unbeknown to him I had been sneakily planning a surprise 40th birthday party for him to celebrate his birthday in August (ok people, I know I am behind-ok). It's not everyday an Aussie turns 40 in the Congo!

We have a small alcove just round the corner of our cabin where everyone hid and when Andrew walked up, a loud chorus of "Surprise" greeted him, followed by a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday". Needless to say Andrew was pretty taken aback. It was priceless!

We all piled into a couple of cars and headed for a local hotel called Twiga. Bearing in mind we had only been in the country for about ten days, we had little idea of what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised by a lovely hotel with a restaurant on the beach front were we dined to the sound of the waves crashing.

Andy and I

Our group

A Congolese version of a mixed grill. I was very pleased that it included a lamb chop-oh joy!

The currency has a little more value than in Guinea but it still cost the big notes-lol!

Andrew's actual birthday was celebrated with gifts in the cabin, brownies baked lovingly by yours truly and a hamburger and fries with me and Jess at a local place.

Happy 40th birthday Andy. May you always remember this one!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Where's Wally?


Right now the Africa Mercy is packed to capacity! We are even using some of the cabins reserved for guests, to house short term crew. After a recent fire drill the communications department took the opportunity to gather us for a rare all crew photo.(there are still some crew missing though!) Can you find us in the bottom photo? Jess and I are near the front and Andrew is at the back.