We are a family of three; Andrew, Jodie and Jessica (aged 18) from Tasmania, Australia who are currently serving in Douala, Cameroon, Central 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 Africa home, as we seek to bring hope and healing to the poorest of the poor.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

So What's it like to Sail on a Mercy Ship?

So what is it like to sail on the Africa Mercy I hear you ask? For those of you who have been on cruise, well it's absolutely nothing like that at all! We still have to go to work, the kids still go to school (on some sails) and everything needs to be secured before we leave. As our esteemed captain likes to tell us at our pre-sail briefing, "Think of your house tilting violently at a 20 degree angle". Unlike cruise ships and other larger vessels, the Africa Mercy is not equipped with stabilizers and can pick up quite a roll(side to side) and when you add in pitch (up and down) it become a bit of a vomit machine. But the very worst sensation is corkscrewing (side to side and up and down and round and round and every which way there is).

There is always an air of excited anticipation just before we sail. It is almost palpable. Either we are sailing towards our shipyard destination which means down time and holidays, for most of the crew, or towards our next host country. Both events highlights, each for different reasons. There is a certain sense of community and bonding between those of us on the sail. We are united with nowhere to go and nowhere to be. There is plenty of time for lazy conversation and getting to know one another better. There are also plenty of wonderful sailing traditions such as sock golf, Sail Olympics and worship on the bow that are quite unique to Mercy Ships. It is also a bit of fun to pick out a suitable movie to watch such as "A Perfect Storm" or Poseidon" for the journey!

We have been on very short sails and very loooonnggg sails but there is not much better way to feel close to the heart of God than standing on the bow watching a magnificent sunset, while dolphins leap alongside the bow, the air balmy with a hint of a breeze, staring out at the vastness of the ocean.

The bridge is the major hub of the sail where all the navigation and of course, steering the ship, takes place. Crew are able to tour the bridge during the sail to experience what it is like from the heights of the ship, overlooking the bow and the waves crashing beneath.

Life goes on, even at sea! This 'aint no cruise. Above, some of the Academy kids in class.

Drills, drills, drills. This is the time when we have all kinds of drills- man over board drills, at sea drills, pirate drills, lifeboat drills etc., etc.. Pictured above is one of the 150 man lifeboats being tested, shortly after we pulled out of the Port of Conakry. These are the life boats that have been on the starboard side of the ship which, when are in port, is generally against the dock, so they remain unused for ten months.

You never know what you might see when you look out your cabin window. Above, a lifeboat goes past our cabin!

When the hospital closes and things slow down, many crew take the opportunity to work in other departments. Jess spent a week working in the galley and she worked hard! The galley staff start at around 8:00am and work until about 7:30pm, except on Sundays when the ship has a hot breakfast and the galley start at 5:30am. They work two days on and two days off but on the sail the schedule changed to one day on, one day off. Jess is dressed in her galley attire, all wet from doing mountains of dishes, and sporting a potato around her neck-someone's idea of a joke remedy for seasickness!

Ask most of the crew and they will pretty much be in agreement that the best thing about the sail is going out on the bow and watching the sunset and the sea life. It doesn't get much better! Andrew and Jess on the bow above.

Who needs SeaWorld? These dolphins are wild and free and perform the most spectacular shows for us over and over during our recent sails. They are beautiful animals and even the most seasoned sailor is awed by their majesty!

Flying fish-another frequent addition to our sea life viewing.

These past few sails we were blessed with many whale sighting and a few clever and/or quick photographers captured them on film. Orcas (killer whales) were also sighted.

This about sums it up! A picture says a thousand words.

Almost every night we sail, God paints the sky in a myriad of stunning colours as the sun sets and rises each day.

The shadow of a lifeboat under the waning sunset.

Now I talked earlier about that rock and you can see a little hint of an angle to the portside. This is just a small glimpse of the "gentle" roll of the Africa Mercy!

During on of our recent sails we had a drone fly overhead to take photos of the ship at sea. The result was some pretty awesome stills and video, captured from a perspective that the crew will never get to see.

The Africa Mercy in all her glory headed for a week in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain for one last week of fun before the epic two week sail she took to the Congo.

When long term crew think about sailing on the Africa Mercy, they think about Ghurkha cooking! Our security team is largely staffed by Nepalese Ghurkhas and they are fabulous cooks! As they have a bit of down time when we sail (there normal post is at the gangway) they cook a meal for us each sail......fried, curry chicken, curry eggs, naan bread and dahl. Yum! Another foodie traditional on the AFM is a hot breakfast the morning of the sail. This is to give all the deckies and engineers a nice, hearty breakfast before the long day of hard work ahead!

What about all our rubbish (trash, garbage)? Well the only stuff that we are legally allowed to throw overboard these days (this has changed while we have been on board) is food scraps! Every night the dining room staff go up onto the bridge deck and toss the scraps overboard. It is an interesting sight if you happen to be standing next to a window. The rest of the rubbish gets stored on board in our cabins, in the galley and on deck. Man you should have seen how much rubbish we had after 13 days at sea! The poor Congolese garbage men didn't quite know what to do!

 A few more awesome, aerial pics of the bow, from the bridge, taken during worship on the bow, a very special sailing event.


 A bit too much of a close up photo of me during one of the worship on the bow sessions.

Love the djembes and the way our West African crew play them with such skill. It is amazing to watch!

God can hear our worship even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean! Worship on the bow is one of my favourite parts of the sails. Expect a close encounter with God!

I cannot go without mentioning one of the highlights of our sail to the Congo and perhaps the most highly anticipated sailing event, thus far, our crossing of the Prime Meridian and the Equator at the SAME TIME! Yes! Following old navy traditions, once you cross the equator by sea you move from the lowly title of "Pollywog" to "Shellback", a status we achieved on our very first sail from Durban, South Africa to Freetown, Sierra Leone. But crossing the Prime Meridian and the Equator together earns you an even more coveted and elite title of "Royal Diamond Shellback"! Woot. Above the crew celebrated the day before "crossing the line" with some line games on the bow, like tug-o-war and the limbo. Jess pulls hard for her team of "already shellback" kids.

Proof from the bridge that we have earned our "Royal Diamond Shellback" status!

Here we are out on deck "crossing the line"! Beforehand we celebrated with and Open Mic night and kissing of the fish ceremony. We also got certificates to commemorate this illustrious occasion.
And that is just a few of the things that happen on a Mercy Ships sail. Unforgettable, indescribable, sometime downright miserable but definitely not to be missed!

Monday, September 09, 2013

"Jesus is leaving Conakry"

The horns cut through he air for the thousandth time during our Guinea field service. The sound of the tugs taking another ship out of the Port of Conakry, past the breakwater to the ocean beyond. After ten months in Guinea it was our turn. Each time we leave a port it is with such conflicting emotions that it is difficult to reconcile. The pain of goodbye mixed with the excitement of heading for a developed nation and a time of rest and rejuvenation for most of the crew.

The gangway goes up. 

We start to pull out.

The tugs come alongside, their horns blaring, to push us safely out of the port area.

Farewell Guinea. Thank you for the amazing memories.

Every time we leave a port there is a point when I have a huge lump in my throat and I have to stop the tears from falling. Our departure from Guinea was stealth, for want of a better word, due to the high risk of stowaways. We left several days earlier than we were meant too, after word leaked out to locals of our departure. Even though not many people were there to see us off it was poignant moment when many tugs followed us far further than they needed to out into open ocean, frequently honking their horns as a mark of respect.

Jess (above) and Andrew (below) on deck watching the goings on. Most of the crew come out when we depart a host nation, lining the decks, interrupted by the clutter of land rovers, garbage bins, yokohama bumpers and wooden pallets.


Our berth that bustled with activity for ten months, now still and empty, the stains left from the tents, the land rover parking spaces and the steel fencing all that remain of our presence in the Port of Conakry.

The port workers watch in fascination and wave us goodbye.


The pilot boat pulls alongside to guide us safely past the breakwater.

The pilots depart our ship after navigating the Africa Mercy into open waters.

Au revoir Guinea, until we meet again. The crew gather on deck 8 amoungst the land rovers to farewell the nation of Guinea and to reflect on their personal memories. Merci beacoup Guinea.

A Muslim man stood on the dock when the pack up was in full flight and was heard to remark, "Jesus is leaving Conakry". But we, as a crew and followers of Jesus, know that Jesus has always been and always will be present in Conakry waiting patiently for his people to come. For ten months we have tried to be the hands and feet of Jesus to help to bring hope and healing to the nation of Guinea and now we pray that we have left a lasting legacy of the model of Jesus for the people of Guinea.

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Season of Goodbyes

It's been a while since I have written a post on goodbyes which is odd because it is such an intricate and inescapable part of our lives. It is easier to pretend it doesn't exist, which is also odd because it happens with such regularity and ferocity that it is impossible to ignore. Spending time writing about it is a sure fire way to get the tears flowing and sweet memories surfacing. I could tell you all about it but I found somebody else who describes it so eloquently  that I couldn't even bring myself to read the article fully because my eyes were blurred by tears. I know it's quite lengthy but this is the reality of our life.......

"...............The statistics don’t lie.  By the age of 18, average TCK's (Third Culture Kids) will have experienced 8 major moves (Source: Interaction).  They’ll also have lived in a transient community where people are constantly coming and going, some with predictable exits and others without warning at all.  The lie MKs derive from such a goodbye-loaded existence is straightforward: everybody always leaves.
Loss is as common on the mission field as big hair at a Bill Gaither convention.  It doesn’t only apply to people.  With each of those 8 moves mentioned above, an MK (missionary kid and their parents!-added by Jodie) will experience a host of losses:
  • Loss of pets.
  • Loss of social network (sports teams, youth groups, classmates, neighbourhood kids).
  • Loss of favourite things, particularly when they’re associated with a specific place.
  • Loss of security (knowing what to expect and how things “work”).
  • Loss of status (people knowing who you are and what you’ve accomplished without need for explanation).
But none of those losses are as devastating to a young (and not so young-added by Jodie) person as the loss of people.  The first people we lose (sometimes without even realizing it) are relatives: grandparents, (parents-added by Jodie) and cousins who drive to the airport to see us off and whose presence in our lives loses immediacy and “realness” with every year we spend overseas.

And then there are those peripheral losses that happen like random meteor strikes, leaving craters that can neither be filled nor erased.   Every time I fell into friendship with another student (crew member-added by Jodie), I kicked myself: they were going to leave in a year or two anyway, so why get attached?  Like many MKs (and their parents-added by Jodie), I’d tried to adopt a love-no-one mantra at a young age, my attempt at sparing myself from more painful goodbyes.  But I’d soon discovered that I craved meaningful relationships more than I feared another loss.  I could try all I wanted to remain aloof in order to avoid more painful goodbyes, but a life of solitude seemed a worse fate than familiar grief.

Adding to the weight of losses is the transient nature of the missionary community.  We know that the time span missionaries devote to overseas work varies, and there’s a certain security in knowing who is there for one year, who is there for two years, and who is there for life.  We know the goodbyes will be inevitable, but we can also brace ourselves for them when we see them coming.  But it’s those unexpected departures that catch us off-guard and unprepared. Seeing best friends get on a plane because a sudden family emergency had forced them to move back to the States.  Watching others slip out of our lives because their mission requested they move to another field, because they ran out of funding or because of interpersonal tensions.  There are countless reasons for missionaries to “move on,” and each one of them leads to the kind of losses that can cause difficulties in relationships, life stability and personal vulnerability.

Fear of loss can be one of the most influential motivators in an MK’s (and their parents-added by Jodie) life. The area in which it is most obvious is relationships.  Because we know (from experience) that we’ll only have our friends for a limited amount of time, we often act in predictable ways:
  • We enter into relationships quickly and deeply, not wanting to waste days and weeks on the usual social dances.  Typically, an MK will “dive deep,” immediately asking pointed questions, revealing intimate details about his/her life and maybe even in some way testing the new arrival.  Where “normal” friendships begin casually and slowly mature into something meaningful, MK relationships skip all the preliminaries in a zeal to get to the “real stuff” fast…just in case the person will have to leave tomorrow.  Ironically, this means that we’ll only be more attached by the time that dreaded separation happens.  We’re creating more pain by loving more deeply–and we know it.
  • The flip-side of that approach is trying to protect ourselves.  We’ve learned that relationship invariably leads to pain, so we barricade ourselves inside a fragile self-sufficiency and keep reminding ourselves that we need no one and want no one.  If this strategy works (and it occasionally does), it can lead to serious difficulties in ever allowing anyone close, unless the MK receives the kind of help that will free him/her from this self-defensive strategy.
  • We tend to see all relationships as having an expiration date.  This can be a detriment to being able to think in terms of lifelong commitment.  We’re so used to seeing profound friendships torn apart by life’s vagaries that it’s sometimes uncomfortable for us to be engaged in long-term friendships with no end in sight, without any of the urgency that has mostly defined our previous relational style.
Another trait common to most MKs (and their parents-added by Jodie)is that we tend to accumulate and relive our grief.  When someone we love leaves, it’s not just that loss that burdens us.  Every departure brings up all the pain and tearing-apart of previous departures.  When I was growing up and had to say another goodbye, I would feel paralysed with grief, even when the person leaving wasn’t necessarily a close friend.  But I wasn’t just grieving for that departure, I was also grieving for every single time I’d had to say goodbye in my life up to that point.  Grieving another loss.  Angry at another loss.  Bemoaning the lifestyle that had caused them to happen so frequently and wishing it didn’t have to happen again and again and again.  Every goodbye released the accumulated angst and sorrow of a lifetime of losses, and there was little anyone could do to soothe the jagged pain. (And THAT is why I sometimes cry when people I don't know that well, leave!-added by Jodie)

Allow me to repeat that, because if you’re an MK like me (or a parent of an MK-added by Jodie), it’s a Truth we’d all do well to remember: the benefits of relationship are worth the risk of loss."

Reproduced with permission from author.

What happens when the gaggle of eager, fresh faced day workers becomes more than just a face? When you know there names, their family, where they live and their history? They become your friends. Above beautiful dental day worker Grace, husband John and daughters Roses and Sharon.

Grace, baby Roses and I say our final goodbyes at the end of field service dental lunch.

Dental day worker and Grace's close friend, Aicha.

Dental day worker and good friend Pierre.

Farewell dental day workers, Conakry, Guinea 2012/13. Miss you already!

Andrew and Mathieu, from Togo. Mathieu and Andrew have been friends since they first met in Togo 2010 so it was a sad goodbye for us. Mathieu has been such a blessing to Andrew ,and I have heard him say several times in the last few weeks, "If only Mathieu was here!" Above, we took Mathieu out to lunch before we left Guinea to thank him for all that he has done and all he has invested into our lives and to Mercy Ships.

Hospital day worker Joseph who managed to drive me bonkers and make me laugh all at the same time.

Hospital day worker, Marthe-the most wonderful translator with a warm heart and a ready smile. No one paints nails like you!

Hospital day worker Bockarie- reputable pastor and full of wisdom!

Saying goodbye to Felix (Engineering day worker) was a really tough one. Felix has been a day worker with Mercy Ships for many years, following the ship around West Africa. I think it took three hugs, before, with tears in his eyes, he turned and walked away for the last time. It was gut wrenching. Andrew didn't get a chance to say goodbye as he was assigned to stay with the transport day workers who were still on the ship. The jury is still out on whether it is easier to have closure and say goodbye face to face than to just say, "See ya later", in the hallways after a conversation about the weather and the fact that there are no Pringles in the ship shop.

Marcus (hospital day worker) and I. Marcus-I appreciated your help and cooperation with the Community Heath Education so very much. You are an inspiration in the way you are changing lives and changing Conakry!

Jonathan (hospital day worker)-your passion for the health care of your community is outstanding. It was a pleasure to serve with you!

Wow-another hard one-Rehab day worker Anama who has also served with us for many years. Thanks Anama for looking after Jess during work experience. I hope you are enjoying married life.

What happens when a giggly youth group steps on board the Africa Mercy with eyes as wide as saucers?  When you know there names, their family, where they live and their history? They become your friends. The youth on the ship enjoyed a special friendship with ex-pat youth from the Conakry CMA (Christian and Missionary Alliance) who paid regular visits to the ship and our youth, to their compound. So it was a sad goodbye, especially for Jess who had forged deep bonds with several of the girls.

The AFM and CMA youth on their last night on board.

What happens when the patients come on board the ship with gaping tumours and grossly deformed bodies? You see past the obvious and soon you don't even see it anymore. You know there names, their family, where they live and their history? They become your friends. It was a hard week for me as I said goodbye to all five of the long stay patients I had been teaching English to-some of them for the whole field service. For the kids, it was also farewelling their caregivers and siblings. Me and Yaya have one last hug!


Aisha and mamma Mariam.

Me and Aisha.

Aboubacar and I. What a joy to see this young man standing straight and tall! You may remember my many Facebook posts following his progress and asking for prayer for him over the early part of the Guinea filed service. Thanks to the healing power of God Aboubacar cheated death and is now following Jesus!

Aboubacar's mamma Markalay and I.

Fodi, who came to the ship, his face ravaged by the flesh eating disease Noma is now healed. His face may not be perfect but he is alive and free of what would have taken his life.

It has been three years since the Academy has had any grade 12 graduates so it was a very special occasion when the entire crew were invited to attend the graduation ceremony of the three seniors of 2012/2013. All three of the girls will be leaving their families on board to spread their wings. It was a very moving occasion as one of the girls has lived her entire life on board a Mercy Ship.

What happens when some of the thousands of crew that have passed through the ship while we have been on board work their way into your heart. You know there names, their family, where they live and their history? They become your friends. When you can't imagine not seeing them everyday, bumping into them in the hallways and eating dinner alongside them, picking up conversations without having to deal with all the pleasantries that precede "normal" conversations. Jess has had her fair share of painful goodbyes this year and my heart broke for her as she farewelled two of her closet friends on the same day. Above Jess farewells Kylie and Abby.

Jess and her much loved French teacher, grade six mentor teacher and fond family friend Miss Kelly. Thanks for helping to get Jessica's ears pierced in Spain! Auvoir Miss Kelly-we love you xo

This is what goodbye looks like-week after week. The crowds on the dock swell towards the end of each field service and when long term crew depart the ship's horn blows as a final tribute to their service and to offer closure of good and faithful service.

The land rovers drive out and the crew line the dock in a significant gesture of respect and sharing of pain. The tears flow freely and we seek refuge in those who remain. Imagine a whole life time of goodbyes packed into a small season of your life. Sometimes I think to myself that I just can't be bothered getting to know anyone else so I can spare myself the pain of having to say the inevitable goodbyes. But better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all!

Henri Nouwen:
Love and the Pain of Leaving

"Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, whe
n the beloved friend departs to another country or dies ... the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.

Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking."