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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Monday, January 27, 2014

Our Christmas....

I wanted to share a little bit of our Christmas with you all. I have 483 photos in our "Africa Mercy Christmas 2013" folder. I have done slightly better than last year (556 items). I combed though our photos, wondering how I could cull them into a blog post. Then I thought about which photos captured my emotions-which ones make me smile, which ones bring tears to my eyes, which ones make me proud, which ones make me patriotic and which ones capture the richness of Christmas through the eyes of 40 nations. So here is my attempt........

The Crew Services team keep the ship looking pretty sharp and it is overflowing with lovingly cared for plant life and wonderful artwork, donated to the Africa Mercy over the years. However, at the beginning of December, the ship comes alive! Deck the Halls is a day where the ship is transformed. It changes the whole atmosphere of the ship. Above Jess and friends stand on top of the Starbucks café clearing off artwork to prepare the area for all the Christmas trees that will sit atop it.

The gangway Christmas tree.

The Christmas photo booth is lots of fun and we love our family photos this year! Below Jess poses with her best friend Deborah and her sister, Anna. We call it the Oreo!

This Scandinavian tradition always draws a large crowd as an ethereal peace fills the air and the story of Santa Lucia is read aloud, accompanied by traditional, angelic Scandinavian Christmas songs. Santa Lucia is centred on the struggle between light and darkness. One of the most special moments this Christmas for me and for many of the crew was the acapella version of Silent Night that hundreds of the crew respectfully joined in with. I could feel the shivers running up and down my spine. It was haunting and beautiful.

I never knew I loved saffron buns, handed out during the Santa Lucia celebrations. It's not like I woke up one day and went, "Mmmm, think I'll have a saffron bun today!" But guess what? I do!

Ahhh... the Cookie Bake. The American tradition that I love to hate. It is early (for me) on a Saturday morning and I can't bake for nuts but we always end up having lots if fun and I never regret going! The galley pre-prepares cookie dough which the crew can purchase by the pound. We then cut out all the cookies and the galley bakes them for us. After that comes the decorating. Some people's cookies are pure works of art. I figure that if they taste ok, it doesn't matter what they look like. Jess made her usual "tumour man" cookie!

Me looking all Saturday morning!

While Christmas storytelling was not a new tradition for the ship, it was new for us. It involves going to various places around the ship where crew members either act out or read aloud Christmas related stories. The evening is broken into fifteen minute slots and a ding sounds over the PA system when it is time to move to the next location. Jess had a role as a beggar in the moving tale of Papa Panov in his "Special Christmas" story. It is a tale that brings to life the parable of The Sheep and the Goats and epitomises what we are here to do.

 " For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
Mathew 25: 35-40

It was very moving and one of my more poignant memories of this Christmas on board!

The Junior High hand chime group are amazing!! The crowd goes wild with applause and cheering after any of their talented performances and I am proud to say that Jess has been a part of this group for three years. Definitely a crew favourite this Christmas! Above Jess and friends play "Good Christian Men Rejoice" at the third advent service.

Before I came to the ship we had never really celebrated Advent before, but in the four weeks leading up to Christmas, every Sunday, the Advent candles are lit (with permission from the Captain) and we have a special service to build up to the birth of our saviour. We sing carols and do the traditional "passing of the peace" greeting. Each service helps to prepare your heart for Christmas Day. This year a group from Australasia were asked to light the second advent candle. Amongst representatives from Australia, New Zealand and Asia, Jess read a part of the gospel. Poor Andrew couldn't stand up with us as he had a very bad cough. But it was a privilege to be asked!

The photo makes me smile!! This is our mischievous dog Barney who, thanks to his carer Marion, actually sat still to have something placed round his neck to make him look all Christmassy and then even posed for a nice photo!

Christmas on the Africa Mercy is a wonderful time for our kids to shine! One of the most endearing and eagerly anticipated Christmas activities on board would have to be the long running Academy Christmas play. There is not an empty seat in the house! This year the play titled "Simply Christmas" went back to basics to tell the story of the birth of Jesus intertwined with music and song. Above Jess plays "Deck the Halls" in the pre-show entertainment.

Jess played the role of Elizabeth and had a monologue and a solo alongside the character of Mary. She was so beautiful!

This is a photo that fills me with nostalgia and patriotism. I am hopeful that long after we leave the Africa Mercy, the tradition of Carols by Candlelight, that began as a whisper in my soul in 2012, will stand. 

It may not be a Holden Ute, but we made do!

My heart fills when I see the patients enjoying the carols. Remember Ebenezer? I have posted his story, from it's beginnings, on my FB page. Ebenezer had a large tumour growing on his face and he came to Guinea, from Nigeria, after he heard about a big white hospital ship that heals tumours. Unfortunately we had already left Guinea. But by the grace of God and some help from a fellow Nigerian he turned up in The Congo, out of the blue, shortly after we arrived and was one of the first patients to have surgery on board in Pointe Noire. His healing continues today. Below Ebenezer sings a special song "If He Wasn't Born".

The light of our lives-Jess!

My awesome Aussie mates, Leah from Tassie and Tammy from Sydney. SELFIE!!!  It is wonderful to have a few more long term Aussies on board these days and also many returnees. We have a special connection.

I just find these photos beautiful. I love the cups that we have used both in 2012 and 2013 for the Carols. The cups have a map of the world on them and it makes me think of all the nations represented on the Africa Mercy and with the candle illuminating the cup, Jesus words, "I am the light of the world".

Ok-this wasn't technically a Christmas celebration or tradition but it did happen just before Christmas while the kids were on school holidays. A group of adventurous mums decided it was time to tackle the mother of markets, The Grande Marche. Our trip began with a bumpy ride in a bus (uses term loosely). I actually didn't have a back to my seat so I had to hang on for dear life. One does not always appreciate a seat back until one doesn't have one! Ahhhh the Grand Marché- stinky, dripping fish and prawns, fleshy, ripened fruit, shoes, dusty stationary, clothes, bags, colourful African material, rip off DVD's, dirty kids toys, homemade peanut butter.......the list goes on.  The crowd presses against you as you hang tightly onto your bag to protect it's contents from pick pocketers, absolutely rife in the days leading up to Christmas, your eyes boggling and your senses on overload. What a mighty cultural experience! 

We finished our grand adventure to the Grande Marché with a visit to local patisserie, Le Citie. We must have been great customers because we were treated to a lovely Christmas cake, on the house!

One tradition that has followed us from Australia is out trusty Advent calendar. Jess has had an Advent calendar since she was old enough to eat chocolate. We have been blessed as people from home have brought them to us, special courier for the past two years!

Another long standing tradition in the Rothwell household-treats for Santa and his reindeer and a special letter for Santa too. We have to get a bit creative with the treats here so this year we settled on Hershey's chocolate milk and a Dutch Knopper for Santa and American Twizzlers for the reindeer. Apparently they were a hit! Jessica's letter to Santa reads:

" Dear Santa, I hope you brought me all I wanted and more. But......don't forget it's NOT all about you. Don't forget Jesus birthday! Love Jessica Rothwell xoxoxoxoxoxox P.S I hope you like the chocolate milk :) also the twizzlers. MARF (love heart)"

Jess leaves a message on the whiteboard outside our cabin on Christmas Day.

Ohhh I wish I could take this tradition back home with me. The Dutch got this one right!!! As we are so far away from family and friends and some crew have just arrived and don't know many people, we have a special way of making sure everyone gets a little something to wake up to on Christmas morn. On Christmas Eve you pick out your biggest shoe (or is that just us) and place it outside your cabin. Then the pitter patter of feet rush around the ship, from deck two to deck seven, on a stealth mission into the wee small hours of Christmas Day, filling the shoes to the brim with creativity and handmade loveliness.

One of my favourite photos from the ship this Christmas! Shoes lining deck 4, filled with goodies, in the early hours of Christmas Day. (Photo courtesy of Josh Young)

Early Christmas Day in our cabin. We open presents just like we did at home. Luckily this year we had lots of things under the tree! Last year the Christmas container did not arrive until January so it was a bit bare under the tree. We were so excited to give Jess this present-a Nikon camera, thanks to several generous family members back in Australia.

This photo also brings about plenty of emotion. As we all lined up outside the dining room, eagerly awaiting our Christmas brunch, Head Chef Ken prayed over the food and for the birth of our saviour. It was a very reverent moment and we are especially grateful to the dining room and galley staff who slaved all day and in the days before to brings us a plethora of breakfast and lunch dishes, as well as beautiful deserts. There is also a team who go to the dining room to decorate with Christmas flair.

Feeling the love and hard work! Thank you!

Some of our Mercy Ships family, us and the Szarek family.

The Three Stooges- Al, Andy and Ray

Me and Tassie Leah. All those from the British Commonwealth had the privilege of paper hats with jokes within the folds, lovingly hand made by some Aussie crew, bringing a little piece of home to Africa.

Me and Nanita

Jess looking very red and Christmassy!

Our Nepalese Ghurkhas all decked out in suits and their Nepalese hats, taking a well deserved break from keeping us safe 24/7.

Featuring a little more of Australia, the iconic chocolate ripple made a grand appearance in our cabin, thanks to Mum and Dad and their special delivery of chocolate ripple biscuits!

I always include Jessica's birthday within the Christmas celebrations. She just scraped in on December 30th. This year she turned 14 and celebrated with a movie, cake and friends in the Queens Lounge. In the photo above, her friends represent six nations; Australia, Ghana, Liberia, USA, UK, Sri Lanka! I hope that one day Jess will look back on these photos and fully appreciate the richness and diversity of her life!

New Year's Eve on the AFM! Admittedly it's a bit quite. We didn't have fireworks (oh how I miss fireworks) and we didn't have alcohol. But we did have good company, great mozzarella fingers, awesome African music and a midnight toast!

Here's to another wonderful December on the Africa Mercy, celebrating our uniqueness and cultural diversity! Here's to another year serving the nations of Africa with our Mercy Ships family!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Survivor Congo

Forget boring school excursion to museums, libraries and miniature pioneer villages. The kids on the Africa Mercy do it bigger, better and wilder! A group of teachers came up with an ingenious plan to take the kids to the Diosso Gorge. There they followed clues that would lead them through the Congolese jungle, facing untold challenges and attempting tasks they had never tried before, in a cut throat game of outwit, outplay, outlast. The teams were colour coded, armed with well, not much. Above Jess, Jordan and Theo represent the green team.

 Getting into the challenges.......

Jess was very excited to be able to make fire! Naked flames are banned on the ship so the kids are just a bit interested in flames.

Another challenge-painting nails whilst the land rover was in motion over potholes and dirt roads.

The teachers went all out-even creating these wonderful and authentic looking challenges.

Friendly wildlife. An episode of Survivor would not be complete without random shots of strategically placed, scary looking animals .

This one is fun just because of the look on Jessica's face that says I am done!

They didn't win the million dollars but they were triumphant all the same and the teachers had to cook them breakfast the next week, as a prize!

Jordan and Jess

Theo and Jess

Swimming is always a big part of the Survivor experience but in most of the episodes the water is a little clearer the sand a little whiter.

Survivor Congo: The tribe has spoken!