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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Friday, April 25, 2014

Standing on a Street Corner in Soweto

Have you ever just stood there and thought to yourself, "How did I end up here?' With the sound of children singing a distinctly African tune, their voices harmonising across the sweltering heat of the day, over the road from Nelson Mandela's home and down the street from Desmond Tutu's, I stood on the side of the road trying to remember the pin number for my credit card. (These things happen when you only use your credit card a few times a year.) The whole thing is probably laughable, but it's the story of my life. For some reason crazy things happen to me but they make great dinner table stories and give me amazing memories. One day I will be siting around, old and grey and I will recall this story and a smile will creep over my wrinkled face.

The former family home of the great Nelson Mandela, hallowed ground indeed!

But let's rewind 24 hours......... After months of planning it was time for me to head back to Australia to have a skin cancer removed from my nose that had been growing for about 18 months and now needed some reconstruction as well. My stomach was in knots as I stood waiting for the final minutes to tick by until I had to make my way to the dock to say my goodbyes, temporary though they may have been. A friend made their way into Andrew's office where I was hanging out ,and prayed over me while others dropped in to wish me well. I was leaving one home for another and that in itself was confusing. Can a person have more than one home? I think so.

Finally it was time. I hugged my daughter tightly with tears steaming down my face. She wrapped her arms around me, now towering over me, not my little girl anymore but a young women. Tears welled in her eyes but she masked it by saying with her usual teenage humour, "Mum, you are coming back, you are not going to die"! I hugged my friends who had gathered to support us as a family. Then we took off in the familiar land rover with another Aussie couple and a young nurse named Betsy. Little did we know that we would be really getting to now each other in the days to come.

I had been warned about the customs in Pointe Noire. Frisking, baggage searches and attempted bribery, commonplace. I dragged my heavy bags, questioning my sanity at bringing that extra bag. I hugged my husband and made him promise to be "Mum" to Jess.  I made my way through the line and arrived at the check in counter to be rewarded with a pass to the Business Lounge. God was smiling down on our party (and thanks to a certain crew member who could sell ice to Eskimos)! Two cold drinks, one mild frisking, one small hand baggage search later and we were ready to board! All seemed very smooth. We were all  congratulating ourselves on how well it had all gone. Perhaps we were a little premature......

"Cabin crew, please make you way to the cockpit", I heard come over the plane's PA about 20 minutes into the flight. Not overly alarmed, I continued to browse the inflight magazine until the next announcement. The Captain proceeded to let us know that a light had indicated that the cargo door was not locked and should it open, the cabin would depressurise-and we would die. He didn't say that last bit. I added it for dramatic effect. As if that wasn't enough for my heart rate to elevate and my hands to tremble, he then announced that unfortunately we were too heavy to land and would have to go into a holding pattern over Pointe Noire for an hour to dump 2.5 tons of fuel so we could land safely. Time to pray!! I did and a lot, whilst taking in views of the Diosso Gorge, the Diosso Gorge, the Diosso Gorge-you get the picture......

After landing without incident, we sat on the tarmac in Pointe Noire for about an hour, unsure of what was happening. Betsy, Jill, Rodney and I lamented about our connecting flights in Johannesburg, wondering if we would make them. Finally the Captain announced that we were refuelling, the cargo door light had malfunctioned, the cargo door was securely locked and we would be underway shortly.

Despite the crew's best efforts, time was not our friend and the decision was made (after we had landed, mind you) that we would have to spend the night in Johannesburg. It was about that time that I got my plane rage on. As we disembarked the plane that we has spent a delightful seven, instead of four hours on and after thinking I might die, I asked one of the crew about my connecting flight from Perth to Brisbane and he pretty much told me too bad, so sad as it was not a South African Airlines flight. He did soften the blow slightly by informing me that I would be allowed one free three minute international call once at the hotel!

We were all bundled into buses, relieved to finally be on terra firma but uncertain of what was to happen next, where we would end up for the night or, more importantly, how we would get out of South Africa. Right about now I was thanking my Dad for his advice to bring some USD$ as my 200 Rand was not going to go a long way at all! After a short bus ride we pulled up in front of a hotel, which after seven months in the Congo and far away from anything familiar, looked like a slice of heaven. The staff of the hotel went out of their way to be accommodating and polite despite the fact that I am sure they are abused daily by disgruntled airline passengers.

My room was lovely with not one, but two double beds! Decisions, decisions! After dropping our luggage to our rooms, Rodney, Jill, Betsy and I met for a late buffet dinner, courtesy of the hotel, in their restaurant. Let's just say my eyes were as round as saucers as I took in the dessert bar and all the luxury items that I only dream about in Africa. Whoo hoo! We ate till we were stuffed, grateful that the restaurant staff stayed late to serve us.

I made my way back to my room, my belly full but my mind concerned. We still had no conformation of how we were getting out of Johannesburg and I still had to deal with my missed flight from Perth to Brisbane and my brother who was supped to pick me up from Brisbane airport. I managed to find a phone number for Qantas and by some divine intervention, actually spoke to an Aussie. She was wonderful and allowed me to just pay a change fee (instead of re-booking my entire ticket as I should have) and got me on a flight 24 hours later. I then called Andrew on the ship (after much effort trying to get connected) trying not to worry about how many squillions of $ the call would cost (ending up getting the call for free), and asked him to ring my brother to tell him about the change of flight. Finally, exhausted, I collapsed into bed, sleeping fitfully.

I was rudely awoken by a phone call from the hotel reception at around 6:00am to inform me that I had been put on a flight to Perth the same time, but 24 hours after the flight we had missed. So we had a whole day in Jo'Berg to kill. After a sumptuous buffet breakfast  and a farewell to Betsy, who returned to the airport to find a flight to Cape Town, Rodney, Jill and I decided it would be a great opportunity to do a tour of Jo'Berg. Jill and Rodney made some enquires and found a suitable tour that took in some famous sites of the South African capital as well as the home of Nelson Mandela.

Suffering again, we braced ourselves for yet another buffet meal and headed out just after lunch. The tour covered the area of Soweto (South/West/Town). Now I have come full circle. Funny how things happen. Standing on street corner in Soweto, thinking to myself, "Jodie, your life is rich beyong imagination, you are blessed abundantly". Knowing that people were praying for me all over the world, for my travel and for my healing, was amazing. I thank God that I was not alone during my travels and that, in the end, I arrived in Australia, albeit 24 hours later than anticipated, unscathed and a little more rested that I would have been had the original plan gone ahead. I thank God for the little bumps he places in the road for whatever reason; to teach us something, to prepare us for something bigger, to give us rest, to show his faithfulness. 

Fantastic traveling buddies and former Mercy Ships crew, Jill, Rodney and Betsy! Our hotel, below.

P.S When my brother picked me up from the airport he asked me about the whole saga. After I had finished he proceeded to tell me, as an avid fan of the TV series "Air Crash Investigation" that one of the worst aviation disasters in history was the result of a cargo door opening md-flight! A Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed into a forest at a high rate of speed in France in 1974. A defective latching mechanism on the cargo door caused it to fail in flight resulting in decompression and loss of all hydraulic control resulting in 346 fatalities. 
P.P.S I have been back on board for about a month now. I am cancer free and almost fully healed up (just a few scabs remain on my legs which got infected, after having a few more "things' cut out). I had a wonderful time at home catching up with family and friends and a particularly uneventful journey home to the ship! :)