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, December 16, 2016

Confessions of an Escort

I wrote this blog post the evening of the day I went to screening, back in early September but somehow kept not getting around to posting it. Since our screening has recently wrapped up for Benin and plans are full steam ahead for screening in Cameroon, our next port of call, I thought it was timely to post it now. It also helps me to feel gratitude which I will confess I often find hard at this time of the year, on the ship. This is our fifth Christmas on the ship (in a row) and I am feeling weary. I want to embrace all the traditions of Christmas on board, knowing that one day I will pine for them, but I find myself wishing I was home (my other home) within a familiar culture and with my family. But as I re-read my post I am brought to my knees and not because I cannot walk because my limbs are too twisted, but by how lucky I really have it!! I am blessed beyond measure. 
Get ready to be broken.....
It was the lady crawling on her hand and knees that was my undoing. I felt the tears prick behind my eyes and an uncomfortable lump forming in my throat. “I cannot lose it here, I cannot lose it here, I cannot lose it right in front of her”! I watched her crawl up to the screening nurse, a grown women reduced to the position of a toddler. She stared up expectantly into the compassionate eyes of the nurse as she communicated, through the translator, that we could not help her. With a stoic look on her face, the woman, stood as tall as she could on her swollen and calloused knees and hobbled off before falling back down to her hands, back to her crawling position and began the slow, painful crawl, in the dirt to the exit. I have seen a lot in my time in Africa but I found out on that day, that I still have not seen everything.

This is screening. Finding out who we can treat and how many we can fit in the surgical schedule, shuffling through 11,000 people over three weeks. I spent one day at the screening site, a large local school, working as a patient escort, guiding patients to the exit or onto further screening. Our screening and security team were there for three weeks! Can you imagine being the one who takes away a person’s very last hope for a “normal” life or perhaps even life at all? Close your eyes and imagine your feet aching to the bone, fatigue both physical and emotional like you have never felt before and crushing someone’s spirit with a few words, over and over and over again.

Watching the hope slip away from a person eyes and body is visibly perceivable. Their body slumps over, their eyes are downcast, some with tears forming, some begging for one last chance, their feet shuffle. It is the look of hope shattered. I hear her voice and see the pain in her eyes as she looks directly into mine, “Please can’t somebody help me” as she clutches her deformed and twisted hand, the hand that has to carry her children, the hand  that needs to help her to earn a living to feed her family. I listen as her quite tears turn to sobs as I direct her to the exit.

As I stood at my first post, with no medical background, just my years of attending medical screenings, my mind begins to pre-screen. I already know who is going to be sent to the right for yes and to the left for no. I know the ortho schedule is full and my heart breaks for the literally dozens of kids I see with their crooked legs making their way slowly through the snaking line, I see the mamas untying their babies off their backs, their babies legs twisted, adults who have lived a lifetime with contorted limbs and I know that very soon, their hope will be destroyed and I can hardly stand it.

But sometimes, between dozens of “No’s” there is a “Yes, we may be able to help you”! Escorting a patient who has been told they can move on in the screening is a very different experience than being on the exit. A shy glint of joy, mixed with subtle disbelief, reflects from their features, as if they cannot believe that they could possibly be free from their physical burden.

This is why we are here. We cannot be all things to all people and for that we have to trust in God. We have to hold fast to the belief that God has ordained the moment that each and every person, who receives surgery, stands in line on the right day, at the right time and in the right city. Without this belief, our souls could be destroyed, crushed under a mountain of guilt and “what if’s”.

As I left the screening site and returned to the ship, my body exhausted, I reflected on the day, still feeling raw, my emotions simmering under the surface, my thoughts screaming, “Why? What is wrong with our world? Why is a grown woman crawling in the dirt when I was born into a country of fabulous wealth, world class health care and education, clean drinking water and not a crawling woman in sight?” I don’t know the answers to these burning questions and I don’t profess to be any great theologian.

Maybe one day, when I am standing at the feet of Jesus, I can ask him.
We were blessed that an amazing photographer was on board with us during the original screening weeks. You may have seen his work in the link on my post about shipyard. His ability to capture raw emotion and everyday events, in a beautiful way is uncanny. That is why I have so many photos. It was so hard to chose.
(Some images below you may find disturbing.) 

Dawn screening lines.

The barely controlled chaos that is our screening trademark.




So many bow legs.




Some cannot stand in line for so many hours.





A Mama's laughter.....






Mother and daughter both afflicted.






The Academy Junior High and High School also went to screening for a day. This was Jessica's (braids, grey t-shirt) fourth screening and she was a real trooper. I think of how difficult I find it to see such horrific conditions, but our kids handle it so well and with a maturity beyond their peers in their home countries.

Getting the heads up from screening nurse, Kayla and security officer Penny.

Ortho kids














The very first appointment card handed out, a symbol of hope and the reason we get up every day, even if our jobs on board do not directly involve the patients.

People often asked why we do what we do? Looking at these photos and with the image of the crawling women burned into my mind forever, I ask the question why wouldn't we do what we do?


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

First Love

Returning to West Africa has always been in our hearts. It is where we began our Mercy Ships field services and where we fell in love. Fell in love with the people, the culture and the land. We were gutted as we watched a vicious disease called Ebola decimate the nations we had invested our lives into, constantly worrying about our friends and despairing at the virulence of the outbreak. Our hearts broke as news trickled in of former day crew and Mercy Ships contacts, dying a hideous death, including one who was senselessly murdered for trying to promote health precautions against the spread of Ebola.
Imagine our joy as the disease began to wane and finally, finally each of the nations afflicted by this terrible disease were declared Ebola free. One. By. One. Our heats began to dream of a return to West Africa. We longed to hear the beat of the djembe, experience the joy and laughter of the local people and to see the rainbow of African fabrics again.
On the 18th of August, 2016 the Africa Mercy arrived back in West Africa, a hugely anticipated event. Cotonou, Benin to be exact. Benin's neighbour, Nigeria's Ebola outbreak caused us to cancel our upcoming field service to Benin, in 2014, sending us to Madagascar for two years as we waited for Ebola to subside.
Now here we are! Check out our triumphant arrival, featuring a little something special that made this particular arrival even more poignant for us! :)

The Africa Mercy coming into the Port of Cotonou.
(Photo cred above and below: Katie Callow)


A well known scene from where the Africa Mercy was berthed during it's last visit to Cotonou in 2009. This image of a fishing village and boats, with the AFM in the background, has been captured in many portraits and photos.
(Photo cred: Jen Peterschmidt)

Our advance team!! They certainly had even reason to be celebrating! Two years ago, many of the team above, had their matching outfits made and were ready for the imminent arrival of the AFM to Benin, when, at the last minute, plans went awry and our field service to Benin was postponed. So this gusty team pulled themselves together and flew to Madagascar for the shortest advance ever! What a joy to see some of the original Benin advance standing on the dock, finally seeing all their hard work coming to fruition, finally seeing the Africa Mercy sail in!!
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

The elementary kids waving their paper Beninese flags, surrounding Emmanuel, our Beninese flag bearer.
(Photo cred: Tim Baskerville)

The crew on deck waving to those on the dock.
(Photo cred above and below: Katie Callow)

Some of the advance team waving right back!

Deckie throwing out a line from the bow.
(Photo cred: Miguel Ottaviano) 

The gangway going down!

Almost there.....
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

A National Geographic team, headed up by the producer of the Aussie documentary, The Surgery Ship was waiting for us on our arrival and will be filming for three months to make a series of eight, one hour documentaries. They will also be heading back to Guinea to follow up on patients from The Surgery Ship.
(Photo cred: Dayle McCulloch)

The Nat Geo drone capturing our arrival!

We knew we were back in West Africa when we heard the drums and singing on the dock, accompanied by some African dancing!
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Andrew dusted off his African shirt for the occasion!

The dockside set up for the arrival ceremony later that afternoon. Fake turf and all! Fancy schmancy! 

During the sail Jessica was asked if she would like to carry the flowers down the gangway to present to the First Lady of Benin! This is an honour reserved for only a few! What a very special privilege for her, on our return to West Africa! We will never forget this arrival!

Above Jessica carries the flowers down the gangway behind Emmanuel Essah, one of our Beninese crew members, bearing the Beninese flag, also a great honour! Behind Jessica is Captain Jon Fadely, Robin MacAlpine, our Managing Director and his wife Laurette and further behind, Andrew, in the white shirt, giving instructions to everyone on when and where to go! #familyaffair 
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Emmanuel presenting the Beninese flag to the First Lady of Benin, Madame Claudine Gbenagnon Talon
(Photo cred: Tim Baskerville)

Jessica handing over the flowers.
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Jessica, Emmanuel and Laurette listening to the afternoons proceedings under the big marquee on the dock.
(Photo cred: US Embassy, Cotonou)

Africa Mercy Managing Director Robin MacAlpine addressing the dignitaries.
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

The First Lady of Benin addressing the crowd......."“Behind all statistics, there is a story, a life, a person who needs a new hope, a treatment or a cure. I wish that this enriching collaboration of Benin with Mercy Ships will continue to grow year after year for the well-being of the population.”......”
(Photo cred: US Embassy, Cotonou)

We even had some local dancers perform!  Love the way the West Africans get down!
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

West African have to rank among some of the best drummers in the world, hands down! They pour their soul into it, until sweat streams down their faces. I am sure that they burn calories!
(Photo cred: US Embassy, Cotonou)

The crowd of dignitaries and AFM representatives make their way back on board the ship after the arrival ceremony. Jess is tucked between Robin and the First Lady.
(Photo cred: Katie Callow)

Our first night off the ship in 12 days and our first time back in West Africa for three years!

We feel so blessed to have the opportunity to return to West Africa, during our Mercy Ships service! We praise God for his deliverance of the nations from the scourge of Ebola and we continue to pray for the recovery of these countries, for their infrastructure, the ongoing health issues of those who have survived Ebola, the thousand of new orphans and we pray against any resurgence of the virus.

God heard the cry of our heart and now we are back in the land we love, endeavouring to be the hands and feet of Jesus!