Since 2012 I’ve lived with one foot in a world that lacks basic healthcare, and with my other foot on a hospital ship, where my neighbors are some of the world’s most talented doctors and nurses. Have I lived in Africa, or just beside it? Because none of this suffering is ever happening to me, it’s happening in front of me – which reminds me of the unfair truth about the time I spend in these countries: I can leave.
Yesterday, I left.
My time onboard these last 2 weeks was very different than before. I spent most days in meetings two decks above the hospital – not in my preferred spot, which is playing bedside jenga while the ortho kids put stickers on my face and paint my nails neon yellow. Still, I snuck down to the hospital hallway at night where I could peek through the skinny rectangular windows of the Africa Mercy wards. It was here that I heard our patients singing, saw children dancing, and remembered the impact of medicine again. I was reminded that although my job was happening upstairs in conference rooms and on long-distance phone calls, it’s what’s happening in the narrow ORs and corridors of this ship that I do what I do.
As I write this, I am on a plane to London. I (reluctantly) left Madagascar and its beautiful people and a ship full of incredible patients. I can’t stay any longer because now my focus is to help market Mercy Ships in the West. Though it pains me to go, I leave knowing that we don’t have to be on the ground to be a part of the impact, and that’s exciting.
Sometimes you have to leave when you’re here to stay.
The other day, I came across some incredible numbers:
In 2014, Mercy Ships performed 2,527 surgeries in Congo.
Restored vision to 995 people.
Repaired 170 cleft lips.
Treated 8,358 dental patients.
Trained 73 Congolese healthcare professionals, including 6 surgeons.
Provided employment for 200+ translators.
Provided free rehabilitation care to 70 pediatric orthopedic patients.
Operated on 60 obstetric fistulas.
They also employed 1 familiar Houstonian and sent her back to Africa.
Ten months ago I was a girl who wrote to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.
Today I am a girl writing to you about the incredible things that happen on a hospital ship in Africa.
Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.
The Africa Mercy was docked in Pointe Noire, Congo until June 2014. Originally, Mercy Ships’ country-next was Guinea – but due to the Ebola outbreak, Conakry was no longer an option. If any of you were reading this blog while we were there in 2012/2013, you might remember the brokenness of Guinea’s healthcare infrastructure. Long before a deadly virus showed up, hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed. And now? I can’t imagine. It may not make headlines anymore, but the impact of Ebola is still heavy in West Africa.
Next, plans were then made to sail to Cotonou, Benin, but again, the uncertainty around Ebola forced us to re-route in the Fall.
So, to make a long story short, tonight I am writing to you from Tamatave, Madagascar, where the ship has been since October. I am now working for Mercy Ships on their digital media team. I’m based in Houston, but happily traveling this month visiting the ship.
Being back on board is wonderful. It’s been a bit like coming home. Except that my house isn’t in the country where I left it, and, unlike last time I was here, now everyone speaks Malagasy. And drinks out of coconuts. And zips around on rickshas. Don’t you love it when that happens?
Somehow, through all of the ups and downs, uncertainty, fear, and fuzzy future – the remarkable crew here seems stronger. While pieces of our hearts are still in West Africa, volunteers onboard the Africa Mercy are already making an incredible impact in Tamatave.
If the stats from Congo are any indication, in Madagascar we have much to be excited for.
Here’s to many more stories in 2015!
About three weeks ago, my 2-year commitment with Mercy Ships came to an end. I boarded a plane and flew to the United States of America. Au revoir, ma belle Afrique, I said.
People told me moving home would be hard for reasons I couldn’t anticipate. Reverse culture shock, or some such state. I nodded and said thank you – but I’ve been home to visit in the last two years. No one need worry about me. I’m a pro at hopping across the Atlantic. I can live in a world with traffic laws one week and without them the next. I’m versatile. I’m strong. I flawlessly be-bop between continents. Watch me fly.
So I completely deserved it when Mr. Culture Shock met me at the airport in New York and kicked me in the derrière.
Let me tell you what it’s like.
Being disoriented by things in your native country comes in several stages. At first, it’s a honeymoon. Everything is cute and new. The apps are genius. The food is incredible. There is so much new music to download that you could cry. And the wine – oh my gosh, the wine.
After about six days of this, you will be doing laundry when you realize you don’t have a return ticket. Wait, what? I mean, you knew this, of course, but suddenly it’s real. You are here. Now you are a person who has a bathtub. “Home” isn’t 8,000 miles and seven time zones away anymore. Africa will feel real and far, recent but foreign.
For the next two weeks, you will still be doing laundry you will fall into a delightful pattern of alternating confusion and criticism. Why does everything cost so much? How are there stores dedicated to only selling cupcakes? Who are the Duggers? Why do they have so many children? Bitcoins?
Which brings us to Day 21. On this day you will finally want to write about it. Welcome.
Ultimately, I am grateful for the emotional side of coming home. These three weeks have revealed ways I’ve changed. They have been valuable for reflecting on the journey that brought me to today and the world I’ve come back home to live in.
That world is different in many ways. Actually, if there is one thing that has stood out to me more than anything else so far, it is how often I hear and see people use the word “obsessed.”
People in America seem to be #obsessed with a lot of things – photos of baby squirrels, new shoes, guacamole, a tiny rainbow seahorse, a new shade of lipstick. The tag has more than six million hits on Instagram. I am fascinated by this.
Now, I appreciate hyperbole. I understand that the use of “obsessed” by my Millennial peers is intended to express love of something, it shouldn’t be taken literally, like: “I find my thoughts continually preoccupied with Game of Thrones to a troubling extent.” Right? (Although, as it is said in a favorite quote, “watch your words, for they become your actions…”)
In Africa, no one says they are obsessed. People profess love for each other, but I didn’t hear them professing love for their belongings. The Africans I know are made of experiences, not possessions. I want that for me and you. In Africa I saw that loving people fulfills you in ways loving objects cannot. This is one of those principles that is easy to know, but forgotten in practice.
What if we were obsessed with restoring sight to children blinded by congenital cataracts? Or ending poverty? Or educating girls in developing nations? Can you imagine a world where people are more obsessed with taking care of each other than taking selfies? That’s where I want to live.
In the last phase of culture shock, I guess the dust will settle and the little things will be forgotten. So here I am to write as much of it down as I can. Because really, this isn’t about taking issue with a trendy word, it’s about the lessons I want to remember and carry forward.
So friends, please don’t let me forget it – and I promise I’ll try to do the same for you.
Hmmm…planning a trip to this marvelous continent? I’ve been here long enough to have a few things down. Practice these and you’ll be a pro.
1) Place yourself in a situation where you feel like you might be run over. Preferably one including goats on motorbikes.
2) Hold a baby who is not wearing a diaper. Feel the risk.
3) Be yelled at by someone who is not angry, but just tends to yell.
4) Refuse to pay the first price.
5) Trigger an impromptu dance party just by humming.
6) Sit in the sun and drink an orange Fanta from a glass bottle.
7) Decline a marriage proposal.
8) Drive a stick.
9) Play music from your phone on speaker. Walk around.
(*preferably Chop My Money by PSquared)
10) Go ahead and cancel your return flight, because you won’t want to leave this place.
Have you spent time in Africa? What would you add to this list?
Photo by Ruben Plomp
The Mercy Ships family is growing…
In July 2017, the Africa Mercy is going to get a little sister. And by little, I mean a casual 570 foot-long by 95 ft. wide, 37,000-ton bundle of joy.
The new ship will have two hospital decks and it will be able to hold up to 950 people total when in port.
What do you think we should name the Africa Mercy‘s sister ship?
Doctors estimate that right now she is approximately the size of a check book, so next time you get yours out, please do think of us.
To donate to Mercy Ships, click here. ;)
my new years resolution was to blog more. oops?
I’m in Texas right now packing for Africa, I go back next week. It’s been wonderful to be here for the holidays, but I can’t wait to get home to Congo. I guess my blogging hiatus is because my life in Texas consists mostly of eating Mexican food and playing with my dog. Maybe not quite as cool as be-bopping around Africa, but still pretty cool.
Alrighty. I really just came here to say hi and debunk any rumors that I’ve been eaten by a crocodile or something.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a good read today, hop over to Parcel & Journey’s website – you might see a familiar face. Thanks P&J!
Earlier this week I flew with a team to Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, to see potential patients. I captured the day in photos while our medical team screened and scheduled nearly 300 people to come to the ship for further testing and surgery.
Here’s a glimpse of our Brazzaville assessment day:
It was a good day.
Riding into town on a hospital ship is a great way to feel popular.
We were greeted on Friday by a dock full of happy people, it was a blast. Here are some images of our joyful welcome:
Now, it’s time to unpack the hospital and get ready for Screening Day, which will be August 28th.
More stories from Africa to follow soon!
We have been at sea for 13 days.
Thirteen days is a very long time, even for someone who loves being at sea. And I do love being at sea, but, as it turns out, I also love land. After two weeks in the Atlantic, it has been brought to my attention just how great land is.
But the land I love isn’t just any land: it is Africa. And my readiness to get there is not only in the interest of my inner ear, it’s because of what Mercy Ships is going to do in Congo. We are bringing a surgical hospital to Pointe Noire; we come with resources and opportunities that the people we’ll treat have never had access to – until now.
Screening day, surgeries, medical training programs, dental and eye clinics…there is so much work to be done. It’s no wonder that we are a little antsy around here. But as I was sitting on the bow this evening, I realized that the sail has had a purpose bigger than getting us from A to B. It has allowed the crew time to prepare mentally and emotionally for what we are about to see and do. After a non-stop year in Guinea and a busy summer, it’s been therapeutic.
And I don’t think anyone was upset over the sunsets.
Back in my office, my chair is on wheels. So with each swell I am a human pendulum. I’ve essentially typed this post five words at a time between uncontrollable orbits past my computer. It has made for an interesting writing experiment and adventure in physics.
But soon enough, my office chair won’t need a seatbelt. I’ll be able to walk down the hall in a straight line again. My personal belongings won’t be in a constant state of airborne. The view through my porthole won’t be so blue. The quiet and peaceful pace of the sail will be a thing of the past.
And the hospital will be full of moments like this:
All of these things await us on land.
So in the meantime I’ll be enjoying our last two days at sea, marveling at the fact that I get to be a part of this.
See you soon, Congo!