#obsessed

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.

obsessed2

 

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.

 

obsessed1

 

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.

hi again. remember me?

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!

Catherine Clarke Murphy

http://www.parcelandjourney.com/blog/journey-with-catherine-murphy-mercy-ships/

and grace will bring me home

Tomorrow I go home for the first time since July 2012.

Preparing to return to ‘normal life’ is a peculiar process. This morning I was standing on the upper deck, staring out at Africa with a cup of coffee, thinking about the people, noises and day-to-day experiences that were once foreign. Sometime in the last year they have all come to feel familiar. My normal is Africa.

Normal is walking through the port and seeing a monkey. Normal is greeting people in French. Normal is colorful. Normal is living in a hospital. Normal is knowing at least one person with malaria at any given time. Normal is never showing my knees in public. Normal is laughing at the things lost in translation. Normal is political unrest and curfew and security precautions. Normal is knowing the baby I’m holding is not wearing a diaper. Normal is francs, not dollars. It’s wearing my ID card; it’s hearing hospital pages. It’s kilometers, Celsius and water restrictions.

Normal is calling the Operating Room the ‘Theatre’ and referring to college as ‘University.’ Normal is dry season (unless Normal is rainy season.) Normal is knowing which parts of town are off-limits. Normal is saying football meaning soccer. Normal is women singing. Normal is listening to medical people talk about really nasty medical stuff over meals and not being grossed out anymore. Normal is mangos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The friends I have made and the daily familiarities I will lose make Part I of this adventure difficult to bring to an end. I am enormously lucky to have had my eyes opened to what life is like outside of being me. As I prepare to return to the United States (at least for a few weeks) I go with a new set of eyes, and I don’t doubt that everything is going to look a little different from here on out, in the best way possible.

Which brings me to the one story about Africa that I may have under-told. If you’ve been reading since the beginning you may remember the heartache of Mercy Ships Screening Day and the joy of Memouna, who had a facial tumor removed. Or perhaps the story of Amadou, who couldn’t be helped. You may recall Thierno’s risky surgery or Alassane and Alseny’s bowed legs. Or there was Fode, a patient who was blind and deaf but had his sight restored. I especially loved the story of Binta – who hitch-hiked more than 1000 kilometers to get to the hospital. Hasanatu, Delamou, Bintu, Alya, Mariama, Jaka, Hllungalwana and Vuyani: I am grateful I was able to record their journeys.

But there is one person not on that list who has been helped in more ways than she can write: because when you set out to help others, it is inevitable that the person whom you will help the most is yourself. Working in Africa has opened my eyes in more ways than I ever could have expected; I have come to understand things that I will never forget.

In my time here I have found a powerful source of encouragement from this blog. Merci for your support, interest and friendship. I look forward to sharing many more stories here in the next few months that I simply haven’t had time to post (read: patience to upload via our slow internet) until now. I hope you will continue reading as Mercy Ships heads to Congo-Brazzaville for our next outreach. Because no matter if I am in Africa or Austin, I think I have begun a life-long journey. Come monkeys or mangos, there are many more Normals ahead.

I’ll be seeing you soon, United States :)

Xx

Catherine 

TGIF

Scene: It’s Friday night in West Africa where there are no street lamps or proper road signs and the nicest item of clothing you have with you is a cotton maxi dress from Target ($19). The ship PA system comes on and says something to the effect of – and I’m paraphrasing: attention crew, shine your shoes and change out of your scrubs. Tonight there will be an opera performance in the International Lounge. People in blue look around, some perplexed, others un-phased, and then they get up to go change…after all this is Africa, stranger things have happened. Action.

Sidney Outlaw

Sidney Outlaw, a famous opera singer according to people who know things about opera, is an ambassador of cultural diplomacy to West Africa for the US State Department (or something). He is in Conakry visiting the American Embassy. While he was in the neighborhood, Sidney Outlaw heard the Africa Mercy was in the area. So he (or his people) rang the boat and said Mr. Outlaw would like to come perform for your volunteers, and I’m sure whoever picked up that phone call was like ‘uh…please hold.’ But a quick Google search explains that Mr. Outlaw is indeed called “The Opera Powerhouse” according to The New York Times. Well now, anyone that the Times has taken the trouble to nickname is worthy of an audience, in my opinion. Except maybe Sarah Palin.

So that is how I came to find myself in a Third World nation enjoying an opera performance in a wrinkled cotton maxi dress from Target ($19). I was reflecting on how I tend to find myself in the most curious of situations when Sidney Outlaw pointed to the wall behind him and said “And that’s Flat Stanley.” Sure enough, Sidney Outlaw had hung a Flat Stanley up on behalf of an elementary school niece or nephew back home who is totally going to get an A+.

I’m watching an opera in Africa while wearing flip-flops and there is a Flat Stanley on the wall while a man named Outlaw from North Carolina sings an a cappella opera tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes my life is hard to make sense of. In a good way.

It was nothing like this.

Katy Perry, if you would like to sing on the MS stage after your next USO trip, you are going to need to cover your knees.

Since I’d never seen an opera, I quickly added “See Opera” to my mental bucket list just for the satisfaction of crossing it off. All in all, it was a very nice Friday evening during which I was educated in a new art.

I’ll admit that before this I might have thought opera performances were inherently boring, but tonight I was proven wrong. Thank you, Sidney Outlaw. Your show was lovely and an unexpected treat for our entire crew. There might have been one teensy slow part in the middle where I got lost, but it’s ok because it gave me time to draft this blog post in my head.

I better go iron my dress in case Beyonce shows up for half-time rehearsals. Although we definitely don’t have the technology for her to lip-sync. (aren’t you impressed with my knowledge of pop culture?)

Tonight I am reminded that anything can happen.  Literally anything.

 

A Tale of Two Cities

After six months of working in a developing nation, I have been exposed to true human suffering. I’ve witnessed hardship and felt compassion like I never have before. When it came time to board a flight to Paris to visit my family for Christmas, my happiness was conflicted. On my way to the airport we drove through slums; I struggled to reconcile the happy anticipation of traveling with what was happening outside my car window. It didn’t seem fair. How could I fly away from this to the land of milk and honey conscience-free? In a weak moment, I missed the guiltlessness of life before Africa the way one misses childhood – but not for long.

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Since I had arrived here by ship, this was my first time flying in this part of Africa. It was 8:45 pm when we took off from Conakry’s 3-terminal airport. I have become accustomed to the nightly power outtages and unreliable electricity here. It isn’t uncommon to be enjoying fish and chips beachside on a Friday night when the power goes off. Flashlights, matches and candles come out, and the live music carries on without so much as a pause. 

So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me, as we flew low over Conakry, how few lights there were among such a densely populated peninsula. From an airplane the city looked rural even though Conakry has a population of 2 million people, as estimated by the U.S. Bureau of African Affairs. It was astonishing. I flew away from Conakry finally understanding something I already knew: most of my neighbors were at home in the dark.

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merry merry

sweet baby :-)

The other day I had a conversation with an old friend in the states. She asked what Christmas was like in Guinea, a developing Muslim nation. Well, there are no twinkling lights, no wreaths on people’s front doors or decorations in Conakry. Nope, no cozy red Starbucks cups or cute Christmas commercials. Not to mention – it is 85 degrees outside! And the hospital will remain open through the holidays.

Before I came, I may have thought I would miss all of those things. Strangely, I don’t. Because I can’t imagine that life gets any merrier than the moment pictured above. Don’t you agree?

Wherever you are, this is a great time of year. 

Stop, Drop and Pray

Five years ago a young man named Thierno had to quit his job because of the tumor on his face. It wasn’t just any job – Thierno played forward for the city of Conakry’s soccer team. What was just a small tumor has since grown to the size of a melon. In the past few months, the tumor has grown so large that Thierno hasn’t been able to eat or speak. He is on the verge of suffocation.

Because of the size of Tierno’s tumor, the first time he was seen by Mercy Ships doctors said nothing could be done. Thierno’s case was passed to our Palliative Care Team.

But then a few weeks ago, a decision was made to put in a feeding tube to get Thierno’s weight up. All went as planned and he has put on 10 kilograms. Now, surgeons will try to remove the tumor – the surgery will be long and complicated. Thierno will have part one of a two-part surgery tomorrow

Yesterday I sat down and spoke with Thierno and his mother, Djenabou, and I thought about how different things could have been for Thierno if he lived in country with access to healthcare.

It will be three years ago December 1st that my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Yes, their types are quite different, but following my mom’s diagnosis, she had surgery within twelve hours. It was a hard time for our family – but I realize now how fortunate we were to have access to amazing surgeons and hospitals.* Thierno has been living like this for five years – waiting to die by either starvation or suffocation. 

So, now that you’ve read this far, tell me – what is it that you do when you want something? Do you ask God for it out loud? Throw a penny in a well? Do you pray?  Rain dance? Make a wish at 11:11?

Whatever it is that you do, whatever your faith, please do it? Pray that Thierno survives these surgeries, pray that his cancer hasn’t spread. And for Djenabou, his mother, that she finds comfort and strength. 

I will keep you all updated with Thierno’s progress. Thank you for reading! And for your prayers!

 xx
C

* She has since made an awesome recovery and she inspires me each day – go Mom!

Photo courtesy Deb Bell and Mercy Ships.

Meet Memouna

Anadi! (‘hello’ in Susu) I hope your weekend was just dandy. A special little hello goes out to my Houston amigas in NYC who were probably dismayed to learn that hurricane season has followed them to Manhattan. I don’t get any live coverage of this over here, so I’m not sure what the latest updates are, but stay safe!

I’d like to share a story I wrote for the Mercy Ships website about a little girl named Memouna. I think this story is a great example of what so many of our patients go through here – the transformations are much more than just physical.

In the beginning, I met with Memouna many times while working on this story, trying to get her to warm up to me, but Memouna was not having it. I even considered tossing it out all together.

“She is shy and probably too overwhelmed,” I told one of my co-workers. “I’m just going to back off and find another patient who would be willing to talk.”

But slowly, Memouna changed, and she was no longer quiet and timid. Memouna became the 13-year-old kid she really is.  And in the process decided that – hey – the talky blonde lady with the clip board isn’t all that bad. =)

Catherine Clarke Murphy

And she stole my heart. Read below and she’ll steal yours, too.

All photos from today’s post are courtesy of Deb Bell and Mercy Ships. 

– – –

Go down two flights of stairs on the Africa Mercy and you’ll find you’ve stepped out of a ship and into a busy buzzing hospital. On the wards you’ll find kids playing, patients visiting, and plenty of African music. Listen and you’ll hear conversations in English echoed by translators in French or one of Guinea’s three local languages – the chatter abounds like white noise.

 One would expect that a 13-year-old girl would be among the chattiest, but not Memouna.

Memouna’s pronounced facial tumor began above her left eyebrow, spilling down her face to the corner her mouth, displacing her left eye. This tumor, a neurofibroma Memouna has had since birth, left her looking like one side of her face was sliding off, like Dali’s famous melting clock in a desert. From behind the curtain of her deformity, Memouna saw the world with her good right eye. And to her despair, the world saw Memouna.

For 13 years she was taunted for her appearance. Moreover, superstitions run deep in West African culture and physical deformities are believed to be the sinister mark of someone cursed. Memouna was not only teased by peers; she was dismissed as something less than human. From the drooping facial tumor came the source of a broken spirit.

“She was not happy because in Africa people stay away from her. She would cry because she did not understand why no one liked her,” said Memouna’s 17-year-old sister Aminata, the oldest of her nine siblings.

On Wednesday September 26, 2012, Mercy Ships surgeons removed Memouna’s tumor. After her operation, even under layers of bandages, the transformation was profound. Memouna’s profile no longer appeared rough and misshapen; her face had been physically lifted from the weight of the tumor. Nurses hoped her spirits would follow, but countering years of social isolation is a much more invasive procedure.

 In the days after her surgery, quiet Memouna said nothing while her father and sister took turns staying at the hospital and speaking on her behalf. “I’m sorry, maybe she will talk another day,” her sister would say.

“It was a long time before I realized she spoke. She was so silent that I didn’t think she could,” said Lynne White, a Mercy Ships ward nurse. “But I can understand it, she went from spending her life keeping to herself with no friends and then she came here and was overwhelmed by the attention.”

– – –

On a night about a week after her surgery, Lynne came into the ward to find Memouna listening to headphones, nodding her head to music and mouthing the words. For the first time, Memouna seemed…happy.

“I couldn’t believe it, so I did whatever I could to try to get a laugh out of her – I started dancing!” Lynne said. “Memouna, oh she just laughed and laughed. It was wonderful.”

Two weeks later Memouna arrived on the dock with her father for a check-up. She kept to herself, waiting on the benches when she was spotted. “Is that my Memouna!?” Lynne said. At her name, Memouna glanced around to find Lynne not walking, but dancing over to her. “It’s you, you’re here!” Lynne cheered, waving her arms in the air. 

Memouna clapped her hands and covered her mouth, trying, and failing, to hold back her giggles.

 Now, even though she does not give up her laughs easily, we can see the real Memouna. In those moments, there is a cute teenager in a pink sweatshirt and orange nail polish where a timid, downcast child used to be.

 With the removal of Memouna’s tumor comes the chance for physical and spiritual healing.

Not Just a Fair-Weather Fan

Do my eyes deceive me? 

I was sitting in traffic yesterday when I glanced over and saw this wonderfully familiar team logo. 

Now if someone could just bring me chips and queso, this place would start feeling quite home-y.

Go ‘Stros!

CM 

Decisions, decisions

a little Wednesday wisdom

Last week I was asked to speak to the MS Academy High Schoolers during their Tuesday morning devotional. Speak? To high schoolers? I sat up a little straighter, feeling all flattered and very special. (Let it be known that my being asked to do this had more to do with the teachers wanting to bring in some new faces to keep things lively, not because anyone thinks I have a raw talent for speech-giving. But still.)

Then my teacher-friend Sarah told me the topic I would need to address: “what to do when you’re at a crossroad in life and faced with a tough decision.”

Uh.

I thought back to July. It was two days before one of my best friends was going to walk down the aisle; I was in the wedding party. There I was, standing in a dressing room surrounded by six colorful dresses strewn about. Picking a dress required four phone calls to mom, at least eight of those self-taken-photos-in-mirror to text to my friend Caroline, and the opinions of two salesladies. Finally my friend Lauren, who was in the area, came to the store, walked into my dressing room, took one look and said: “The canary yellow one. Let’s go.” 

So no, I wouldn’t say I’m an authority on the art of Decision Making. Researching options, calling 10 people, and taking forever to make up my mind – that’s more my style. This quality expressed itself early in life, like when I was a kid at the country club pool we frequented. I could be found frozen on top of the ‘high-dive’ diving board, struggling to choose if I should go with a cannonball or somersault while my frustrated peers waiting in line threatened to come up and push me off. Then I’d jump, probably only to change my mind mid-free fall and do an accidental belly flop.

But none of these seemed like useful anecdotes for a bunch of high schoolers living on a ship in Africa with no diving boards or dressing rooms or friends getting married. 

Laur and me, sometime in the 90s. She’s the cute cat on the left in her mother’s pearls. I know better than to challenge her fashion sense.

I tried to think of a few “big” decisions that I’ve made, but each one turned into a long story. Keep in mind that it is 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, I have 8-10 minutes, and keeping the international teenaged audience awake is of grand importance. And do any of them care why I majored in Journalism instead of English? No. 

So I did what any diplomatic writer would do: dodged the question.

Shared below is the speech spiel I gave. It turned into an ‘Open Letter’ of sorts, addressed to anyone who is facing a decision. Even though none of you are high schoolers (except my brother Robert, Rob are you reading this?) it is never too late to take this advice. And most importantly, a confession: because it is already typed, it saves me from having to come up with content for a real blog post.

Ok, here you go: 

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