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
On Thursday we took a patient and his father home to their village. We calculated that our excursion would take 3 hours, but TIA – This is Africa. And when on said continent, you must remember her rules. Starting with:
Rule #1: take the estimated length of of your journey in hours, triple it, add 5, and assume you will need the spare tire on your Land Rover.
Failure to comply with Rule #1 means that you may find yourself with plenty of time for taking long-exposure shots on the side of the ‘road’ in the jungle. My photographer-friend Michelle Murrey made this photo happen. (I was in charge of using our only flashlight to write something, which was going quite well until the Y.)
This is Africa. Never a dull moment.
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!
I am going to the end of the earth, do you know where that is?
Tomorrow evening we will sail over the Equator at the very point where it intersects with the Prime Meridian.
In other words, the M/V Africa Mercy will pass through the coordinates (0.0°, 0.0°). If you are a geography major, a sailor, a pirate, have ever served in the Navy, or just know random facts about maritime stuff – then you already know that this is super cool. For this plottable accomplishment, I will even get a nautical title: “Royal Diamond Shellback.” After a ceremony tomorrow night, our entire crew will receive certificates to prove it, which I will promptly Instagram. And in the future, you can expect that I will casually find reasons to take it out of my purse at dinner parties.
For sailors who achieve this esteemed coordinatry, there is also a tradition of getting a tattoo of a sea turtle. Methinks I will not be doing that part on account of my disdain for needles and permanent decisions.
So, what happens when you arrive at the spot where the world begins and ends? Where both longitude and latitude are equal to zero? What will I find there? I expect one of the following:
1) Time will stand still.
2) There will be a giant vortex.
3) Our satellite will miraculously pick up Shark Week
4) The blue dot on my iPhone map will explode
5) I’ll find a treasure chest full of all the sunglasses that I’ve ever lost at the beach.
6) y will not equal mx+b
8) I’ll discover Gilligan’s Island – and on it I’ll run into Amelia Earhart chillin’ with Edward Snowden.
9) I’ll witness something out of The Odyssey
10) I’ll find the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815.*
11) I’ll see a Narwhal
12) Zero gravity
14) My sense of direction will re-calibrate and I’ll never get lost ever again.
*most importantly, Matthew Fox.
The possibilities are endless! Do you think this can go on my resume? My fingers are crossed for numbers 3, 8 and 14. At the very least, I could throw some vampires on that list and have a rough outline for a blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy trilogy.
(p.s. And one more really important thing – if you are in the USA, Mercy Ships will be on 60 Minutes tonight (Sunday)! Tune into CBS.)
It’s 1 AM on a Sunday and I’m writing this on a flight from Miami to Madrid. The gentlemen to my right is snoring so loudly that I can barely put a thought together. Snoring in Spanish sounds the same as in English, by the way, so we can put that debate to rest.
Ok they’ve turned off the lights….and my bright computer screen is getting the stink eye from the rest of my row. Like I’m the one keeping everyone awake.
But none of this matters because what I came to write here is this: it’s time to go back to Africa.
The above post is the most recent in a word document full of incomplete posts that I’ve never posted. Why? Because I am a lazy goose.
In my defense, when that plane landed in Madrid I de-boarded with my laptop full of lame blogging attempts and was politely informed that I’d missed my connecting flight. And that all my bags had been lost in Miami. And that I would now be stranded for 24 hours. Thankfully, I happen to have a friend who lives in Madrid.
A cab ride later, Keally was helping me pick out a toothbrush (red and orange – these decisions are hard when you are weary). And soon enough, we were sitting somewhere pretty on big white couches enjoying ceviche and sangria while Keally gracefully handled anything that had to do with being in Spanish. Then we went home and Snapchatted all of our friends from college like this roundez-vous was totally planned and discussed how old Robert Redford looks when he stands next to Demi Moore in An Indecent Proposal.
The moral of this story is never book a tight connection through a city if you don’t have an expat friend there with a cute apartment and an excellent DVR catalog.
So, see? No time to blog.
I made it to my destination, the Canary Islands, the following day and arrived home to the Africa Mercy. (My bags arrived a few days after that…)
Quick back-peddle for those of you who have forgotten…I live and work onboard a hospital ship in West Africa. Sometimes the ship needs maintenance or some such convenience of the Western world and we sail up to the Canaries (Spanish islands off the coast of northern-ish Africa). Now, all of the work is done and the hospital has some shiny new floors (among other fancy improvements) and as I write this we are sailing to Pointe Noire in The Republic of Congo.
Living on a boat is bizarre. First of all, there are whales and dolphins and sea turtles everywhere. The bridge regularly makes announcements like “attention crew, we have dolphins at the bow.” Or “Orcas. Port side.” Like nbd: there’s an Animal Planet marathon playing out there. It’s our third day at sea and already I am completely jaded by this. Shamu and Flipper could tango past my window and I wouldn’t be impressed.
Absolutely none of that last part was true. I wish I was the kind of person who was cool enough to be jaded, but I am not. Truth be told, I lost a shoe this afternoon running to see some whales.
My time at home was sheer, queso-filled bliss. Now it’s time to get back to work. Mercy Ships is bound for West Africa again for another 10 months in the field. Congo, we’re getting nearer.
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 :)
Yours truly is now the happy curator of not one, but two online photo galleries!
The first, over on Red Bubble, is the professional (and still growing) portfolio. If the Red Bubble gallery was a real place, there would be jazz playing and Cricket would greet you at the door with a glass of chilled wine. La ti daa.
My second cyber showroom is Instacanvas. Instacanvas is the somewhat-more-casual gallery that says “at least I’m not a Facebook album” and allows you to order from the selection of quality photos I have previously shared on my Instagram account. If my Instacanvas gallery was a real, physical, place, there would be no jazz or wine. Case in point, upon the completion of my Instacanvas portfolio, the website instructed me to share this banner with you:
BUT none of that matters because BOTH companies do a great job framing up and packaging high quality photo products no matter their professional atmosphere – and since they aren’t real places, you can even shop in your PJs. I even test-ordered a few Instacanvas products myself and they were very nice (quick disclosure: according to my mom.) For now, I recommend starting on Instacanvas where the selection is bigger. Even more (non-square-cropped) prints will be up on Red Bubble soon.
The profits from these photos will go in my Africa piggybank and help me continue working here on this remarkable continent. :-) I hope you get a chance to shop!
If there is an image you don’t see but would like to order, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. :-)
Recently when researching news for Guinea, I realized something quite lamentable, yet not surprising: people don’t know very much about this majestic green country. Allow me to enlighten you…
Guinea ranks 178 of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. It is not very well known in the developed world because while things here are bad, they aren’t quite bad enough. Despite corruption, stunning absence of healthcare and immense poverty, rarely will you find this nation of 11 million people on your nightly news. In the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremonies, NBC took a commercial break during Guinea’s entrance. By my rough estimate, approximately 1 American viewer was dismayed by this: me.
This French-speaking Islamic nation shares borders with Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Guinea is right outside spotlight, hosting thousands of refugees from its neighbors’ civil wars while remaining above the rock bottom situation that would attract significant international attention and aid.
In the anticipation of upcoming elections, political tension in Guinea has mounted in 2013. Demonstrations in late February and early March turned tragically violent, resulting in the death of at least 8 civilians. If you are interested in learning more about Guinea’s current political climate, I encourage you to give it a Google while keeping in mind that those of us volunteering here are quite safe.
A frequently confusing aspect of Guinea (formerly French Guinea) is that elsewhere in the world you will find countries called Guinea-Bissau (formerly Portuguese Guinea, it’s also in the Gulf of Guinea), Equatorial Guinea, Guyana, French Guiana and Papau New Guinea. When I said my goodbyes I don’t doubt that there were at least a few intelligent people who thought I was bound for the South Pacific. It’s just that confusing.
By one explanation (which I can’t exactly prove, but I want to share nonetheless), in some version of old English the word ‘guinea’ meant ‘unknown land.’ In the early days of exploration, European voyagers sailed to and fro constantly pioneering, well, lots of unknown land. Lack of creativity was one of the many shortfalls that befell these explorers (or at least those who survived the malaria, typhoid and yellow fever to arrive at a destination worth naming) – so they called everything Guinea.
Other people who know things about maps will tell you that all of this discombobulated guinea-ness has no exact explanation, but I like my version more.
Guinea Pigs are not native to my Guinea. Nor are they related to pigs. (Disappointing, isn’t it?) To be honest, my research on this topic ended there because I had other things I needed to do. I can say with confidence, however, that the hashtag #Guinea will no doubt lead you to some pretty epic photos of Guinea Pigs, some in Halloween costumes.
This country I’m living in is quite good-looking, what with its myriad of islands, waterfalls, rolling green hills, jungles and pretty pink sunsets and all.
Flora and fauna aside, here are some quick facts about Guinea, courtesy Wikipedia:
Official Language: French
Vernacular Languages: Fulah, Malinke, Susu
Ethnic Groups: 40% Fula, 30% Mandingo, 20% Susu, 10% Other
Government: Presidential Republic
President: Alpha Conde
Prime Minister: Mohamed Said Fofana
Independence from France: October 2, 1958
Area: 245,857 km2 (94,926 sq mi)
Population (July 2009 estimate): 10,057,975
(***more recent estimates I’ve seen are around 11 million)
GDP (PPP) $11,464 billion ($1,082 per capita)
So there you have it: my current home sweet home. Thanks for reading!
Class is now dismissed.
My third and final visit to see Alassane and Alseny (two Mercy Ships patients who had surgery to correct their bowed legs and have become affectionately known on our team as the ‘Doublemint Twins’)…what a day.
As you may know, the very nature of traveling in West Africa can be toilsome for a city girl like myself. So when we reached the boys’ community without a single complication, we were long overdue for a hiccup. That’s when we made a tiny wrong turn.
The thing about driving a giant, muddy, used-to-be-white Land Rover with a Mercy Ships logo on it is that wherever we go, we inadvertently say vroom vroom, HERE WE ARE. On this particular lazy Sunday afternoon, such an arrival was rather exciting for, say, every child within a mile radius.
The other thing about traveling in what can only be described as an off-road situation is that you have to go quite slow to avoid giving your passengers concussions. So this slow detour provided exactly the commotion and exposure we needed to effectively announce our arrival to the entire neighborhood. Then came the little faces.
They looked up from their laundry, out of their windows, away from their soccer games. Time stood still as our landy made an efficient three-point turn, now in front of a perplexed audience. But then a simultaneous recognition spread across the Little Faces in the form of a smile. Visitors?
In the more imaginative recount of this story, a boy in a raccoon hat would shout ‘charge!’ while shoving his wooden sword in the air. But let’s stick to the facts. The Little Faces descended on us, propelled by their little feet while wildly flailing their little arms. Children ran alongside the car, they grabbed onto the back ladder, the screamed and cheered. One little girl rode holding on to the top of the vehicle with her face pressed against the passenger side door. Though I’m still unsure why, rambunctious chaos ensued.
Previous home visits here had always drawn some attention because we come with cameras…but this time it was multiplied. Now, we found ourselves leading a march of 50 children. Our car was escorted to the Doublemints’ house with an energy I thought crowds reserved for Justin Bieber.
I glanced at my three team members before we got out of the vehicle. Having rolled our windows up, their screams were now somewhat muted. Aside from the reality that I was in Africa, in a vehicle with no AC, wearing $12 sunglasses, it’s the closest I’ll ever come to knowing what it’s like to be one of The Beatles.
Climbing down into the flock of smiles and handshakes was exhaustingly cute. Mama T, the twins’ great-aunt, caregiver and best-dressed community matriarch, welcomed us gracefully. If she was thrown by our loud entourage, she didn’t show it. Perhaps she was just happy we hadn’t run anyone over.
The twins’ family is lovely. They thanked God for Mercy Ships and said lots of heartwarming things. Here they are:
Even in the hoopla, Alassane and Alseny were easily recognizable because they are guaranteed to be the only two not smiling. As I’ve written about before, the twins are painfully shy for the first 20 minutes while they assess the situation. Finally, when they’ve determined you are not here to take them back to some giant boat to put their legs in casts, the smiles come out. It also doesn’t hurt if you bring some incentives, like soccer balls:
Five months post-operation, there were the boys with beautiful stick-straight legs.
Someone told me that the twins have enjoyed a heightened popularity within their community since their legs have been fixed. (Their new soccer balls will no doubt only increase their social status…) It feels good knowing that they are liked among their friends in a culture that penalizes those with physical differences so harshly. These two kids are more than their deformity, now I think the community can see that. To quote a wise editor-friend of mine in Houston named Max, “suffering is a condition, not an identity.” How right he is.
When we were wrapping up the interviews and saying our goodbyes, I looked over to see that Michelle (a Mercy Ships photographer) had climbed on top of the Land Rover, seeking refuge from the throngs of jumping maniacs down below. A few minutes later, a peaceful silence spread. What’s going on?
Michelle had found an ice cream man. In West Africa, people walk around with these giant insulated tubs on their heads that have (delicious) plastic packets of frozen yogurt inside. On days like this, when the African sun is trying to suffocate you, these men seem almost like a mirage. A seven-cent frozen yogurt and an ice cold orange Fanta have rescued me many times from melting into a puddle. Where do these salesmen come from? And how do they keep their products so cold? We don’t know. One explanation is that they are sent by God from Narnia.
Michelle bought every last yogurt packet – probably 100 – and passed them out to the kids. Finally, there was no one pulling my hair or wrapped around my leg. Each of the Little Faces now was sucking on a yummy yogurt bag. Taking advantage of the moment, we loaded up the car and headed out. It was hard saying goodbye to the boys. It has been a wonderful journey with these two.
As for the next Mercy Ships vehicle that ventures over to that part of town, good luck! I’ve seen how we were welcomed when they expected just a car full of friendly visitors. I’m not sure I want to be there when they think the vehicle is full of soccer balls and ice cream.
Thanks for reading – have a great week! :-)
p.p.s. happy birthday to my wonderful grandmother, Ann! I love you dearly and I can’t wait for our long lunches when I’m home.