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.


The Beauties of Ward B


There are parties, and then there are parties.

On the Africa Mercy, no one does a party quite like Ward B.

You may remember that I’ve written before about VVF (vesico-vaginal fistula) – a childbirth injury sustained in regions where emergency obstetric care is unavailable. A very rough description would be that, often after several days of labor, women develop a hole in their birth canal that leaks urine. In short, these women need C-sections and when they can’t have them the damage leaves them incontinent, if not dead. They almost always lose the child they were carrying from the trauma of the birth. There are approximately 2 million women in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who live with VVF, according to the WHOTwo million.

When you are incontinent, you smell. When you smell, people avoid you. In several days’ time, these young women go from being expectant mothers to grieving, injured, and outcast. Over and over again I hear from VVF patients that they have been left by their husbands and rejected by their communities. In all my time in Africa, nothing has moved me as much as the plight of a woman with VVF. She has suffered in ways few of us will ever understand. I think these women must be made of God’s strongest fabric.

After obstetric surgery, our VVF patients stay on Ward B for several weeks recovering. Do you know what happens when you place a bunch of women who have suffered for years in solitude together in the setting of a great big sleepover? While they rejoice over the fact that they’ve just won the healthcare lottery and will receive free surgery that will change their lives forever? Can you imagine this? Well, I’ll tell you: it is a non-stop musical hen party. They braid hair, do crafts, and parade in the hallway singing. I walked in a few days ago to find that they had pushed their beds together. Seriously. Like in The Parent Trap. Then they redecorated the entire ward. If we don’t leave soon there will be a sorority house where the hospital used to be.

When these incredible women are ready to be discharged, we throw a hell of a party. We call it a Dress Ceremony. With full hearts and dry skirts, the patients sing and dance and celebrate their re-entry to society and the emotional restoration they have found through the care and counseling of our amazing medical staff. It’s the happy ending after  a long road of suffering that began because they needed a doctor and didn’t have access to one.

This week, we celebrated the journeys of eight patients who no longer suffer with VVF. I’m writing a story about one of these patients named Gisele, so I followed her day from start to finish. Gisele has lived with VVF for more than 20 years. When I saw her yesterday morning, she hugged me and said, “aujord’hui, c’est bon.” Today is good. And  it was. It was so good.

It is my great honor to introduce our debutantes, the Beauties of Ward B. 



Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014




Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014



Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014

Photo Credit: Catherine Clarke Murphy; Dress Ceremony 30 April 2014; Gisele


Catherine Clarke Murphy

DRESS CEREMONY; Catherine Clarke Murphy with Giselle in Congo.

Catherine Clarke Murphy with Giselle in Congo.

Catherine Clarke Murphy photographs VVF patients in Congo

Thanks for reading.

Photography by Catherine Murphy
(+ nifty behind the scenes footage by Josh Callow)
Copyright Mercy Ships 2014

Top 10 Ways to Prep for Africa

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?


Catherine Clarke Murphy; Photographed in West Africa by Ruben Plomp

This is me trying to negotiate politely and speak French at the same time.

Photo by Ruben Plomp



Their Lives Aquatic

Last week I received an email from a friend that said, “Can you tell us about the crew? What goes on behind the scenes?”

It feels like I baked a cake and realized I forgot the eggs. The crew! My 350 neighbors from 40 different countries whose stories have gone untold here for the last year and a half because, well, I’m not sure. Daily life onboard is consumed with patients and stories and navigating (literally) our wacky lives in Africa. I forgot you might like to be introduced to all the people who make Mercy Ships possible. I don’t blame you, they are pretty groovy.

They will tell you I’ve neglected them due to my Uniform Envy, because they get to wear scrubs (read: pajamas) every day and I don’t. This is probably true. Sometimes I try to watch an early surgery so I have an excuse to wear scrubs. On those days, people say:

“Catherine – You observed in the theater today, eh?”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Ya, Dr. Gary’s maxillo-facial mandibularectomy and then Dr. Frank’s bilateral osteotomies.” (It’s important to be wordy with official medical terms in a loud voice for credibility.)
Canadian in Scrubs: “Ya, you mean the tumor and the bowed legs?”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Those are their street names, but yes.”
Canadian in Scrubs: “Right. Ok.” His pager goes off. He looks down, frowns. “Sorry, gotta run.”
Me Wearing Scrubs: “Oh, ya, ya. Me too. I have a thing I should really – ”

He’s gone.

The other thing about us that I’ve never told you is that we carry pagers. Yep. This is a big boat, people are hard to find. Based on our dial-up-speed-internet and our clunky hospital pagers, it is 1996 on the Africa Mercy.

Anyways, after that email I pulled together this little feature. Somewhere along the way it turned into a superlative thing. But thank you to the kind people mentioned below who have no idea that they are on this blog today. I hope your moms like what I wrote about you.

Most Likely to Have Tom Hanks Play Him in a Movie: Captain Tim Tretheway

20131110-231737.jpgYes we are a hospital, but we are also a ship. Captain Tim is a guy that you look at and think, “This guy. This guy has some pretty awesome stories.” He’s been sailing hospitals to developing nations for more than 20 years. If you think you have a cool job, multiply that times 100 and that’s how cool Captain Tim’s job is. He also has an excellent overhead announcement voice and is an advocate of closed-toed-shoes.

Most Likely to Teach A Patient How to Make a Paper Airplane: Dr. Frank Haydon, Orthopedic Surgeon

dr frank

On a recent Friday morning I walked into E Ward and found a surgeon sitting on the floor surrounded by a circle of his patients making paper snowflakes. That’s Dr. Frank, who spends as much time visiting patients in the wards as he does in the theater operating on them.

Most Likely to Instagram a Photo of Her Baby: Ali, Nurse


Ali met her husband Phil in Liberia in some hilarious scenario involving a flat tire and U.N. soldiers who only spoke Urdu. I forget the specifics. But if you’ve seen the 60 Minutes about Mercy Ships, you might remember when Ali gushed to Scott Pelley that this is “the love boat.” Well, homegirl speaks from experience. Ali and Phil got married and had Zoe, the person I really came here to tell you about –

Most Likely To Be Famous: Zoe


Zoe’s other superlative title could be ‘Most Humanitarian 1-Year-Old.’ She gets to grow up in Africa while her mom and dad work in the hospital and engineering departments respectively. There is a waitlist to babysit Zoe. Ok that last part wasn’t true but I could totally see it happening.

Most Likely to Thank You for Thanking Him: Dr. Gary Parker, Maxillofacial Surgeon


No crew feature would be complete without featuring Dr. Gary, who has been onboard for 26 years with his wife, Susan, and their two (awesome) kids. He is the longest serving surgeon and frequently wins impressive humanitarian awards that he will never tell you about. I could write an entire book about how amazingly gifted and humble he is, but humble people don’t really jibe with you when you start showering them with praise and rounds of applause in public arenas. Dr. G also gets the thrill of reviewing my stories that need medical fact checking. Surgeon by day, Editor by night. There’s nothing this man can’t do. That’s our Dr. Gary.

This won’t be the last of the crew features! These people are a pretty interesting bunch.


What else have I missed that you want to read about? Drop me a line: catherineclarkemurphy(at)gmail(dot)com

Today’s photos courtesy Mercy Ships.

Floating Hospital Arrives in Pointe Noire

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: 


the deck crew is happy to see the pilot boat


ready for land!

ready for land!





tying up the moorings.

tying up the moorings.


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!

Remember Me?

Well hello.

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.

Photo By: Debra Bell

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. 

I digress.


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.


Cyber Monday

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.

Will that be red or white?


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:


Ho hum.

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!

Click Here for RedBubble

Click Here for Instacanvas

 If there is an image you don’t see but would like to order, send me an email at catherineclarkemurphy@gmail.com. :-) 


Do Guinea Pigs come from Guinea? and Other Pressing Questions

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…

boats in Guinea

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.

can you find me?

the blue dot can’t even find it.


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.


"Where are we? Is this the right Guinea?"

“Where are we? Is this the right Guinea?”


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. 

"Yep. This looks like the right one."

“Yep. This looks like the right one.”


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. 

Photo courtesy Mercy Ships (Debra Bell)

This photo courtesy Mercy Ships (Debra Bell)


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.

Catherine Clarke Murphy; Waterfalls at Diomaya

a west african sunset

CM Photos, Africa 2012 - 06

Flora and fauna aside, here are some quick facts about Guinea, courtesy Wikipedia:


Capital: Conakry

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)

Currency: Guinea Francs. This is $50, which comes out to 360,000GF that only come in bills of 5,000. Yippee.

Currency: Guinea Francs. This is $50, which comes out to 360,000GF that only come in bills of 5,000. Yippee.


So there you have it: my current home sweet home. Thanks for reading!

Class is now dismissed.

In case you missed it – check out Mercy Ships featured on CBS!

Psssst…I know you’re busy, but can I steal you away for 12 minutes and 7 seconds? I’d like to show you where I live and the people I work with. Click here for my pal Scott to tell you what’s up: 


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