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.
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.
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!
This is 3-year-old Dieuveil. He’s had surgery on the Africa Mercy to repair his cleft lip. Once his bandages came off, a nurse held up a hand mirror. Dieuveil was so fascinated with his new look that he couldn’t stop staring at his reflection.
Neither could we.
Photo by Michelle Murrey, Copyright Mercy Ships 2013
Well hey there. An article I wrote appeared today in the Huffington Post – check it out by clicking the photo below.
Thanks for reading, amigos! Have a great day.
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.
Bernadette is a runaway.
Three weeks ago, she packed her bags, lied to her mother, and bought a one-way ticket on a train bound for the coast. She said that she would be visiting a cousin, and then she disappeared. But someone like Bernadette does not go unnoticed for long.
The tumor over Bernadette’s right eye pushed her brow to her cheekbone, blocking her vision like an eye patch. As she journeyed from her hometown to Pointe Noire, she would lift it up with her right hand so she could use both eyes to see her steps, her path, and, finally, her destination: a hospital ship.
Now in the hospital ward, Bernadette is a little cheeky, almost rebellious. At about 5’ tall, what she lacks in height she makes up for with spunk. She keeps a match tucked in her hair ‘in case the inside of her ear tickles’ and occasionally erupts with loud, happy laughter. Some days she jumps up and down. Since the operation, Bernadette’s right hand is free to join her left in clapping, pointing, or trying to knit with hot pink yarn. She says she wants to make a chair cushion. The little girl in the next bed watches Bernadette with shy fascination.
Bernadette had no choice but to lie, she says. When she had a tumor, people would see her coming and go the other way. No one would touch, her except for her mother. Even so, if Mama Philo had known that her daughter was traveling to a hospital ship for surgery, it would have made her sick from worrying. By running away, Bernadette spared her mother from fear.
Now that her tumor is gone, Bernadette is looking forward to her future. Some day, hopefully soon, she will sell homemade peanut butter to passengers outside the very train station where her great escape began. Bernadette smiles at a thought: not having a tumor is going to be good for business, she says. In fact, she may expand to selling pastries.
The next time Bernadette buys a one-way train ticket, it will take her home. She hopes that her mother will be too happy to be angry. And if she is mad? Well, Mama Philo will have to forgive eventually, because Bernadette is old enough to make her own decisions. Because Bernadette is 54.
On a hospital ship in Africa, there is a runaway with a bandage on her head and a match in her hair. And if you ask her, “are you ever too old to spare your mother from worrying?” She will look at you with two eyes and say, no.
Photos of Bernadette courtesy Mercy Ships Photogs:
Debra Bell, Michelle Murrey, & Yours Truly.
Are you prepared to handle the fantastic cuteness that is a little girl with a pink balloon?
I thought so.
but what goes up…
…must come down.
(and speaking of balloons: If you haven’t seen it, there is a short French film called Le Ballon Rouge that will enrich your life immensely. It came to mind as I was editing these photos and I really think the world will be a better place if you put it on your Netflix queue. Just sayin.)