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 Patient Who Didn’t Need Me

My job around here is to write stories, to give people a sense of the difference free healthcare makes in the developing world. I do this with the hope that somewhere, someone, maybe you, will read about the work Mercy Ships is doing and want to support us. We couldn’t do what we do without our incredible donors. Your generosity amazes me every time I walk down the hospital corridor.

During our time in Guinea, I wrote a lot about a man named Thierno. Thierno was a rising Guinean soccer star until a benign tumor began to grow in his jaw. In the U.S., Thierno’s tumor would have been removed in a dentist’s chair under local anesthesia before it was even visible. On his way out of his dentist’s office, a nice lady at the desk would have smiled and said ‘we’re all good here, I filed with your insurance provider. Have a nice day!‘ Then Thierno would have said goodbye and driven himself to soccer practice. The only inconvenience might have been that his lower lip was numb and puffy.

In West Africa that doesn’t happen. So Thierno’s tumor grew for five years and he had to abandon his soccer career. It grew so large that it inconveniently almost killed him. Almost.

As I was working on Thierno’s story, I struggled with the pressure of giving a voice to a man whose suffering I would never understand. So I asked Thierno what he would say if he was the one writing the story. A week later he met me on the dock with his hand-written first draft. Over the next few weeks we worked together with a translator, and Thierno wrote the beautiful piece I’m about to share with you. You may need tissues.

Thierno taught me lots of things about life, but the lesson from today’s post is this: sometimes we don’t have to give a voice to the voiceless. We just have to give them a pen.

Credit Photo: Catherine Murphy;

        My name is Thierno, I am Guinean.  There is a story I would like to tell you of – it is a story of a man, a football player. This man was young and strong and fit. He played for his hometown’s soccer team as a defender. Then he was struck with tragedy and had no means for healing. Each word that I write today is proof of a happy ending, but I will never forget the five years of the unhappy beginning. This man was me.

Debra Bell: Screening day Conakry - Guinea

The tumor began small on my face. As it grew, I began to feel more and more pain. Within a few months, my health began to decline to the point that I could no longer play football. My mother stopped everything to care for me, she took me to many doctors who were traditional healers and we tried to find a treatment – but nothing worked. My mother became exhausted from worry for her only son. With each month, the tumor grew larger. The creases on her face grew deeper. From behind my deformity, I watched her lose all hope. Then Mercy Ships said they could help.

The atmosphere onboard the Africa Mercy was friendly and loving – the doctors and nurses took such good care of me. Each day, I was happy and comforted in my hospital bed.

Credit photo: Debra Bell: Maxillo facial patient GNC17172_DIALLO_Thierno

I cannot say anything – I do not have the words. I am speechless because I am grateful to God for the doctors that were so competent and able to remove something so dangerous. Because God brought them together, this operation was possible. I will never forget Mercy Ships, and I know that today I find myself in good health by the grace of God.

I am so pleased that the government negotiated the arrival of the ship; I am not the only Guinean who has been blessed by it. There have been many Guineans who were sick and have found their health because of Mercy Ships.

For my part, I don’t know what to say, any word, to Mercy Ships. The humanitarian support that the ship carries for us is unimaginable and inexplicable. I wish I could thank all the staff of the ship, every single person, especially Dr. Gary, who put all of his effort into my surgery. May God protect Mercy Ships, bless Guinea, and all Guineans.

Photo: Debra Bell

Thierno and his aunt.

Photos in today’s post courtesy of Mercy Ships. Taken by Deb Bell.

When Life Hands You…Flat Tires

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.

Photo Credit: Michelle Murrey

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.

So…what do you do, exactly?

I thought it might be neat to share with you a snippet of the work that I (along with a super duper communications team) do here in Africa. Below is an excerpt of a story published in Mercy Ships’ alumni magazine, Waves of Mercy.

Click on this link to read the complete PDF: Alumni Magazine Story 

p.s. that awesome cover photo is the fab work of my amiga, Michelle Murrey.

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.”


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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