Monday, June 28, 2010

"Wanna drive to Africa?" ....... "Yes."

Joel Somerville: Optometrist; World traveller; Northern Irish; Awesome guy.  Many people know him very well here on the Africa Mercy. Sadly, he left to return to Ireland this weekend--his time on the ship is over :(
Lucky for me, I was given an assignment to tell his story. And it is one amazing story. So, in honor of Joel's departure, here it is. He's Living the about it!!!


The sun dips below the horizon and darkness covers the narrow dirt road deep in rural Mali. Gladys, an ’86 Volkswagen Caravelle, is almost out of gas and she has been acting up the last leg of the drive. There is no village in sight. Looks like Joel will be sleeping in the van tonight. Such is life when you’re driving “cross-continent” from Ireland to Togo.

When Joel Somerville won the “Live your Dreams” Scholarship from Glasgow Caledonian University he knew he wanted to do optometry work in third world countries. He heard about Mercy Ships from a friend and applied for an open position. He was accepted and given a start date in mid-March.

“I already told my job that I was leaving in January. I was sitting at work one day, a little bored, and the idea popped into my head to take the weeks before to drive down to Togo. I texted my friend Matthew, ‘Want to drive to Africa?’ and he immediately responded, ‘Yes.’”

Next item of business: a vehicle. There was an additional member of Joel’s family known as Gladys: a rustic blue, 1986 Volkswagon Caravelle. “Her official documents call her grey, but I think she is more a midnight blue,” Joel muses. “My parents got her when I was 3. I have so many wonderful memories in that car.”

Joel asked his parents if he could drive Gladys to Togo. Nonchalantly, his dad said, “Sure.” His mom was a little more concerned. After running a Google search and reading a blog of an elderly couple who successfully made the drive from Ireland to West Africa, Joel’s mom came around. “If this old couple can make it, you can too.”

Preparations were made for the journey: insurance, packing, tools for if Gladys broke down. Then, departure day was upon him. Joel’s entire family was there to say goodbye to Gladys. She had been a part of their family for so long; it was extremely hard to see her go. The plan was that when Joel returned to Ireland in June he would sell Gladys and leave her in Togo.

On the 9th of February Joel and Matthew launched their cross-continent journey. As you would imagine, there was quite a bit of adventure along the way. Joel and Matthew slept inside Gladys in cool countries, and slept outside in warm countries. Dealing with police and driving across borders was always a challenge.

“Policeman seemed to make up reasons to pull us over and ask questions. We had all the paperwork we needed, but it was still a bit scary. One time this policeman wouldn’t give up: asking tons of questions, so I asked him if he liked music. He said yes, so I handed him a CD. He said ‘Thanks!’ and we were on our way!”

Every time they approached a border crossing, Joel and Matthew would stop and say a prayer before driving through. When they reached the border between Burkina Faso and Togo they sailed through just fine. A few seconds later, however, they heard a whistle and commotion behind them. Joel nervously pulled Gladys to the side of the road. A patrolman walked up and knocked on the window.

“Hey!” he said, “Remember me? You gave me a CD a few days back. It’s actually really good. Thanks!!”

It was the policeman from a few days earlier. Joel and Matthew looked at each other, shook their heads and laughed. Thank goodness bartering still works in Africa. They made it through the LAST border!

Five weeks and 11 countries later, Joel drove onto the dock of the Africa Mercy, reporting for duty. He has now served for 4 months as an Eye Specialist, performing the first phase of screening for all Mercy Ships Eye patients.

He has built strong bonds with his field eye team. Four days a week they operated the screening site, seeing hundreds of patients a day. The need in Togo was so immense and sorting through the masses of patients each day was taxing on his emotions. But Joel knew that Mercy Ships could help many of them with a simple, 5 minute surgery. He knew he was making a difference.

Joel’s time with Mercy Ships, and the journey here, are experiences he will never forget. When asked how he will say goodbye to Gladys, Joel transformed into a somber mood. “I can’t. I’ve really struggled to come to terms with it. It’s hard to part with something that carries so many memories. We might have a time where everyone could just come and tell stories and sit in her. Just to remember the good times.”

After a brief trip home to Ireland, Joel will continue “Living his Dreams” in South America in the fall.

Courage & Strength

“Hard things are put in our way not to stop us, but to call out our courage and strength.”

Akou Kewukpo is a woman of courage. In Western Africa, women do an astounding amount of work. They farm, cook, take care of children, and sell goods. They carry heavy items on their heads extremely far distances. They are worked to the bone. Akou did these things while experiencing great pain.

She is a farmer and has 5 grown children. She looks stunning for her age. When you see Akou smile, these perfectly straight, glistening white teeth stare at you. You think: there is a story behind that smile.

A large mass has been growing on her right shoulder for 5 years. The growth began inching up her neck, and exuded immense pain. Akou didn’t know it at the time, but the tumor was slowly filling her lungs and eventually would kill her.

If Akou lived in a developed nation, she would have had the tumor removed at a very early stage. But because of the lack of health care resources, doctors in Togo suggested that she travel to Europe to have the tumor removed.

Europe? They might as well have given her a death sentence.

“I couldn’t believe it when they told me that. I shook my head, and essentially gave up.” Akou said.

Three years later, Akou waited in line to see a doctor at Mercy Ships’ screening day in Togo. The African sun beat down on the hundreds of hopeful people waiting for medical attention. Akou was checked by several nurses and given an X-ray. It was determined that she was a candidate for surgery and was given a date to return to the ship for her tumor to be removed.

“I was so happy that day. More than small happiness…this was BIG happiness. I was in a hurry to get back home so the time would pass faster, and the day of surgery would be here!” Akou remembers.

Eventually surgery day arrived. Akou went in and Dr. Mark performed a marathon nine-hour operation. In order to remove the entire tumor, Dr. Mark had to cut the nerves running through it. Then, he meticulously stitched each nerve back together.

In recovery Akou had staples running down her neck and shoulder resembling a train track of battle wounds.

But the enemy was gone: All that was left was a beautifully sloped silhouette of her shoulders.

Akou’s struggle, however, was not over. God wanted to test her courage further. When she woke up after surgery she could not lift her arm.

It was explained to Akou that the surgeon had to sever the nerves running through the tumor in order to remove it all. It was a requirement to save her life. Akou understood, but needed time to process the situation. Her livelihood depended on being able to lift things.

Charge Nurse, Ali Chandra, explained, “The doctors are quite confident that over time, and with therapy, Akou will regain all movement in her arm. And every day, I can see she is improving emotionally and responding to therapy.”

Akou’s courage and strength were called upon, and she rose to the occasion. Healing began and eventually, it was time to look at her shoulder for the first time. Akou was handed a small mirror and she carefully cleaned it with her hospital gown, and then held it up.

In a matter of seconds that beaming smile returned to her face. She finally allowed herself to enjoy the hope and healing God brought her through Mercy Ships.

“When my hand gets better,” she exclaims, “I will be jumping up and down—hands raised in the air with celebration. The first thing I will do when I return home is go to church and thank God for what he has done for me. All the nurses who have took care of me—I will thank God for them.”

Mercy Ships thanks God for people like Akou. Her story teaches us that God will only give us what he knows we can handle—to call out our courage and strength.

Akou at screening in February.
Post-surgery. happy & healing :)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Claudine---cutest name ever?!

Ok,  before we get to Claudine, First things first: meet Gafar and Tani.......they are fixtures on D Ward and have developed quite a brother/sister relationship. Bubbles? yes, they blow bubbles together. Crafts? yep..they do that together too. A few days ago they had movie time and watched Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs. Good flick :)

Gafar had a tumor removed from the right side of his face. A few days ago he saw out of his right eye for the first time in 4 years. Hearing about it gave me chills!!
Tani is a very special young girl. She fell into a cooking fire when she was young and had burns to her face and hand...and lost an eye. But let me tell you---this is the most spirited child in all the world. She has received several surgeries, and will come back to the ship in Sierra Leone so doctors can continue to re-structure her face, and give her a glass eye :)

Calling America? "Hi, this is Tani, can you come pick me up?"

There are ALWAYS fun things going on in Ward D. Ali is the Charge Nurse and there is only one word to describe her: freaking awesome. (ok, that's 2 words) .....

But, I like to go down to D ward to hang out with Tani and Gafar and all the other kids coming in and out receiving quick eye surgeries. As a writer, trying to capture a great story about an eye patient on board is very difficult. This is because our rockstar surgeons churn these people in and out in no there is little opportunity to meet the patient, talk to them, gather enough info for a story AND get pictures of them! It's a challenge!!
Well, thanks to Ali's help, I was able to capture a couple good stories, and here is one of them:


I know I stated it in the title, but what a CUTE name?!?! it's going on the short list for sure. Here is Claudine's story, and a some adorable pics to go with it------Ali...I owe you one :)

When Claudine, a precious 2-year-old, was born her eyes did not open. She was lucky enough to be born in a hospital, but the doctors did not know why her eyelids remained closed. Her mother brought her home and waited. Days passed, but the eyes remained closed.

Seven days after she was born, Claudine’s mother took her back to the hospital. The doctor put eyes drops in her eyes, and finally, her lids lifted and she took her first look at the world around her. Her mother was saddened to see that Claudine was cross-eyed.

Being cross eyed means having a condition called Strabismus in which one’s eyes are not aligned correctly. Claudine’s case was congenital, meaning she was born with the condition. As Claudine grew it was a blessing for her mother to realize that the condition only hindered her vision a very small amount.

Her mother, Akouvi, comments, “Whenever she looks to the outside she has limited vision and her right eye goes deep inside toward her nose, limiting what she can see. But she never ran into things when learning to walk. When looking straight ahead she is ok.”

Early treatment of strabismus can help prevent depth perception problems and developing even more serious visual issues. But living in places like Lomé, Togo, Akouvi had trouble finding a doctor that could solve Claudine’s problem. Akouvi took her to doctor after doctor. Hospital after hospital. Every time getting the same answer: “We cannot help her.”

“I became fed up and exhausted,” Akouvi said, “I decided to stop trying. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s only God that can save her. Maybe God made her like this for a reason.’ I had completely given up.”

When God closes a door, he opens a window. Akouvi felt the door had been slammed in her face. Her husband came home one day, however, and said he received a phone call from a friend. The friend, Paul, was a day volunteer with Mercy Ships. “This is a hospital ship,” Paul said, “that performs eye surgeries, and the ship should be able to help Claudine.” God opened a window.

Akouvi took Claudine in her arms and walked to Mercy Ships’ Hospitality Center. The eye tech team informed her she must first go to a field screening, and they would determine if Claudine was a good candidate for surgery. Claudine made it through the first screening and was considered a candidate for strabismus correction surgery.

“Mercy Ships was an answer to my prayers. We tried every way, and couldn’t get a solution. I know God’s hand was involved with Mercy Ships coming into our lives. Through God things become possible—things like curing Claudine’s eyes. I am so grateful.”

Claudine arrived for surgery, and the next day she had corrected eyes and was seeing perfectly out of them.

Claudine before her surgery hanging out with one of the nurses, Jenn Carrol.

Claudine after surgery with her mom, Akouvi.

I mean, are you kidding???

Au revoir Claudine and Akouvi!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Food for Life

(Serge here receiving his diploma)

Twenty four-year-old Serge Medeho is proud to stand among his classmates at the Food for Life graduation. He displays maturity and determination not seen in men his age. When asked about the ceremony he simply says, “The ceremony was good. Now, I am looking ahead and I am ready to return home and use what I have learned. I hope to get a large plot of land to practice my biological agriculture.”

Mercy Ships has teamed with Bethesda of Benin, a fellow NGO, to create the Food for Life Agriculture Program. The second graduating class boasts nineteen men and one woman. These participants have completed a gruelling 16 week course where they have learned about biological agriculture and how to manage and market a farm. Now they are armed with the knowledge, tools and skills required to become thriving agriculturists, and better yet: teach others the skills as well.

(The Food for Life choir sang beautifully!)

The director for Food for Life Bethesda, Urbain Lontchedji, speaks to the graduates and attendees at the ceremony. “I know our training was very hard and the students got up every morning and worked long days. Thank you to the families for letting your brothers, sons, and husbands leave home and come here to learn. They will be better off because of it.”

The partnership between Bethesda and Mercy Ships was key for program success.

“This program would not exist without Mercy Ships,” says Bethesda director Victor Gbedo. “We had the idea for this program, but not the means to see it through. Mercy Ships stepped in and provided funding. We are so thankful for this partnership, and I know the graduates appreciate it just as much. We are transforming lives.”

Half of the twenty participants were selected by Mercy Ships and half by Bethesda. Each was identified because of their background in agriculture, and attends the program free of charge. They gain in-depth knowledge on organic farming such as composting, using home-made insecticide, and layering crops that thrive when planted together.

The participants live on-site at the Bethesda Food for Life Training Center for the duration of the course. Each student is given a plot of land that is theirs to maintain. The trainees grow fruits and vegetables such as pineapple, tangerines, corn, beans, peanuts, eggplant, tomatoes, and green beans.

(All the graduates with the staff. Brand new Equipment in the foreground.)

The students and teachers live off of the crops they grow at the center, but they cannot possibly eat all the food they grow! The center is a wonderful food source for people living in the surrounding villages.

“We don’t even have to bring the food into town,” says Mercy Ships Agriculture Program Facilitator Jean-Claude Mouditou, “They know it is here and the people come and purchase the food right as it is harvested.”

Providing food for villagers is an added bonus to this amazing program. The students are benefiting the most by receiving skills and knowledge to be successful farmers. But the hope is that they will teach other people their skills, and the knowledge will multiply. It is important to celebrate such an accomplishment.

The ceremony was filled with singing, dancing and laughter. The student choir harmonized to “Oh happy day, when Jesus washed our sins away,” as family members looked on with pride.

Mercy Ships Managing Director, Donovan Palmer, told the graduates how happy Mercy Ships is to be a partner in this program, and he gave them a challenge: “I want you use your faith and ask God to take what you have learned, and grow it into something greater than you can ever imagine.” Donovan paused. “Are you excited?”

The graduates reply with a resounding, “Oui!” (Yes!!)

(Jean Claude presenting the graduates with their wheelbarrow.)

At the end of the ceremony, each participant was presented with a brand new wheelbarrow filled with their own set of supplies: Two watering cans, a shovel, a pitchfork, rubber boots, a bucket, and seeds were among the items. The graduates lit up with excitement as they rolled their new materials out of the building. “This equipment is so wonderful. It will help us truly succeed!” Serge Medeho says.

(Serge here with his family)

After the ceremony, Serge pauses to reflect on his experience. “I don’t even have the words to say thank you. God passed through this organization and helped each one of us. How did I get so lucky? Being here has added so much to who I am. To what I can do. Truly amazing.”

Serge’s sister, Therese, has seen a change in him. “He loves it here. He behaves so differently now. By God’s grace this is possible, and I know he will be very successful now.”

At the close of the ceremony, Mercy Ships Switzerland Director, Bryce Wagner, stood to say a few words. He spoke about how proud Mercy Ships is of these graduates and how their skills will serve them well. He concluded, “Vous êtes l'avenir d'Afrique,”

You are the future of Africa.

The crowd got on their feet and erupted into claps and cheers. Indeed they are!


Photo of Serge and family--they insisted I jump in, too.

A local musical group came and provided great entertainment!!

The Graduates from Benin.

This is my FAVORITE! So African! Got a new wheelbarrow? sweet, let's strap it to the Zimi to get it home!

Meza and I :)

A few ceremony attendees heading back home on foot.

Jean Claude teaching us about the compost pile!

ALL PHOTOS taken by  none other than Tom Bradley, Photographer extraordinaire!!!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy. Faces. Yes.

Yesterday I went to the Food for Life graduation in Benin....Food for Life is the Agriculture program that Mercy Ships helps facilitate. I watched 20 young men and women graduate from the program which lasted 4 months. During the ceremony there were tons of kids that were playing outside (very uninterested in the actual ceremony...) so I played with them a bit. They were, however, VERY interested in my camera. Here are a few pics I took. One or two were taken by one kid who I taught to use the camera. (hence, the un-centered-ness haha)
Happy Faces for Father's Day!!!

The girl on the right was so adorable. Hair up in a scrunchie!

Gotta get the logo in.

Bradley being cheeky.

In front of the well....I taught them a little thumbs up action.


In front of some of the crops that the students take care of...

Hands up!! dancin.

Bryce, the Director of our Swiss office, taught this kid to use his video camera. He's just getting some footage of the ceremony :)


me "Yall go stand in front of that wall"
kids "lets pick up a bunch of rocks!" okkkk, whatever you want to do!! haha

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Adventure #3: Riding a Zimi

In Lomé the main form of transportation is a zimi john (aka, motorcycle). They zoom, zig & zag all over the place, making driving quite difficult. They weave in and out of traffic...pass on the right, pass on the left...simply, they are all over the place!
If you want to go anywhere in the city, you can either hop in a cab OR jump on the back of a zimi. Now, those of you who know me are aware that I am extremely risk averse. I have only ridden a motorcycle back home 1 time, and at the 30 mph mark I think I trembling with fear. 
So, when the group I was with suggested we take zimis to the restaurant we were going to, my brow furrowed and  I got a very scared look on my face. I'd rather not!!! ...... errrrrrrr
We searched for cabs for 15 minutes, but no luck. I decided I needed to take one for the team, gut it up, put my big girl panties on, and ride a zimi. 
We flagged 3 down, the boys negotiated price, and I jumped on a motorcycle behind a Togolese stranger and off we went. I held on for dear life.
At first, we were going very slowly because there was lots of traffic, so we were just passing all the cars slowly. THEN we got to the open road and took off. Now, we were probably only going about 30mph or so, but whew, it felt faster!! Also, my driver and Logan's driver felt like this was some kind of they were speeding it up....
Sooooo, as the time went by I realized that riding on the zimi wasn't as scary as I thought. In fact, it was actually kind of fun! The sun was setting, and we were cruising down the beach road, and I was taking in the scenery and all of a sudden was super excited and happy! Logan was in front of me, so I didn't feel too worried about safety. I decided to make a bold move and take out my camera and start shooting away.

Here are all the pics I took from the back of a Togolese Zimi John. Adventure #3: Success!