Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Branching out from health care...

When Michiel Van de Visser came to Mercy Ships, he imagined he would be doing technical work that would indirectly change lives. Mercy Ships was in Togo to deliver free health care. Though important, Michiel’s position as an Electronics Technician did not directly influence the patient’s lives. Michiel was very skilled at his job and even became a Christian while serving with Mercy Ships. He loyally performed his duties working on the bridge equipment and the engine room equipment, ensuring that the ship was in tiptop shape for upcoming sail.
It never occurred to Michiel that he would have the opportunity to directly change people’s lives. “I had this thought about a year ago that I was going to come to Africa and teach. But I’m not a teacher at all. It wasn’t until I got here that I realized how that idea would materialize.” Health care may be the main purpose of Mercy Ships, but Michiel is a superb example of how Mercy Ships makes a different in people’s lives outside of the hospital—through capacity building.

Day Volunteers are local men and women who work for Mercy Ships during a field service. In Togo, Mercy Ships hired over 150 Day Volunteers to serve as translators, cooks, maintenance workers, among other things. In the Engineering Department, the day volunteers maintain the air conditioning, plumbing and other vital jobs that allow 350 volunteers to live and work on board.

Michiel was approached by a day volunteer that wanted to learn more about basic electronics. Alfred, the day volunteer, identified Michiel as a skilled worker and he wanted to learn more. Alfred saw Michiel as the right man to teach him. Michiel thought about the man’s request, and debated about how he could help him. Alfred was very curious and eager to learn. Alfred inquired about books or any other resources he could use to absorb knowledge of how to build and operate basic electronics.

Michiel prayed about the situation and realized this was the opportunity to teach that he had previously thought about! God wanted him to impart his electronics knowledge to a group of enthusiastic men who were eager to learn.

He and Alfred prayed for God to give them the wisdom, patience, and resources to follow this idea through. Alfred quickly identified four other day volunteers interested in participating in a course. Michiel researched on how to teach an electronics class. Within a very short time, Michiel found himself teaching an electronics class two nights a week to five zealous students frantically scribbling down his every word.

“I was really teaching myself to teach. If you are a teacher you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. I had a lot of on the job experience that I could offer them, but if I didn’t know something, I’d simply Google it!” Michiel said. For every hour he was in front of the class teaching, he spent at least an hour in preparation outside the classroom.

Getting materials was challenging. Michiel researched and found a good textbook online. He happened to be going Florida for a wedding so he had the books shipped to a friend’s house in Florida. Then he brought them back to Togo with him. All five of the students purchased the book. Luckily, through prayer and people willing to help, the class received all the resources they needed.

“The first three months I dedicated to theoretical teaching. I stood in front of a white board, explaining to them about basic electronic components,” said Michiel.

Oluwafemi, known simply as Femi, was one of the Michiel’s students. He was extremely excited about the new skills he has gained from the class. “I have been able to learn basic electronics. I’ve learned about soldering, and how to recognize printed circuit boards, and the various components that go into a printed circuit boards.”

Michiel felt it was very important for the class to put their theoretical knowledge to the test. They needed a practical application of what they had learned. On a personal trip home to Holland, Michiel purchased five electronic modeling kits. His brother graciously agreed to sponsor the materials. “I brought back the modeling kits, and they served as the ‘final exam’ of the course. Each student put together a different electronic device. It involved soldering and making their own Printed Circuit Boards.”

After months of learning it was time for the class to come to an end. Michiel felt these five men deserved some kind of recognition for the hard work they put into this course. “They all learned so much,” Michiel said, “I was so proud of them—They took their free-time to attend this class. They deserved something to show for their accomplishment.”

Africa Mercy Captain Tim Tretheway was happy to help Michiel honor these hard-working day volunteers. He had official Mercy Ships certificates made and the group held a certificate ceremony and informal graduation. After the ceremony, Femi felt blessed to be given the chance to learn something new. “I am grateful to God and to Michiel for giving me the opportunity to learn these skills.”

“Now these men have a skill,” Michiel reflects, “Something they can put on their resume to prove they have knowledge of electronics. I hope this expertise serves them well in the future.”

Mercy Ships seeks to put knowledge into the heads and hands of as many people in West Africa as possible. That knowledge—whether it is agriculture, mental health, dental hygiene or something else—will continue to spread long after the ship has sailed. Capacity building is a wonderful way to truly transform a group…a city…a nation. Providing aid is helpful, but it is simply a Band-Aid on a severely damaged body. If you give west Africans the knowledge to grow better crops or make better electronics, then that knowledge is a stepping-stone to building a stronger economy. Michiel invested his own time, energy, knowledge and resources in these five men. His efforts will undoubtedly continue to improve their lives many years down the road.

And he thought he wasn’t going to directly change lives…Think again.

Michiel teaching in Crew Mess.
Learning to solder

printed circuit board (PCB)

Practice makes perfect!
The entire class! Teacher & students in Crew Mess where they held class.
The Certificate Party/Graduation dinner
Michiel with an African shirt given to him by his students.
Graduated! Mercy Ships Electronics Class :)


  1. How neat! Wonderful story. This is like "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime."

  2. Hi Chiel!

    Goed verhaal, veel respect voor!



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