What a whirlwind the last few weeks have been. I’ve been home for about one week now, and I feel this is the first time I’ve been able to sit in quiet to process everything that I saw, heard, and lived in Africa. I’m not quite sure how to even begin to answer the question “How was your trip?”
The Africa Mercy is a strange, but special place. Deep relationships are formed quickly, know no boundary of race, language, or age; time either goes really slow or really fast, and connections you make with colleagues, patients, and caregivers alike are unlike anything I have experienced in America. It is not uncommon that in one day you will feel extreme joy, grief, and complete awe.
My last few weeks on the ship I put my computer away to soak up the last moments of my time serving with Mercy Ships. So, I figured I would backtrack a bit to cover the highlights for those of you who followed along!
During my time there, the ship had started their VVF (Vesicovaginal Fistula) repairs on the women’s ward. This is a gynecological surgery that involves the repair of fistulas that have formed between the vaginal canal and urinary tract, or between the vaginal canal and GI tract from a traumatic birth. Here in the United States, if a mother is having difficulty birthing a child naturally we are able to perform a C-section. For most in Africa, this is not an option. As a result, mothers will labor for days, many times losing their child in the process. A few days later, the soft tissue in the birth canal that died from lack of blood supply during labor falls away leaving a hole where there should be a wall. This allows urine or feces to leak constantly. In many communities, the woman is then shunned by their society and even left by their husbands for being considered unclean. On board the Africa Mercy, these women receive free fistula repairs from world-class surgeons! They are embraced, full of hope, and are able to connect with a community of other women who are afflicted with the same condition. Every day these women would walk up and down the hallway as a group, Foley catheter bags in hand, and sing praises to the Lord. Little ones from the pediatric wards trail behind them clapping and stomping their feet. It is an absolute joy to join in with them and celebrate the start of their new lives. After these ladies are able to remain “dry” the ship holds a dress ceremony before they are discharged home. The Hospital Chaplaincy Team has beautiful, bright African fabric dresses and headpieces made for them. They enter into the ceremony looking absolutely radiant, makeup and hair done, faces beaming. Here they are able to give their testimonies, dance, and celebrate with the crew. It is an incredible moment to share in.
The Africa Mercy is all about celebrating new life and renewed hope. Before leaving, I was also able to attend the Celebration of Sight with the ophthalmology team. Here I was able to witness patients, whom were previously blind from cataracts, see again! I have never seen such reckless abandonment in joy, dancing, and just utter thankfulness. I looked out over the sea of patients, in their best dress, glasses in place, jumping up and down, with all sweat and exertion that they could finally be set free! I couldn’t help but think of Jesus restoring sight to the blind man, and that this is what his response must have been like.
My last weekend aboard the Africa Mercy was Easter Weekend, and it was one for the books! I worked Thursday evening, and was able to wash the feet of my patients in remembrance of “Maundy Thursday.” We read them the passage in John 13 where Jesus washed his disciple’s feet, and explained its meaning to them. It was such a raw and spirit filled moment as a nurse on board, being able to exemplify the heart of what drives us by following Jesus’s example of humble servanthood. Friday night the ship had a Tenebrae Service which was a dramatic devotional service with songs and scripture readings that helped us identify with the suffering of Jesus. In between the Easter Celebration, I was able to take a day trip with friends to a beach about an hour away called Limbe. On Saturday, 18 of us piled into a rickety old van that would probably seat 14 back here in the States. The radio was broken, so we sang and danced the whole way there and back. It was a great last adventure out of Douala, where the ship is docked. Easter Sunday, I offered to work for one of my colleagues so I could spend a little extra time with my patients. I was able to attend the sunrise service on deck 8 before work, and then went to Easter Service with my patients on the wards. I was still able to partake in some of the Easter Activities for the crew. The ship does an incredible job with Easter Brunch – smoked salmon, steak tips, mountains of fresh fruit, an assortment of cheeses, it was spectacular! After a delicious lunch break, I went back down to the wards to help plan an Easter egg hunt for our patients. It was such a gift being able to spend Easter in a place that is so special to me.
Now that I am home I can’t help but miss the way the Harmattan hovers over West Africa, the thick, hazy heat, the way mango melts in your mouth, bright African fabrics, prayers at change of shift, the way our patients dancing and singing would echo throughout the ship, listening to worship music as I completed my nursing tasks, the joy filled beat of African drums, impromptu dance parties on the ward, playing with little ones on deck 7, watching the sun set over the harbor, piling 7 people into a 4 passenger taxi to venture off ship, fried plantains, visiting with patients at the Hope Center, singing and dancing with them to “Bambelela!”, being greeted with daily hugs from patients and coworkers alike… the list is seemingly endless. It is no surprise I choked up with tears the moment I drove away from the gangway filled with sweet friends waving me goodbye. As my time there came to a close I felt a rollercoaster of emotions. I was so excited to be reunited with my husband, but also struggled with the fact that something that I had prayed about for so long had come and gone so quickly, and taken aback by how deeply I fell in love with it all.
My first week home has been hard but good. I am thankful to have a husband who is patient and kind, and has cooked me some delicious meals on the grill! Now that I’m home I have been spending time recovering from jet lag, catching up with family, getting organized to start classes again, and helping plan my sister in laws baby shower that was this past weekend. I am going back to work this week, which will be another adjustment to anticipate. I would love to meet up with you for a cup of coffee to share more about Africa, or just catch up! I missed you all and I am so thankful to have so much to look forward too after being away for so long.