Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Final Newsletter

Well, it's been quite a crazy year living on a ship off the coast of Africa.  As I type this I'm currently sitting in the comforts of my oh-so-spacious bedroom back in Scottsdale and I'll be honest - while I love being back in Phoenix I also miss Africa so much.  It's very, very bittersweet.  I know without a doubt that Phoenix is where God has me for we'll see what comes my way!  I initially took a job working at Cardon Children's Hospital for the remainder of 2010 and then I'm returning to my old position at the Cancer Center at Phoenix Children's in early 2011.  This will be my last post, and I'll leave y'all with my final newsletter and a video that a friend of mine made from the ship.  With his permission, I am sharing that here.  So many of these folks in his video were my patients.  I wish I had the time to share all the amazing stories.  So feel free to ask me about them when you see me, and thanks for following along with me this year.  I know I've been so lucky to see and experience all that I have.  God has been good to me. 
View my final newsletter here

South African Adventures

So I wrote this blog a month ago and never got around to posting it! Better late than never I suppose…

Well I thought I’d finish off my African adventure with a bang and that we did! My three friends Melissa, Christina and Lindsay and I headed up north from Durban (where the ship is now docked) to Kruger, one of the top safari spots in Africa. In our big white whale (really a massive Honda accord that fit most of our luggage for the past year) we trekked our way up to the north eastern most part of South Africa called Kruger Park.

First stop: Transfrontier Africa – an NGO dedicated to conservation and research, or basically, two research guys named Craig and John that will change your views on African life – or at least offend you a little! They do safari’s on the side (in addition to their work tracking the animals and keeping the safari reserve running) to raise money for their conservation projects, and they were an experience to remember to say the least. Christina, Lindsay, Melissa and I spent two nights sleeping in these lovely tree houses high above the animals (for safety) and enjoyed a little rustic African bush experience. Literally every time I turned over in my bed the whole house shook on its stilt frame.  It made for a fun experience.

We also enjoyed the company of Eva, John and Craig’s adopted Mongoose who keeps the camp safe. Eva once killed a Black Mamba snake on the grounds and carried around the snake’s head for a week. She kept us all safe and is appropriately named after Hitler’s wife. She would not stop biting us the entire weekend. 

Eva also liked to meander in the bathroom (which out in the open sky was quite amazing. This was probably the best view I’ve ever had while using the loo!) Here is Lindsay checking out the open air facility.

We so very much enjoyed the company of Craig and John. They both smoke like chimneys and drink liquor like it’s going out of style. Craig was incredibly rough around the edges and had an interesting take on life after spending the last 15+ years in Africa working to save these animals that are being hunted. They cooked us amazing dishes like steak and couscous with South African "chakalaka" under the star-filled sky and we all got to know them both a bit. Craig said that while he was from the UK originally, half his soul is here in Africa and it’s soaked in rum! Some highlights:

Spotting zebra, African buffalo, and giraffe galore. They were amazing and right there in front of us! We saw so many more animals as well – elephants, impala, kudu, warthogs, and others that I can't even name.

On our last game drive our safari car broke down and we literally had to push! Conveniently, it was just when the white rhino spotting came on over the radio. Our car Lazarus was named appropriately as after a group prayer the car started again and we were on our way.

One of the girls spotted the rhino with her amazing eagle eyes and we veered off the road, taking trees and shrubbery out to see him in all his rhino glory. Interestingly, we learned that a gram of ground rhino horn powder goes for more than a gram of cocaine in these parts, as rhino powder is used as an aphrodisiac. Hhhmmmmm....

Next up we went to Gomo Gomo, a more luxurious safari experience and just as much fun but in a completely different way. After our first day there we joked that the four of us were on honeymoon, as every other couple there sure was! The bush here was much more flat and arid and the animals quite different.

There were SO many elephants everywhere!

….and we got to see lions mating as well as herds of rhinos, baboons, and my all time favorite the bush baby. I think the movie gremlins was inspired after these little guys. There was a huge watering hole at our lodge and one day a herd of 50+ elephants came over to get a drink. Here we are with the elephants.

Johan was our guide this time around, and he grew up on a ranch where tourists came in to shoot animals like lions and rhinos. His view on conservation and game shooting was the exact opposite of Craig and John’s from our previous stint. Many people still shoot the animals (in a controlled environment) as they say some of these elephants are overpopulating the land and changing the ecology making it hard for other animals to survive. These people travel to Africa and pay thousands of dollars to shoot the animals, and that money goes back into conservation of the safari areas within Kruger. It was really interesting to see the two contrasting viewpoints and try out both very different experiences. I don’t think I know enough of the bigger picture to make up my mind yet on how I feel about game shooting, but I sure learned a lot this week!

For the full set of my safari adventure photos you can click here

I finished off my South African experience with a quick weekend in Cape Town. We said goodbye to Melissa and Christina and Lindsay and I headed down south to check out all that the Captonians love.  We had an amazing day of biking in wine country (with perhaps a tad bit too much wine tasting)

We also visited Robbin Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years during apartheid, and we had a day of driving to the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean with Murray

It was an amazing week of travel and I’ve loved every minute of my time here in South Africa. It was such a blessing to be able to spend time with good friends and see the beauty of South Africa before heading home. As I write this I am at the airport in Cape Town and leaving this continent for at least the next while. I know I will be back someday. I’m not sure when or in what capacity, but no worries Africa, I’ll see you soon!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sailing Sailing Over the Ocean Blue

Well after sixteen days at sea let me tell you I am ready for some dry land!  I thought I should update a few sailing photos so you can see what we've been up to as we departed Togo and headed down to South Africa... 

Here are the final preparations prior to departure - putting up the gangway

Estellie and I as we are leaving the port for the final time

Those staying on land with off ship programs waved us off..can you find me on the top deck?

...and the view from the dock of the ship leaving the port backward

Goodbye Togo!

We've had quite a few sailing activities to keep us busy given our extended time at sea. This has included plenty of movie nights, sock golf, a carnival, and a "Sailing Olympics." The sponsor for the sailing olympics was HobNob biscuits, which is slightly ironic given that these cookies only come out during sail time to ward off sea sickness.  I was on the olympic team "North and South," named appropriately as we are two North Americans and two South Africans. Please note that Matt is not smiling as he said he had his "game face" on.  We are holding toothbrushes in this photo as we were instructed to bring them with us for the Olympic events.  Here we are ready to start the games!

We played many interesting games such as "count as many hobnob cookie boxes as you can while walking around inside a hula hoop"and see how big you can make a HobNob tower!  Unfortunately though, we did not win the sailing olympics.  Had we won, we would have received one of these lovely hobnob cookie box trophies!  Oh well :)

In other fun news we had a few days of quite rocky sailing.  We made it to a Force 8 (Force 12 is hurricane weather according to the Beaufort Scale) and here is a nice photo of the bow on our very stable rail ferry of a ship.  The bow was closed for quite a few days during this rocky time, as the waves were at times over 20 feet high! 


Well that's my sailing update from somewhere off the coast of South Africa.  Next stop: Durban, South Africa - the third busiest container port in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Later this week I'll depart the ship for good as I finish off this year long adventure.  I'll travel throughout South Africa before returning stateside, and then do a little traveling in the midwest as well.   So I might be MIA from the blog for a while...but perhaps there are a few final blog thoughts to come!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A VVF Update

VVF is a condition in which walking down the street, you might not notice that a woman has a problem. It's not a protruding facial tumor or an ugly limp that is visible to the outside world....until you get close enough to take in the overwhelming stench of urine. But more than any physical abnormality, these women that suffer from vesico-vaginal fistula live lives of shame and despair, cast apart emotionally and socially within their communities. To be relieved of that burden is nothing short of a miracle. The VVF surgeries ran all summer long, and so many miracles occurred onboard when these women had successful surgeries. Of those that didn't leave 100% dry, many left our ship with much smaller amounts of leaking urine than they came with, and in time may overcome their problems.

I mentioned Lelle, one of the VVF ladies in my previous blog posted here, and wanted to share the outcome of her surgery.  Unfortunately she was one of the very few women that didn't go home dry after her multiple surgery attempts. Lelle didn't have enough viable tissue to repair her fistula.  However, she will go to Niger to visit Dr. Steve's clinic for another attempt this fall. So keep praying for Lelle, for perseverance and continued hope despite the discouraging circumstances she's encountered thus far in life. As I've seen here in Africa, prayer can do crazy things when you least expect it.

Lelle is the lady in the photo that looks like she's laughing!

Prior to leaving the ship, every dry woman attends a dress ceremony in which she shares her story of what she has overcome.  I remember my first dress ceremony onboard. Our main VVF surgeon Dr. Steve said, "While we don't get paid here on Mercy Ships, this is our payback - seeing these women get a new chance at life."  So true Dr. Steve. The life experience gained far outweighs any monetary value of working for the forgotten poor on this hospital ship.  I have yet to attend a dress ceremony in which there is a dry eye in the house!  I will leave you with one of the success stories.  This is the story of Cicile and her celebration of new life.  Happy reading!

Cicile Ahamogbe stands in front of a room full people. Tears well up in her eyes.

“If I cry,” she says, “they are tears of joy. I could stand here forever, and cry and cry and cry tears of joy. Dr. Arrowsmith and all the nurses, how can I thank you?”

Cicile, 44 years old, suffered from a condition called vesico-vaginal fistula, or VVF. This problem, common in countries where there is a lack of obstetric care, occurs when a woman is in labor for long periods of time without medical help. The pressure of the baby causes a hole to form between the bladder and the vagina. The result is an uncontrolled flow of urine.

Cicile endured unbearable situations. She was incontinent for a year and a half, and she was treated as an outcast because of the odor of urine. The problem was caused when she was in labor for three days before finally receiving a cesarean section. Her beautiful daughter, Destino, is lucky to be alive. Cicile lives in Kpalime, a town about three hours north of Lomé. She learned to cope with her problem during the day by going to the bathroom constantly. But at night the problem was most evident. She explains, “I would wake up in the night with the children sleeping in my bed, and we would all be wet … the blanket, my clothes, their clothes, everything.”

It became very difficult for Cicile to provide for her children. Sometimes her husband sent money, but for the most part Cicile had little or no money to feed or clothe her kids. The incontinence kept her in her house …very alone.

Before coming to the Africa Mercy, Cecile did not know anyone who had the same problem as she did. Once she arrived at the hospital ship, however, she met several women just like her, and she will return to Kpalime with a support system that will be invaluable.

She says, “It helps to know others like you. I hope that we will all leave here dry. I have faith that the doctors and nurses of Mercy Ships can take care of us.”

Cicile's faith held true. Today, she attends her dress ceremony. She stands in a maroon dress with a white beaded necklace. She smells of lavender. She is surrounded by four other women. She is crying tears of joy. After two surgeries by VVF surgeon, Dr. Steve Arrowsmith, Cicile stands triumphant. “I am dry!” she exclaims. “I am dry forever!”

The dress ceremony celebrates rebirth. The women who have successful surgeries are given a new life, and that calls for celebration! They are no longer outcasts, and they are able to stand among their peers without shame. It is a wonderful day when VVF ladies like Cicile get to dance in a dress ceremony.  Cicile knows she is lucky and blessed. She poignantly states, “Thanks to Mercy Ships, today my beauty has been restored. The ugliness is gone.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A weekend at Wli Falls

For all of my non-facebook blog followers (i.e: mom and dad) I thought I'd post a few photos from my latest African adventure.  Five of us headed over the border recently to neighboring Ghana to see the biggest falls West Africa has to offer.  They were amazing.  But there was more than just the falls.  My favorite part of the weekend was camping out on the mountain with just our tents, the fire and the open sky. You don't get views like that every day! The next morning after camping we embarked on a six hour hike to get to both the upper and lower Wli falls with our guide Alfonz, as he macheted his way through the bush for us.  It was a great way to finish off my time in West Africa and definitely a trip to remember.  Here are a few of my favorites: 

Let the adventure begin

   Taking in the sunset after the hike to the campground

Race you to the top!

After a tough climb in the sweltering humidity

Definitely worth it!

You can see the rest of the photos from my weekend here

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Rich List

I was told that I've been given the gift of frustration.  It's a gift because many people don't see it the way I do.  After spending this past year in Africa, I know I've changed. My eyes have been opened to how drastically different third world living truly is.  I'm saddened by the needs of those who don't have enough here in Africa (and elsewhere) and I'm saddened that back home in the US I didn't have a clue.  It becomes so much more real when it's not just a commercial for Save the Children - but when you work and surround yourself with these folks daily.  That gap between the rich and the poor is what frustrates me.  Not only the economical gap, but the gap in knowledge.  So many of the rich just don't know the poor. 

Don't get me wrong - as far as spending goes I'm right there with those back at home.  I've accumulated so much in my short lifetime in the way of material wealth that I don't need.  Packing up my house when I left the states last spring, I donated boxes upon boxes upon boxes to the goodwill.  And that was before I put the rest of my "stuff" into storage and left my house fully furnished.  Here on the ship patients come to us and they don't even have shoes to cover their feet, let alone a solid roof over their head at home.  Or I think of the pastor of a church that I so often attended.  In one of his last talks before the ship left, he spoke of having to relieve himself in front of his fellow church members by the sea, as there were no toilets in the community and this was the designated "relieving spot."  He talked of trying to be intimate with his wife while his five kids slept in their one room shack that he shared with his family.  He spoke of how difficult this life has been for him.  He is just one in the many sea of faces that will be hard to forget.  If I had to summarize this past year in a word, it would be humility.  Each and every experience has served to make me humbled beyond imagine. 

So as I finish this year-long adventure next week, I hope I don't forget it all.  I want to file each memory away into the depths of my experience where I will never forget. I want to remember each person I've encountered and in that reflection, I want to be inspired to fight for the injustice of the poor.  I don't want to return to America and get absorbed into the wealth and the need to have the latest and greatest things.  I don't want to become indifferent toward those that live across the ocean in my memories.  I'll be honest.  I'm scared that is what's going to happen as I go back and relish in my modern comforts of stateside life. So please, reader, hold me accountable to remembering.   

I came across this website recently and wanted to share it for my Friday's favorite:

Check it out.  See where you fall on the rich list.  Then think about what you can do to inspire change for the better.  You definitely don't have to go to Africa for a year.  Although with all that I've been taught, I'm so glad I did.

"We must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ " ~Acts 20:35

Monday, August 9, 2010

Obama Love!

This past weekend I met a guy who referred to me as Obama every time he spoke (since obviously Barack and I look so much alike).  I've heard him referred to as "America's president but Africa's son."  With that in mind, I have never felt so loved as an American as I do over here in Africa.  So while Obama's popularity continues to plummet back in the states, on African soil he is more popular than ever.  Here are a few photos that show his never-ending love from Africa. 

A popular beach in Cotonou last year

He gets steets named after him...

very official looking streets!

As well as bars

Let's not forget about keeping him close to home

 He is a clothing staple over here

and finally, my all time favorite kids in Kpalime being protected by the one and only!
Only in Africa..... =)