"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29: 11

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Camping in Congo

This last weekend we headed off to camp at the beach north of Pointe-Noire. We had looked at a weekend away in Dolisie but there were just too many unknowns to try this with the kids. So we settled on an overnight camping trip at the beach with 3 other fab families - The Bullock's, The Cash's and The Chase's. Unfortunately Jack was a bit sick on Friday and so Tam stayed back onboard with him whilst I took Harry and Mark. We borrowed tents and much of our equipment from various sources onboard - one of the advantages of living in community!

Loaded up for one night's camping only - 4 families though.

And we are off!

We picked up 30 fresh baguettes - straight out of the oven - at a boulangerie on the way out. They were fantastic and five were eaten before we even arrived. 

Tent city, courtesy of the Academy.

Mark slept in a three man tent with Eli, Jacob and Matthew - it was squashy. Harry started off in the other three man tent with Caleb and Caroline but transferred in with me after a while.

Harry & Mark


Just after we arrived and set up, some fishermen turned up and start fishing off the beach. They would wade out almost 50 metres to cast then bring their rods back to the beach. They were working about 3 rods each. Anyway they provided great entertainment, landing two enormous fish. One of the fisherman who was from Reunion Island but holidaying in Congo told us it was a Capitaine.

Mick cooking up a storm - chicken kebabs with peppers, onions and tomatoes

We planned the meals earlier in the week and this was almost as much fun as eating them - actually it was evan better eating them. Gretchen and Mark did a great job shopping on Friday and then Nick and Gabe did a superb job preparing. Cooking was then easy.

Gabe - prepping the kebabs

Rachel - enjoying the fruits of our labour.

Mark - contented.

Chocolate brownies for dessert.

Hey Harry, Malachi and Kezia are climbing into your cup.


  Harry said his favourite thing was playing with a double pointed stick!


On Sunday morning three more Landrovers with more families and friends from the ship including Tam and Jack came out to join us for brunch, lunch, swimming and family church. Nick led us in worship, Gabe gave a great talk and the Koontz's brought amazing snacks. 

The surf was fantastic and I am sure Mark swam for at least 5 hours. Even the little bit of rain couldn't dampen our spirits and enjoyment.

Nick leading worship.

Family church, whilst eating fresh baguettes

Family church, enjoying God's creation all around us.

Finally we headed home at about 3 pm, exhausted but revitalised.

Camping in Congo. Never imagined I'd do this. Ticked off bucket list now.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Cabin Doors

There is a tradition of decorating cabin (and workplace) doors during December each year. Rather than cruising the streets checking out the lights we cruised the passageways and checked out the doors. Some real talent and creativity onboard - and some competitive streaks. Here are a selection:







My favourite was a series of drawings on one door.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

So far away

Today I went with a group of Mums ( or Moms) Onboard to the Grand Marche. I had planned to blog about it tonight. However, that is not what is on my heart. Rather, I'll blog about being far away. Because that is my struggle at present. You see one of the biggest challenges about being here is not being able to hop a plane at the drop of the hat and go to where you want to be. 
At present, my Mum is in the Intensive Care Unit in Royal Melbourne Hospital. She has had a perforation in her intestine and had surgery on Friday. She is going back for more surgery tomorrow.  And I can tell you right now - that I am wondering why I am half way around the world, in a country where I can't properly speak the language with Buckley's chance of being where I want to be - which is with my Dad, my brother and sister in law, being able to see where my Mum is at. My heart is in Australia but my body is in Congo. For me at present, I can think of nothing worse.
On the flip side though, my Dad, my brother, Marcus and his wife, Sue, are more useful than I could ever be. For starters, I would be badly jet lagged if I could get a flight and I may as well be in a foreign country as in a hospital. Whereas Sue is a theater sister (OR nurse) and I'm sure is doing an excellent job as "medical translator". Then they have a comfortable home with plenty of space for Dad to stay in as well as the support they are providing him. And I am certain that their children are giving Dad plenty of hugs and kisses as well.
I know that my Mum is not the first person to be ill at Christmas. And I'm not the first person who couldn't get to where they wanted to be during the holiday season.  All I am saying, is that it's hard to be away from home on a normal day. It's even harder to be away when you feel drawn to be somewhere else. What I'd like most for Christmas, are your prayers for healing for my Mum.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Becoming "known" onboard

Anyone else feeling really weary?  Normally at this time of year, we are in the countdown to our annual beach holiday at South West Rocks in northern New South Wales.  We call it our "bum holiday" because we do very little other than sleep, eat, swim and surf and catch up with family and friends.  It is really relaxing because we always aim to stay within walking distance of the beaches and our other favourite haunts.  And also because we know "The Rocks".  I have been going there since I was born. It is the first place Mick and I went on holiday together.  My parents have been going there since they were born.  And even my grandparents went there when they were kids!  I feel like I know the place so well, it is almost in my blood.

Main Beach, South West Rocks, Australia
I think one of the reasons that we are all so tired now, despite the fact that it is the end of a long year of change, is that we are still adjusting to our new life onboard the AFRICA MERCY - in essence we don't know it here yet like we do with The Rocks.  When you don't have that longer term connection with a place, it is exciting because you are always making new discoveries and learning more about it. However, it is also really tiring;-long term tiring and that is where we are at now.

Fortunately, tomorrow is the last day of school for Semester 1.  Exams are over and Academy play week is in full swing.  Children have been painting stage sets in the passageway outside our cabin for the last few days.  There has been much discussion around the table about "cow costumes", which toddler might be play baby Jesus without escaping and whose slide design is on the rolling screen.  This will all culminate in a performance that includes all children from Kindergarten to Grade 12 Thursday night at 7pm.  And all of it pulled together in only 4 days!  I can't even begin to imagine how tired our school teachers here must be..

For children who have been halfway around the world, adjusting to several different countries in the developed world and now here in the Congo, I wonder what they think about all the changes they have experienced this year. Then I listen to what they are discussing and it is not a lot different to what they were discussing 6-7 months ago in Australia - computer games, pokemon cards and Lego all feature heavily. Whom they are chatting with - friends from all over the world, and where they are talking - in a passageway on a hospital ship in Africa, is completely different from earlier this year.  What strikes me as I write this, is how quickly they have made the ship their new home.  They have made friends here, they love their school and they have become apart of what the ship does.  They even practise speaking French! So whilst I am feeling weary at this point of time from all the changes and new experiences that we have had this year, this ship is slowly becoming known to us and as this happens, we feel more and more at home.

Friday, November 8, 2013


At 0545 we arrived. The police checkpoints were in place - a good sign. Only those potential patients who had been pre-screened and selected by 11 Congolese hospitals and medical centres were to be let in. This would make our job of maintaining security within the screening site far easier throughout the day.

Potential patients and caregivers waiting patiently and hopefully outside the selection site

Then as we rounded the corner we saw the queue of potential patients and caregivers sitting patiently, expectantly and hopefully under the tents. My heart leapt. This was why we were here.

Potential patients dressed in their best clothes waiting to be screened

The first 10 potential patients were escorted in at 0630. From my station at the exit gate I was able to see the patients and caregivers being greeted by our amazing Academy French teacher, Myriam Kormann. Throughout the day she joyfully and reassuringly greeted every patient and caregiver directing them to the screeners. She told me she took breaks but I never saw her leave her station.

Myriam in the "maillot jaune" - what a super heroine!

Then I saw the first patients being directed to registration and my heart soared for I knew this was a sign that there was good chance we could help these people. But of course soon some were directed straight out from the screeners and my heart broke a little every time for these people.

A potential maxillofacial surgery patient

Although this was my first screening,  I had been preparing myself for the "no's" - those people that we could not help either because their condition was not treatable or not one that we were equipped to treat onboard. But blessedly there were far fewer "no's" and many more "yes's". This was primarily due to the prescreening by the Congolese hospitals and medical centres. Early in the day the yes's seemed to outnumber the no's by 10 to 1 however the final count at the end of the day was about 60% accepted. Still a very high percentage.

Fellow Australian, Rinnah Fry, was part of the screening team

Normally Mercy Ships has a prayer team to sit and pray with the "no's" but due to the limited number of people we were able to bring to Brazzaville there was no prayer team. As you can imagine everyone preselected to be screened was full of hope and to be rejected was crushing news. Some were graceful, some resigned, some disbelieving, some broken hearted and a few were angry. So  the exit gate team had some challenging situations to manage, with some angry and disappointed people. My French is good enough to answer simple questions and give directions but not up to explaining to a distraught parent why their child could not be treated. But our Congolese day crew interpreters, particularly Saul from the eye team, were fantastically gracious and calm in explaining repeatedly why people were unable to be treated.

Perhaps the ones that I found hardest to accept were the children with clubfeet. This is a treatable condition but is not being done this field service. One mama with her son obviously knew his condition was treatable and was very upset that he had been rejected for treatment. I held him for her as Saul explained that we did not have a doctor able to treat her son. Apart from one foot, he was a healthy boy and I now wonder and pray that he does get a surgery in the future to correct his foot.

A beautiful Congolese girl who will grow up without a cleft lip

Throughout the day I was most touched by the parents with their children. I was constantly reminded of my own children and how as a parent I would do whatever I could to seek treatment for them if they were sick or handicapped. I fully understood their motivation and it gave me joy every time I saw one leaving clutching their precious yellow appointment card. But it tore at my heart every time I saw one leaving without that card.

Very happy Papa!

Another amazing thing was how well dressed many of the people were. I don't dress up to go to the doctor but many of the Congolese seemed to be wearing their Sunday best outfits - bright and beautiful.

By about midday we had finished screening all the preselected patients and the decision was made to check the street barricades for any obviously potential max-fax or cleft lip patients. There were several of these and then at about 1330 a young man with a cleft lip appeared at the exit gate. He was about 16 and wearing a red shirt. We asked if he should be let in and were given the go ahead. He was the last screened and put on the standby list. I hope he gets his surgery and if he does he will be one of the luckiest guys in Brazzaville. Not prescreened and miraculously let through the barricades in time to be admitted before we wrapped up for the day.

The Brazzaville Screening Team

The statistics from the day: 522 potential patients through the gates, of which 294 were scheduled for Surgeon Screening in Pointe-Noire and hopefully surgery onboard.

By 2 pm we were finished and a group of us headed out to check out the Congo River rapids below Brazzaville. These were spectacular but I found I was both emotional and physically exhausted and happy to just sit, watch and unwind. Later that afternoon we headed back to the airport to catch a plane to Pointe Noire and our wonderful floating home we share we so many fantastic and generous people from all over the world.

Exit Gate Security

Saturday, November 2, 2013

How Often Does Your Dentist Save Your Life?

Last Saturday as we watched the kids play beach soccer I chatted to the Lead Dentist, Mark Bullock, about his week. I thought I had had a tough week and was tired after being duty engineer Saturday and Wednesday, bunkering late on Wednesday plus some frustrations completing some planned maintenance checks. Then Mark told me about his week which was the usual of many patients and tooth extractions but included a particularly challenging patient on Thursday. To give an idea of how busy they have been, they seen about 1400 patients and conducted about 3100 dental procedures in 7 weeks up to 19Oct13. How does that compare to your dentist?

How often does your dentist save your life? For most of us the answer is never. Last Thursday a patient arrived at the dental clinic after patient screening and selection had completed. However the guards could see the man's need and admitted him. Well this man had a very serious dental infection that had caused pus to accumulate beneath the floor of his mouth. Mark described it as grapefruit sized and pushing his tongue up three inches. This was resulting in his airway being almost completely blocked. The man could barely breathe and could not lie down as this completely blocked his airway. This guy was seriously in immediate danger of dying....from a tooth infection.

So the most immediate concern was to reduce the swelling in order to clear the his airway. To do this Mark needed to extract the tooth or teeth causing the infection. But which teeth? They all looked bad which is apparently pretty common. Anyway the man was able to tell Mark which side the infection started so he targeted the worst two teeth on this side. Oh, and by the way, they are not set up for general anaesthetic at the dental clinic so the whole procedure was done under local anaesthetic. Well Mark and the other Dentist - Annette - chose correctly and found pus under the extracted teeth. This allowed some immediate relief but as pus does not drain up (it's a gravity thing) they also had to establish a drain to drain the pus out which they did successfully. I didn't quite understand the mechanics of it (being an engineer and not a dentist) but it sounded challenging enough. After this the man was able to swallow and was given antibiotics then and there before being sent home.

The man was given instructions to go return the following day for a follow up check and if it worsened overnight to go to hospital. However Mark had a sleepless night worrying about his patient who was okay and turned up on Friday. He was given the same instructions for the weekend and told to return Monday morning to be checked again, which he did and he was fine.

So I don't know this man nor what he does or if he has a family. But without Mark's skill he almost certainly would have died. And if he had a family, they would have been without their primary breadwinner. And maybe others were reliant on him for their jobs too...so the impact of his death would have been even greater.

Mark out walking with us when we first arrived in Congo
And Mark couldn't be here without the support of his family and friends who provide support to his family. But Mark has a family of three boys all attending the onboard school so he could not be here without the presence of the Principal and teachers, who are all volunteers too, supported by their families and friends. And my small part in this process is maintaining the life boats, pumps, sewage plant and safety systems that keep the ship running safely. So even though the engineers, deckies and academy staff don't directly contribute to saving and changing lives in Africa, it is satisfying to know that we all played a small but important part in our Lead Dentist being here to save this man's life.

Post Script - After only seeing one such patient in Guinea last year, Mark had two more cases similar to this one this week. All were successfully treated and are recovering.