"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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

December 2016 in Benin

Hammattan has arrived - that is a ship about 500 metres away

We are now half way through the Benin field service which is hard to believe. Orthopaedics has finished which means our good friends Frank and Kathleen Hayden from Colorado have left. It has hardly rained all month and in the last week the Hammattan has commenced. This is the wind from the Sahara that carries fine dust creating a fog like haze. The temperature and humidity have also dropped dramatically.

Tammy and Kathleen

The coolest thing this month is that Mick got to observe Frank conducting a bilateral tibial osteotomy on a 12 year old girl. Much of the orthopaedic work is very mechanical in nature and thus Mick found it fascinating. What was amazing is how quick Frank worked and the obvious immediate improvement. He is looking forward to seeing this young girl at the HOPE Center and coming in for physiotherapy.

Mick after observing Frank in surgery

Tammy has finished in Supply and has done a few special projects for the Ops Director. In the New Year she is due to start with the Communications Team doing admin work. Her intensive French course at Institute Français is done and she is looking for opportunities to consolidate.

Mick has continued to be very busy as Second Engineer, but a new Third Engineer was contracted to replace him which has eased his work load a bit. During the month we bunkered another 200,000 litres of fuel again however Mick only did the first day (150, 000 litres) and the Chief looked after the second day. He dived twice this month, once scheduled and once covering for another team member. Without the rain the visibility was much improved at about 2 metres and they were able to see some fish.  They also went to the bottom looking for a dropped tool to find the bottom is soft mud about 50 cm deep. Anything dropped is pretty much gone forever. We had planned a propulsion test but had to postpone it as the Captain was off on leave so will do this in the new year.

Mick had the opportunity to compete in his first bike race for 3 & 1/2 years - a 40 km MTB (or VTT - Velo Tour Terrain) race along the beach road from Ouidah to Cotonou in temperatures of about 34 degree C. It was brutal due to the lack of rain making the sand soft and deep in many parts. The field was pretty international with guys from Togo, Benin, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria as well as several French expats. All were a lot younger than Mick and he was happy to finish about 15th out of about 60.

Mick and Lionel before the VTT race

On 14 December we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. 20 years ago we would have never guessed that we would celebrate it as a family with 3 boys living and working on a hospital ship in Benin. Amazingly we have lived over 8 of those years overseas. We took the day off work and went to breakfast at a local boulangerie and lunch at the Institute Français. 

School went right up to Christmas finishing on 22 December. Jack and Mark both had mid-year exams and did well - a mixture of As and Bs. For Mark this was his first set of Junior High exams and for Jack we very much left him to plan his revision and study himself so we were very pleased.

We also went to the fabric market a couple of times to select some local fabrics and then all got outfits made by a local tailor. Tammy also made a new doona cover for Harry.

Benin family photo

December onboard means Christmas activities and there are lots of them. Harry decided he wanted to be Scandinavian this year and joined in the Santa Lucia celebration learning to sing in Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch as well as dress up in white robes, a pointy hat and carry a lighted candle through the ship! We invited our German friends to join in with the gingerbread house making. We didn't win but we had lots of fun making a gingerbread ship which we are still eating. The Aussies traditionally host Carols by Candlelight which we did again on the dock and was attended by most of the crew and some patients. It was a wonderful evening. Christmas eve we had a service and then all put our shoes out. Traditionally crew members put out little treats in others shoes which is fun on Christmas morning. Christmas we had brunch and then hosted open cabin. We made salsa, caramel slice and pavalova which all went down a treat. On Boxing Day we went to Bab's Dock for the day with our German friends for a lovely lunch and relaxing day.

Santa Lucia

Harry dressed for Santa Lucia

Carols by Candlelight

The toughest thing about this time of year is friends leaving. Our good friends, the Wall family, left after 4 & 1/2 years, to return to Colorado. Tammy and Tracey had become great friends and this was particularly hard on her. Other good friends who have left have included Harmen & Andrea Valk and Bruce, Alison and Elle Barr. Every departure of a dear friend is like a small knife stab to the heart.

Jack and Elle during fire drill

As we approach the New Year it is decision time for the teachers. And at this stage Mercy Ships are looking for Kindergarten to Grade 5 teachers plus Maths, Science, French, PE/IT and a Principal. The Maths and Science teachers are yet to make their final decision so we are praying they choose to stay. But please pray that God works in the hearts of teachers around the world to come and serve onboard.

Know any teachers who want to an adventure?

That was December.

Cheers, and Blessings,
Mick, Tammy, Jack, Mark and Harry

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Brutal Bike Race in Benin

Last weekend I got invited to participate in a local race from Ouidah to Cotonou along the Route de Peche which is a sand road parallel to the beach. The race was for Velos Tous Terrains, that is Mountain Bikes. 

I was told to meet at the stadium in Cotonou at midday and there would be transport. I got there to find a eclectic group of bikes and riders. I was one of only two "Yovos" (white people), the other being a Frenchman who spoke no English. Transport consisted of a bus onto which bikes were piled onto the roof in one enormous pile. I took a look at this and thought my brake rotors were bound to get bent however Lionel who I knew from an earlier ride arranged for our bikes to go in the back of one of three MTN pick-ups. 

Meeting up at the Stadium in Cotonou

A very wide range of bikes

Bike transport consisted of piling as many as possible on the top of the bus

I managed to slip mine into the MTN pick-up

Sign on was a general melee around a couple of girls besides the bus. No race fee or licence required, just name, age, nationality and phone number. I saw riders from Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, France (5), South Africa (1) and Australia - me. Most were about 20ish with some in their 30s, plus some teenagers. I was the oldest I saw at sign on by many years!

Sign on - name, age, nationality and phone number

Once we got to Ouidah there was about an hour of waiting around, taking photos, more sign ons and hydrating. A couple of teams showed up with matching kit and looking pretty serious. There were also a few more Yovos - a South African from MTN who were sponsoring the race and two French couples - all on good quality 29er MTBs. The African guys were on a huge variety of bikes - hard tails, duel-lies and no suspension -  mostly older 26 inch MTB with rim brakes and one on a 26 inch single speed with skinny tyres.

Preparing for the start in Ouidah

Me with Lionel

At 3 pm we set off through Ouidah following one of the MTN vehicles on a neutralised 5 km section. We then stopped for photos before the Grand Depart. The pace was manic from the start. I managed to hang with the front 10 or so guys for the first 5 km and then the gaps started opening, especially when we hit areas of deeper sand. It was also 37 degrees at the start dropping to 32 degrees at the finish. I was wearing a camelpak with 2 x 2 litre bladders plus two bidons on the bike, all of which I would finish before the end. One guy flipped off in front of me at about 30 kph when he hit some deep sand. He caught me about 5 km later which was a great effort. A few of us were in groups of 2 or 3 but most of us ended up solo for much of the race. Picking the hardest packed sand was crucial. Missing it was energy sapping. And the soft sand got deeper and more frequent the closer we got to Cotonou. Also the closer to Cotonou we got the more traffic we encountered, either coming towards us forcing us off the hard pack into the soft sand or honking their horns behind us until we moved to the soft sand to let them pass.

The Grand Depart, and bottom right I am sitting on in about 8th.

Bottom left - just catching this guy.

The best sight all day - the finish

Post finish melee

My brain hurts

Check out this bike - single speed with skinny tyres

This is the dude who rode the single speed - chapeau!

Me and some of the finishers

I finished in about 15th place out of about 60. I know I wasn't in the top 10 as they were on the podium. I was the first Australian however I wasn't the first Yovo. Hanno from South Africa came in 8th and my Beninese friend Lionel came in 9th. I am sure I was first in veterans but I was probably the only veteran too. I took a few screen shots of my Garmin numbers. Not the greatest ever but I am only riding about 80 km per week at the moment on weekends. My heart rate monitor has been on the fritz for a year or so now so I did not have it on. It would have made interesting reading because I felt like I was "in the red zone" a lot. Overall the conditions were pretty brutal. Not my preferred race format but a great experience.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November 2016 - Benin

We have now been in Benin for 14 weeks and life has normalised. Plastics has finished for the moment and Orthopaedics has started. This means our good friends Frank and Kathleen Hayden from Colorado are onboard for 5 weeks. The torrential rain of October has passed and November has been quite dry.

Tammy chose to finish up in Supply after almost two years and has been helping with a stocktake in Hospital Supply before doing a few special projects for the Ops Director. Her intensive French course at Institute Français is almost done and she has made great progress.And we got a new hairdresser onboard!

Mick has been very busy as Second Engineer, particularly as no new Third Engineer has arrived yet. During the month the ship bunkered 200,000 litres of fuel again and thankfully the fuel company brought a better pump so it only took 10 hours this time. He dived only once this month but led the dive due to the team leader dropping out on the morning of the dive with a cold.  All went well though the baskets (Bangkok strainers) were pretty dirty. We also conducted two main propulsion tests both of which went well with only a few minor issues to be corrected.

As part of our Thursday Community meetings, we have the opportunity every second week to make a donation towards a charity or cause. Mick proposed the École Clément Magnenat - a local school for impoverished children - which he had visited and it was approved. So two weeks ago he gave a presentation on this and the crew donated over $2000. We are planning to try and visit the school as a family with a few friends in the next month or so.

Mick has continued to ride his bikes on the weekends when he can. There is a bakery somewhere on the road to Ouidah about 18 km from the ship so he has taken to riding there and buying baguettes from the women beside the road. They are far cheaper here (100 CFA each - about 20 cents - and fresher). One of his cycling buddies - Courtney from Milwaukee - left this month which was a downer.

We had a great weekend stay at Bab's Dock. Mick rode out and back on his bike and the rest of the family took a taxi. The little sailing boat was serviceable and so Mick took all three boys out. He spent 5 hours sailing over the two days with both Harry and Mark having multiple turns, practicing steering and controlling the main sheet. We were blessed to have two great couples also staying there - Nick & Susan and Harmen & Andrea.

A highlight for Jack was the arrival of his new quadcopter which is huge. He had a mini quadcopter which he could fly very well and literally land on a drink coaster. The skill has translated well and he has had several successful flights. Next he is looking for a First Person View (FPV) camera to mount on it.

An additional highlight this month was the (non-resident) Australian Ambassador to Benin, who is also the High Commissioner to Nigeria, coming to visit the ship. This was the first time we have had an Australian Ambassador or High Commissioner for a country we are serving in, able to visit. With almost 50 Australians onboard, we are actually the largest single group of Australians in the 5 West African countries he covers and the second largest nationality serving in the ship too after the Americans. More awesome was that he had some discretionary Australian aid money that he was able to use to sponsor the ponseti (club foot) program, gave much needed blood in the 4 hours he was here (B+) and is formerly from AUSAID - so he has a heart for Humanitarian work.  And he is also the non resident Ambassador to Cameroon, our next country. It was a fantastic blessing for the Aussies onboard and we were lucky enough to be invited to the lunch held in his honour - with pavlova for dessert!

We are currently committed to serve until December 2017 when we need to make some decisions about extending or coming "home". Jack will be about to start Years 11 and 12 back home in 2018 which he needs to do in one location. However at present all three boys are very settled in the school and life onboard. And sometime in 2018 Mercy Ships will commission the new ship however transition plans for the Academy are not yet known. Plus there are several long term crew benefits that are linked to us extending beyond 2017. Please pray for clarity in making the wise choice.

Please also pray for Tammy to see clearly for direction to choose where to work onboard. She has many opportunities but needs to choose something that both energises her but also allows her to prioritise our family.

That was November.

Cheers, and Blessings,
Mick, Tammy, Jack, Mark and Harry

Monday, November 14, 2016

Jack's school project

My project is to create and advertise a product on a blog. I would greatly appreciate feedback. Let's see how many comments we can get. Thanks from Jack.
The Bible iPad Case

This tough case makes your favourite iPad look like a great bible and using our specially designed app your iPad will almost fool you into thinking that you hold a hard copy Bible. At only $5 it is affordable for anyone with an iPad. So what are you waiting for, get your case today!
All proceeds from the purchase of this product will go toward the charity organisation Mercy Ships.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

October Update

We have now been in Benin for 10 weeks and are quite settled. The hospital is running at full capacity most weeks. October is typically a very wet month and this has proved to be true with some truly torrential rain. It is scheduled to be drier through November and very dry and hot in December to February.

A new Supply Manager has been selected and will start in November allowing Tammy to remain as the Supply Admin Assistant. She will no doubt continue to remain the glue and continuity in the Supply Team. Tammy is well into her intensive French course at Institute Français and really enjoying it.

Mick was promoted to Second Engineer this month and is settling into the new role. We also bunkered 210,000 litres of fuel which took 2 full days. Hopefully the fuel company will bring a better pump next time. Mick has also completed 4 dives on the ship in Benin now. All the sea water grates have been removed and baskets ("Bangkok strainers" we called them in the Navy) have been fitted with magnets to hold them in place. The dive conditions remain challenging with limited visibility, a lot of rubbish and quite a lot of surge.  We are scheduled to conduct our second monthly main propulsion test this Wednesday which will be Mick's first as Second Engineer - please pray it goes well.

Bangkok strainer

We haven’t found a regular Saturday morning cafe to practice our French whilst having lunch. However last weekend we took a boat ride out to the stilt village of Ganvie - also known as the Venice of Africa. This was pretty cool. About 30,000 people live out here on the lake with schools, churches and a medical clinic all on stilts or man-made islands. The primary industry is fishing with the women trading and selling the fish for other goods and foods which are then sold in a floating market. Mick just wonders where all the sewage goes - fish food he suspects...

Harry driving the boat to Ganvie

We made friends with a visiting surgeon from Sydney - Christophe Berny - who originated from Geneva, Switzerland. He and Mick visited a school at Tangbo about 1 hour drive from the ship - École Clément Magnenat - financed by a young Swiss man - Clement Magnenat - who is a friend of Christophe's family. The school for about 50 students provides a second chance for kids who come from very poor families and have missed out on attending school. They range from 9 to 15 years old and typically do 8 years of schooling in 4 years to try and get them to a level they can re-join regular school. It was truly inspiring to visit and meet the teachers, children and administrator. We are planning to try and raise some money for the school and go and visit.

École Clément Magnenat

Mick has continued to try and get out on both his road bike and mountain bike. He and a few friends (aka cycling tragics) have taken to riding out to Bab's Dock along the Rue de Peche (12 km of sand road), and then taking the bikes in the small boat to Bab's Dock for coffees and waffles, before cycling back through the backblocks and along the disused rail line.

Bikes in the boat on the way to Bab's Dock for a coffee

Next weekend we are going to stay at Bab's Dock again on Saturday night giving us two days and a night off ship. The little sailing boat has been repaired so hopefully if there is some wind Mick and the boys can do some sailing. It will be good to have a break.

A film crew from National Geographic has been onboard since we arrived in Benin. They are partially financed by SBS and the producer is Madelaine Hetherington who produced The Surgery Ship. They filmed Mick in the engineroom changing a fuel pump and dosing the sewage system and then interviewed us in our cabin prior to Mick's promotion ceremony which they also filmed.

That was October.

Cheers, and Blessings,
Mick, Tammy, Jack, Mark and Harry

Thursday, October 13, 2016

September Update

Well we have now been in Benin for 6 weeks and things are starting to settle down. The hospital is up and running, into its fourth week of surgeries. The ship is humming with the hospital running and the wards are full. Patient selection went for 4 weeks in Cotonou and all allocated slots are filled except for fistula. We have reserved surgery positions for up country patients and selections for these will start soon. The Hospital Out Patient Extension (HOPE) centre opened last week and is filling up too.

An interim Supply Manager has arrived from Texas allowing Tammy to revert to Supply Admin Assistant. However she is still the glue and continuity in the Supply Team. Tammy has signed up for a 9 week (3 times a week, 2 hours per lesson) intensive French course at Institute Français. She is both excited and nervous. At present there are 4 others also interested in attending. Mick will probably try and do the same course in January next year. On Friday afternoons she tries to get off ship with a few of the Mums for a drink and pomme frites at a local hotel.

For Mick the last month has been pretty hectic. The Chief Engineer is away on leave and courses for two month and we have an interim Chief who although very experienced needs advice on some things. The Second Engineer also changed for two months and the Fourth Engineer is also back in the USA on leave and courses without relief. We are also short engine ratings this month and are having to hire some contractors. The good news is that most of the machinery is running pretty well. We had our first monthly main propulsion test last Wednesday which went very well. We had our first dive on Thursday which Mick was part of the team for. It was miserable with about 15 cm visibility and lots of rubbish. He dived again on Friday which was a bit more successful but almost as poor visibility. We have not bunkered yet as there are still some deliberations over which company to buy the fuel from. Once this is sorted out we expect to bunker about 210,000 litres  per month which will take about 2 days each time.

After a bumpy start to the school year and field service the boys are settling down. It is always tough after such a long break, new teachers, new class mates and a new country. The blessing is our teachers are very committed to our children and truly partner with us in educating and raising them. We have done a few trips out on Saturday mornings looking for somewhere to practice our French whilst having lunch but have not yet found anywhere to rival Sucre Sal in Tamatave. Buying Fan Ice on the way home is a winner though, at 100 CFA each (about 20 cents).

Rode to Ouidah
Mick has managed to get out on both his road bike and mountain bike a few times. The traffic is quite chaotic with thousands of motor scooters so not a place for the boys to ride like Madagascar. He has ridden down to the Nigerian border a few times (about 70 km round trip) and to Ouidah once (88 km round trip) and been out in the bush on his MTB with some locals and expats.

Mountain biking with the locals and expats around Zinvie

Bab's Dock - Sunday morning
We have been out to Bab's Dock twice, once for a day trip and once for the weekend, staying overnight on Saturday. It is situated on a brackish lagoon about 20 km from the port. There are kayaks and a small sailing dinghy. Mick plans to teach the boys to sail. There is a restaurant and 2 bungalows and an assorted menagerie of animals - baboons, tortoises, dogs, cats, donkeys and a crocodile. We plan to try and stay there about once a month in order to refresh and recharge our batteries.

Mark and Harry hanging out at Bab's Dock
Our first visit we met some German Embassy staff and along with the German crew members we hosted 12 guests onboard last Sunday. We were then privileged to be invited to the German Reunification Day reception at the German Ambassadors residence. It was quite surreal dressing up and attending a reception again - our past life colliding with our current life.

Past life meets present at the German Ambassador's residence
So that was September.

Cheers, and Blessings,
Mick, Tammy, Jack, Mark and Harry