Mercy Ships

Mercy Ships
The largest NGO hospital ship in the world providing free medical care to the forgotten poor

Sunday, October 22, 2017

An African Adventure

My first big adventure in Cameroon was to Pongo Songo, a wilderness area where it's possible to see chimpanzees, both in the wild and at a small reserve where they care for orphaned baby chimps.  A group of us ventured out in 2 land rovers despite the rain and mud, driving for over 4 hours. The roads were bumpy, but the scenery was beautiful and it was my first chance to see Cameroon beyond the city of Douala.

To see the chimps in the wild, we took a boat ride and our guide threw large pieces of fruit onto shore in hopes the chimps would come out of the forest. It took awhile of boating around while the guides kept calling for the chimps and I thought we might not see any, but our perseverance paid off and we saw the trees shaking as a whole group of chimpanzees slowly made their way to the shore. We stayed on the boat (for safety) but Saul was able to get these great close-up photos.

The highlight of the day for me by far was getting to see and hold the baby chimps at the reserve.  There were about 4 or 5 they brought out; some of whom were quick to jump into our arms. Others were more interested in playing with each other and swinging in the trees. They were also quite mischievous and the caretakers advised us to leave any watches, jewelry, and even glasses in the car as they are apt to get swiped by the chimps. I experienced this firsthand when a lively chimp stole the hairband straight out of my hair!

On the boat ride back to the vehicles, we stopped to meet the grandpa of our boat driver who was blind in both eyes. It just happened that Therese, who works on the eye team on the ship, was part of our group and was able to see him and give him information about how we might be able to help him. 

It was a long day with lots of driving and we arrived back on the ship wet, muddy, and dirty. But it was a day I won't soon forget!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hello Cameroon!

This post is a little delayed as we've been in Cameroon for over three weeks now! The hospital has opened and surgeries are in full swing! 

Arrival day is always an exciting day where teachers and students alike are excited to get out of class to greet our new country as we sail into port. 

Crew members wave flags from their home nations - over 30 in total.

The ship looks her best on arrival day with her "dress flags" up.

Everyone wants a glimpse of our new home!

Find me 2nd to the left in this photo.

Cameroon: our new home until June!

After 12 days at sea, we were all ready to get off the ship and go exploring; however, we had to wait until our vehicles were registered with the port and all crew members went through immigration which meant 5 more days on the ship with no shore leave.

I was content to enjoy the new view out my classroom window which includes trees and even a bit of grass! Also you can be sure we got in a game of Ultimate Frisbee on the dock as soon as they got the gangway in place and allowed us down.  It's rainy season here with rain most days and clouds the rest. In fact it is always so cloudy, that is was almost 2 weeks before I realized there was a mountain outside my cabin window.  Most days it is completely obscured by the clouds, but it is an impressive view on the rare sunny day. The mountain is Mount Cameroon, the tallest mountain in West Africa at approximately 4000 meters (12,000 feet). I'm hoping to climb it later this year.

Mount Cameroon

I am teaching 4 math courses (6th grade math, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Statistics) in the Academy this year and I continue to serve as the Head of Junior High/High School. I have really enjoyed welcoming our new teachers to the ship and helping them get acclimated to our school culture and all our quirky ways of doing school on a ship. It's hard to believe this is the beginning of my 14th year of teaching! Even still, I still am finding there are so many ways I want to improve as a teacher. As always I am constantly thinking about how to make math fun and engaging while getting students to understand the concepts behind what they are learning. I recently had a #teacherwin when I created a math version of the game Connect Four which had students practicing simplifying radicals. My students (even the ones who don't like math) were begging to play again.

We have over 40 students in the Academy this year ranging from infant to 12th grade, with 16 students in the Junior High/High School. They come from Australia, U.K., Holland, Brazil, U.S.A., Ghana, Ethiopia, Congo, and the Philippines.

Whole School Photo

My Fellow Teachers

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Shipyard in the Canary Islands

Returning to the ship meant getting to visit Spain's Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco. The Africa Mercy has been in shipyard for repairs since June.  And although I have been working to prepare for the new school year, I have also gotten to enjoy the beachfront, ride a camel through the sand dunes of Maspalomas, and practice my Spanish!

The view outside while in shipyard
Jen & Kathrin on the camel ahead of me

Me and my camel

My roommates and I enjoying a evening out on the beachfront in Las Palmas

Getting ready  to wave goodbye to Gran Canaria

Last mooring line is pulled in

The tugboat that pulled us out of the port

The sail to Cameroon is about 12 days long. Happily we have had good weather and calm seas. I love looking out the window or sitting outside on Deck 7 and seeing ocean in every direction. Sailing gives me a glimpse into how big the Earth really is.

School started on day 4 of the sail. We have 7 new families on the ship this year, bringing the enrollment in the Academy up to 42 students! My biggest class is 5 students and I teach 6th-12th grades (but not all at the same time). I am especially happy that I get to teach Statistics this year.

We will arrive in Cameroon by the end of the week and a new adventure begins. This will be the first time Mercy Ships has worked in Cameroon, so it will be new for everyone. One of my goals this year is to get off the ship more often, especially at the beginning so I can get my bearings around town.  I think this will be my last year with Mercy Ships and I want to make the most of it.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Thank you Hope Methodist!

A big thank you to Hope Methodist Church in Eau Claire for welcoming me to share about Mercy Ships! It was a joy and honor to be with you.

Summer Joy

Summer is a time of maintenance for the ship when the hospital and the Academy close. I happily left the ship on June 2 for a visit home; meanwhile the ship sailed to the Canary Islands for dry dock & maintenance.  Although I would have enjoyed seeing the ship out of the water, I'm not sad to have missed the periodic black-outs and lack of air conditioning! Pictures below are from my cabinmate who did get to experience some of the dry dock. 

Who knew the propellers were so large?

Five flights of stairs to get on the ship! Yikes!

Instead, I experienced a summer of many joyful reunions. There were new babies to meet, friendships to rekindle, and family members to cherish time with. Summer also means fundraising, since I can't stay on the ship without the financial support of people back home. Happily I can report that I am over 80% funded for the coming year! Thank you to everyone who has given so far! If you still want to contribute (every little bit matters), you can do so at this link.  Donations made at this link go directly into my crew account and are used to pay my Crew Fees (monthly room & board), travel expenses, and health insurance. Your support means that all surgery and medical care is provided to our patients free of charge!

One of the highlights of my summer was competing in a team triathlon (my first) with my dad. He did the biking portion; I ran and swam.  Unfortunately the weather in Wisconsin was only in the 50s/60s that week. So my 8am lake swim was freezing! Luckily I have a special talent for swimming in cold water.

Team Triathlon with my Dad

Houston friends

Took my dog to the beach!

Camping with my best friend
Together again: Whitworth University roommates

What's Next?

On July 20, I leave the States to meet the ship in the Canary Islands. As the maintenance crew works to finish up their summer projects, the Academy Leadership Team (including myself as the Head of High School) will start our preparations for the coming school year and for teacher orientation week. After a week of teacher orientation, school will begin for students on August 8. Sometime around the beginning of August we will also set sail for Douala, Cameroon, our next port. The hospital will open shortly after we arrive. Our Mercy Ships screening team is already hard at work in Cameroon finding patients who need surgery, so we will have patients as soon as the hospital opens.  

The patients we serve suffer from the diseases of poverty. Small medical issues become large when treatment is not available or affordable. For those new to my blog, below you will find some photos that show the kind of work we do.

Christelle received transformative surgery for her face.

David's facial tumor was removed

Miracle's leg was straightened and now she can now walk, run, and play!

Thanks for joining me on this journey by reading this blog!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Grass, Giraffes, and Sleeping with the Windows Open

Every 3 years, the Association of  Christian Schools International hosts a large conference in Kenya 
and after months of fund-raising, the whole Mercy Ships Academy staff were able to attend!

When you teach in a school as unique as ours and in an organization where only a tiny percentage of the people are teachers, going to a teacher's conference is a big deal.  I am the only math teacher on the ship, so getting to "talk shop" with 30+ other math teachers at the conference was a welcome opportunity. I'd actually been saving up questions to ask!

Only in Africa can you stop to take a picture on the tarmac!

The theme of the conference was Teaching with Wisdom and many of the sessions focused on the questions like "How do we teach students to love God with their mind?" and "How do we help students grow in character, not just knowledge?"  This was my first Christian school conference and I was inspired to think about the role I play as a teacher to help my students get to know and love the Lord. 

The conference was hosted by ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International). They support international schools all over the globe as well as training local people to start Christian schools in their communities. My ears perked up when they talked about the need for teacher training, especially in Africa.  Many of you know that professional development for teachers is one of my passions; I have always envisioned myself doing that in Amercia, but who knows? Maybe Mercy Ships won't be the end of my time on this continent. 

A great time of bonding with my colleagues

Besides the camaraderie with other teachers, all of us were looking forward to getting off the ship for 5 days! We are used to living in a port where there are no trees or grass, just concrete, metal containers, barbed wire and lots of trucks.  My favorite part of being away from the ship was getting to sleep next to an open window and wake up to the birds singing.  Another highlight was spending a couple of hours sitting on a blanket in the grass, journaling and drawing.

We were only in Kenya for 5 short days, but we did have time for one excursion. Given several pre-planned choices, I of course chose the one that including seeing baby elephants and feeding giraffes!
At the elephant orphanage we learned about how they care for elephants who have been orphaned due to poaching, disease, and other disasters. The elephants are bottle-fed for several years in the nursery.  When they are old enough to survive on their own in the wild they are moved to another site where they can mix with wild elephants during the day. After 1-2 years, a wild herd will adopt an orphan elephant and teach it how to become wild again.  I was so inspired by these stories of redemption for these baby elephants.

The baby elephants were so excited to get their milk!

Selfie attempt not working so well

At the Giraffe Center we learned that giraffes are slowly losing their habitat.  Many giraffes have been relocated from places of diminishing habitat to this reserve.  The center seeks to educate the public and especially school children about the importance of conservation and protecting wildlife.  The best part of our visit was getting up close and personal with the giraffes. They use their long, sticky tongues to eat right out of your hand.  They are huge, but gentle, allowing you to pet their faces.  Although, as per the warning on the sign, watch out for headbutts if a giraffe thinks you are withholding its special treats!

Our trip to Kenya was a gift: refreshing, restorative, and energizing. Thank you to everyone on the ship and at the ISC who participated in our auction, bought cards, or donated in other ways. We are so grateful!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Bit of Culture

One of the best places to learn about the culture of Benin is the History Museum in the town of Ouidah, about 1 hour west of Cotonou. Ouidah was the center of the West African slave trade and thus a visit to the museum is very sobering. It is located inside an old Portuguese fort where thousands of slaves were held prior to being sent to the Americas.  At the museum you hear about the crocodile filled moat around the fort which prevented slaves from escaping and you see the small courtyard that housed hundreds of slaves at a time before they were forced to march to the coast to board the ships. Along the way from the museum to the coast you can see the "tree of forgetting." Slaves were forced to walk around it 7 times as a symbol of leaving their old life behind; they were instructed to forget everything about their previous life. After a 4 km walk to the coast you can see "The Gate of No Return," a monument built to commemorate all the West Africans captured as slaves.  

Although today they have a president, historically Benin was ruled by kings, many of whom profited from the slave trade. The quilt below shows each king, the years of their reign and an animal or other symbol which represents them.

My favorite part of my visit was learning about the Beninese pictorial proverbs. The well-known symbols are sometimes used to send messages. Below you can see an example of 6 embroidered proverbs with the explanation that goes with it.  

We don't count the toes of a person with only 9.
Not all truth needs to be said aloud. 

The hand that gives is always on top.
It is better to give than receive. 

Before acting, weigh the pros and cons. 

There are never two captains in the same boat. 

The fire of a pipe may go out, but the eternal light is never extinguished.
The reed bends but does not break. 

A snake attacks a frog, but a passerby arrives and the frog is saved. 
In case of danger, God will bring you a Savior. God does not forget anyone. 

There are many more pictorial proverbs!
Entrance to the Ouidah History Museum with friends Floor and David

Inside of the Portuguese Fort
Cannons: this photo is for you, Dad!

Visiting the Fort with my friends, the Barki Family!
Behind us is the courtyard where as many as 500 people spent days or even
months waiting for the ships that would take them to the Americas.
The Gate of No Return