Mercy Ships

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

Monday, December 28, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to my friends far and near! Christmas is a joyous season on the ship with many fun activities to celebrate. Here is a glimpse of some of them:

The Academy Staff Christmas Party

The Junior High/High School Team.
Front Row: Myriam (French), Floor (P.E./Computers), Kim (English), Robert (Science)
Back Row: David (Principal), Me (Math)

I decorated my classroom door for Christmas, complete with a Christmas Math
 Challenge based on the 12 Days of Christmas.

Decorating cookies at the Academy Christmas party

Running the Jingle Bell Dash - a 2k run from our dock to the port gate and back.
 This is Maya, my running partner. She is an excellent pace-setter!

Christmas Carols by Candlelight - led by our Australian crew
 (complete with a few special Aussie carols and a blow up kangaroo)

Making treats for a Christmas party
Me and my bunkmate, Tam. They don't have white Christmasses in Madagascar!

My family sent my stocking from home! They are amazing because they had to send
it by August for it to get here in time! This is the window in my cabin.

The ship tradition is to put your shoe outside your cabin on Christmas Eve.
Then everyone goes around leaving little gifts and candy in each other's shoes. 

Gingerbread House Making

I'll close this post with a poem that sparked my interest this Advent. May the joy of Emmanuel - God with us - fill your life this year.

                          O Adonai

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,
Unseeable, you gave yourself away,
The Adonai, the Tetragramaton
Grew by a wayside in the light of day.
O you who dared to be a tribal God,
To own a language, people and a place,
Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,
If so you might be met with face to face,
Come to us here, who would not find you there,
Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,
Who heard no more than thunder in the air,
Who marked the mere events and not the myth.
Touch the bare branches of our unbelief
And blaze again like fire in every leaf.
~Malcolm Guite

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Analalava Forest

One of the adventures I have been here in Mada is to the Analalava Forest. It is a small nature reserve with 26 different species of palm trees.  The nearest city, Foulpoint is about 90 minutes from Tamatave, but you have to walk the last 7 km to the reserve because the taxi-brousse doesn't go that far.

The plan was to leave Friday after work and head to the local bus station.  There we hopped on a taxi-brousse (think 10-15 passenger van, but filled with 18-20 people). About 10 minutes into the trip, we had to stop because the lights on the van weren't working. After waiting around for awhile, with no replacement bus in sight, we walked back to the station to get another bus. We finally made it successfully to Foulpoint (after some very bumpy roads) and, for about $8 each, stayed in a small bungalow near the beach.

Saturday morning we walked the 7 km to Analalava and spent the afternoon hiking in the reserve.

The road from Foulpoint to Analalava

Scenery on the walk to Analalava

My travel companions: Robert, Fred, Floor, and Alex

Some of the palm trees were huge!

Some of the palm trees in the reserve can be found no where else in the world!

I've never seen anything like this before.

We saw Flying Foxes: a species of bat that have furry bodies like a fox.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dress Ceremony

"The most dangerous thing an African woman will experience is childbirth."*

I heard this statement earlier this year and it came to mind as I joined in the celebration at the bi-monthly Dress Ceremony.  One of the most common medical issues here is obstetric fistula, which is a complication of childbirth which leaves women incontinent.  Obstetric fistulas are so common here because women who experience obstructed labor are often not able to have a Cesarean Section. This may be because they don't live close enough to a hospital, they cannot afford it, or they don't realize they need one. 

The tragedy of these women's stories is great; imagine the grief over losing a baby in addition to the shame of their incontinence.  At the dress ceremony, each woman is given a new dress to symbolize a new life after their surgery.  Many of the women who spoke at the dress ceremony I attended had been waiting for years for a surgery like the one they were able to receive on the ship.  Seven, 8, 12 years of smelling like urine because you are constantly leaking.

The dress ceremony is a joyous celebration with lots of singing and dancing. It is a beautiful picture of God bringing hope and restoration in the midst of pain and sorrow.  

Approximately 50,000 women in Madagascar need surgery to repair obstetric fistulas. This is an overwhelming number and the ship will only be able to make a small dent in it. The good news is that our doctors and nurses are training and mentoring locals who will continue the work after we leave. In partnership with another organization, Freedom From Fistula, we will leave behind a fully equipped fistula clinic to continue to serve the needs of the women of Madagascar. 

*In Western countries, the lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy is approximately 1/3300. In Africa it is 1/40.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The HOPE Center

Sometimes I forget that I live on a hospital ship.  Working in the Academy means I don't naturally interact with our patients in the course of the day.  It's easy for me to get preoccupied with lesson plans and classes on the ship and forget that I live in Madagascar.  So I've started visiting the HOPE center. 

The HOPE center is an off-site building where patients, who travel from out of town, can stay before and after their surgery. The HOPE center, which can house over 200 people, frees up beds in the hospital, so more people can get surgery. Patients at the HOPE center visit the ship for outpatient follow-up appointments until they are ready to travel home. 

Hanging out at the HOPE center gives me an opportunity to spend time with our patients in a more relaxed setting. The Malagasy people are especially friendly and I enjoy spending time with them even if we don't share the same language.  Whether it's origami, games, or music, I'm figuring out fun ways to interact with the people I meet there. Going to the HOPE center is also a good way for me to get off the ship (it's about a 10 minute bike ride away) and I always feel so happy after an afternoon spent there. 

I think I'll make this a part of my normal weekly routine. 

Teaching kids to play Quirkle. No words needed!

Dancing to the music of a tin whistle is sure to put a smile on everyone's face. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

All About the Academy

There are about 40 children who call the ship home ranging in age from 5 months to 18 years old.  They attend school on ship in the Mercy Ship Academy which is where I teach math to all students in grades 6-12 (ages 11-18).

This is my classroom! I love it (except that there's no windows).

My classroom also doubles as textbook storage.

This year I teach the following classes:
  • 6th grade math
  • Algebra 1 (7th & 8th grade)
  • Geometry (9th & 10th grade)
  • Pre-Calculus (12th grade)
  • Bible (7th & 8th grade)

Things I love about teaching in the Academy:
  • The people I work with
  • Challenging my students
  • Doing fun projects (not so much pressure to prepare for some big test)
  • Knowing all the students in the school, including the elementary kids
  • Teaching in a Christian school (I've only every worked in a public school)
  • Regular Field Trips
  • Interacting with my students outside of school (like at the weekly ship ultimate frisbee game)
  • How close-knit the staff and students are; we are like a big family
  • Seeing students of all ages interact with each other regularly
This is the "Big Room." It serves as the library, computer lab, science classroom, and teacher meeting area.

Sometimes it can be stressful planning for 5 different classes every day, but I also enjoy the variety of teaching each class only once.  And I like teaching every junior high & high school student. 

The Academy is located on decks 6 & 7 and is fairly isolated from rest of the ship. To preserve the integrity of the school, the Academy is off limits for other crew members.  However, every year, we have an Open House, where not just the parents and families are invited, but the entire crew comes to visit the Academy.  Every teacher has a small activity  a game, a science experiment, etc. for people to do in their classroom.  In my classroom, I created stations. Each station had a representative math problem from the different math classes I teach.  Some of my students were on hand to help any of the adults who might get stuck and need help!  I wasn't sure if the crew would want to participate or not, but everyone got really in to it! My class was so crowded with people having fun doing math that it was hard to get in the room!

Math is Fun! You can tell I live on a hospital ship - look at all those scrubs!

I was so happy seeing people collaborate on problem solving.

The Academy is definitely an international school where U.S. children are in the minority.  The grading system is quite different; most students are expected to be average and earn C's, while only the very best students should earn A's. It has been a difficult adjustment for me coming from a "high expectations" culture in the U.S. where the goal is for all students to earn A's and B's. Here, if all your students earn A's, it means your class is too easy. One positive outcome of this system is that it takes the pressure off the teacher. A variety of student aptitude levels are expected and the focus is on the student rather than on the teacher. Our students do take a standardized test in the spring, but it's just for the purpose of comparing our students to a wider population.  There are no "high stakes" tests. For me this is a welcome break from the United States where, as a teacher, I am most valued for the test scores I can get out of my students. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Out and About

We've been in Madagascar for 2 weeks now. I am slowly getting to know my new home.  School keeps me very busy during the week, but on the weekend, I try to get out and explore the city.

For 1000 ariary (approx. 30 cents), you can take a tuk-tuk (a 3 wheeled open air taxi) around town.

View from inside of a tuk-tuk
Last weekend some of us went to explore the local markets, where they sell all kinds of homemade baskets, cards, sandals, purses, frames, paintings, as well as locally grown vanilla and other spices! Unfortunately I only know about 4 words in Malagasy so far (hello, goodbye, thank you, and excuse me), but my trip to the market motivated me to try to learn more.

Here is me and Ivanna at a local ice cream shop

If you get thirsty while you're out, stop for a coconut - it's so refreshing!
One of the main roads through town goes along the ocean

I also borrowed a bicycle last weekend and biked out to the beach.  There is a beach right near the ship, but it is not advisable to swim there.  But a 1/2 hour bike ride got us to a beach where we can swim.  There is also a restaurant, Ocean 501, right there on the beach.  Even at an amazing beach front restaurant, prices are extremely cheap. You can get a meal for a few dollars.

Amazing lunch!

At Ocean 501 with Robert, the science teacher

Enjoying the beach from a hammock in the shade.

In other news, the hospital is now in full swing and we had our Academy Open House this past Wednesday.  I'll tell you more about both in my next blog posts!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Arrival in Mada!

We are finally docked in what will be our new home for the next 10 months: Tamatave, Madagascar. Arrival day was so exciting.  All the crew spent the morning hanging out on decks 7 and 8 where we could watch land slowly get closer and closer.

View of Tamatave coast as we are sailing in.

Celebrating our arrival with excitement and lots of photos!  Bronnie, me, and Myriam.
The port where our ship is docked.

Another view of the beach as we are pulling into port.

Mercy Ship friends on the dock to greet us.

This weekend I finally found time to start exploring my new city. More on that in my next blog post!

Saturday, August 29, 2015


We're sailing! We left Durban, South Africa over a week ago now. If all goes well, we should arrive in Madagascar tomorrow!
It's windy out on the deck!

Due to some unforeseen delays, we sat at anchorage off the coast of Durban for several days. Those first few days were the roughest. Before our ship was the Africa Mercy, she was the Dronning Ingrid, a Dutch rail ferry, designed for short ferry runs.  Needless to say, she was not designed for long voyages in the high seas. Hence, even when we are anchored in one place, the ship gently rolls from side to side ALL the time! The moments when you forget you are on a ship are few and far between and happen almost exclusively while I am asleep. Surprisingly the pitching back and forth  started to diminish when we pulled up the anchor and were on our way.

Now that my body has had some time to adjust, I am happy to report I have found my sea legs and am actually enjoying the sail.  The view out the window is always beautiful and I have grown to like falling asleep in a rocking bed.

View from deck 7 port side

Last night I enjoyed the special privilege of going to visit the bridge. We got to see the navigation computers and maps, the sections of glass floor and the amazing view!

View from outside the bridge

It's been easy to keep busy while sailing.  In addition to teaching (which can be interesting when the ship is rocking), there have been a lot of crew activities: sock golf, talent show, piano concert, lots of communal jigsaw puzzles, and even whale watching!  It's whale migration season in this area, so I've had several math lessons interrupted by whales or dolphins (but I'm not complaining!).  I wish I had pictures to show you, but I'm not fast enough with a camera.  With a whale, you're lucky if you just see it's tail coming out of the water, but the dolphins will jump completely out of the water. It's amazing!

Tomorrow we will spend the majority of the day getting the ship docked in port and clearing immigration.  I'm not sure when we'll get to get off the boat, but I can't wait!