Lastyear, Mercy Ships volunteer surgeons removed the largest tumour they had ever seen from a gentle 55-year-old man named Sambany. Sambany had walked for several days to get to the Africa Mercy berthed in Tamatave, Madagascar. Africa Mercy is the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, a modern fully equipped small hospital. His tumour weighed 7.46 kg and his operation took 12 hours. This was no small battle.
However, the real story here isn’t about Sambany’s tumour – it is about a brave man and his remarkable journey. With his permission, we captured his story on video, which reminds us all of the great obstacles Mercy Ships patients must overcome to access the medical care they need.
Because of our donors, volunteers, and supporters from around the globe, Sambany’s story has a happy ending …
Sambany celebrity status as a patient onboard the Africa Mercy. When he was well enough to return home, six crew members accompanied him and his grandson, Flavy, safely back to their hometown of Sahanomby. The crew members were plumber Laurin Avara (USA), carpenter Jordan Stull (USA), writer/ photographer Eunice Hiew (NZL), hospital supply coordinator Scott Reed (USA), and translator Henintsoa Rasolonjatovo (MDG). The team was led by videographer Josh Callow (USA). The group dubbed themselves “The Fellowship of Sambany.”
The journey involved traveling approximately 53 km, with 5 days hiking up and down about 800m of altitude. Jordan said it felt like “about 10 Mount Everests.” It included driving as far as possible and then continuing on foot. They drove through mud, walked on ridges made of fallen trees, travelled in dug-out canoes, befriended lemurs, slept on the hut floors of kind villagers, and waded through waist-high water.
For the first time in years, Sambany entered the land he had lived in all his life … without his tumour. People who had known him for so long as “the man with the huge thing on this face” could now see Sambany as Sambany. Henintsoa said, “Everybody wanted to see him! ‘The man who had the huge thing on his face is alive!’ they said. They were amazed that he was still alive.”
Months earlier, Sambany’s wife, Barazafy, had watched her husband being carried away on the back of relatives for the long trip to the Mercy Ship. He was lifeless and weak, and Barazafy fell into deep despair. She said, “All our family was saying that he is dead. I did not know what to do. My husband could be dead and with him my grandchild – I thought about that a lot.”
When she heard Sambany was alive, she met him at a village along his route home. She said, “I did not recognize Sambany! I said, ‘It is you?’ I was really happy, my heart was thumping in my chest.”
Then she told him, “Let’s go home! Together!” So Barazafy joined the group of travellers. The happy couple didn’t stop talking to each other the whole way home.
Now this transformed man led the way home, his feet trudging the very paths he’d been carried over. His belongings were swinging in a plastic bag dangling from a stick balanced on his shoulder. He was a red-capped man on a mission. As they passed through village after village, people would stare. Many listened wonderingly to this man they had thought was dead. Now Sambany was a picture of life, energy, and victory – a living message that hope can become reality, that the impossible can become possible.
Sambany’s sister exclaimed, “The huge thing has disappeared! There is no scar! It’s amazing! That thing was as big as his head! We did not have hope for him anymore. We said he cannot be treated anymore.” The she looked at her brother and added, “You got a second chance.”
The long trip gave the crew members a chance to get to know Sambany and his wife. They discovered that Sambany likes to have fun. He made funny faces for photos, giggling all the while. And Barazafy was spunky, with her cheeky grin and a thumbs-up always at the ready. Her personality was as colourful as her hat.
Finally the journey came to an end. Sambany strode straight for the centre of the village and prayed, giving the first moments of his homecoming to God.
Then he walked briskly to a small hut. The villagers took turns pouring into the hut to shake the hand of a man they thought was dead. As they listened attentively to the tale of his journey, they gaped at the photographic evidence of his experience. That night, his radio was the centre of a dance party for what seemed like all the kids in the village.
The next morning, the village held a ceremony to thank Mercy Ships. The village elders wore their best clothes and held their hats in a sign of respect, as they gave a heartfelt thank-you speech, “We are so happy here in this village of Sahanomby because a friend who was about to die is alive! He was lost but now he is back!”
Barazafy said, “The family is saying, ‘Sambany is alive! Sambany is alive! People there are able to do amazing things, people living over the sea do amazing work!’”
Jordan says, “One truth that sank a little bit deeper into my heart on this trip was how God loves us all equally! God loves every single one, and nobody in 2015 should be living with a 16-pound tumour on his face.”
Sambany’s people assembled to wave goodbye to the crew members. And as we shook Sambany’s and Barazafy’s hands, we looked into their faces and saw joy – the joy of a man and his family, free from a terrible burden and free to start a new life.
Story by Eunice Hiew
Edited by Nancy Predaina
Photos by Josh Callow (USA) and Eunice Hiew (NZL)