2019 May

Houssainatou, maxillofacial patient, before surgery.

Houssainatou lives in a town in the highlands of Guinea with her parents and her four siblings. The ten-year-old would say her childhood has been a happy one: she talks about playing jump rope with her friends, helping to take care of her little brother, and climbing the trees that speckled their neighbourhood.

Houssainatou’s father, Souleymane, has worked hard to protect this childhood free from fear — but his reality has been very different. The facial tumour protruding from Houssainatou’s mouth filled every day with worry that he would have to watch his daughter struggle and die at an early age.

The first sign of her condition came when Houssainatou felt pain in her mouth when she was just a toddler. It eventually became a lump that steadily grew over time.

Her family decided two years ago to keep Houssainatou home from school because of her health. Instead, she would stay home with her mother to help cook and clean the house. They worked hard to ensure their daughter was happy, and didn’t feel defined by her condition, but Souleymane says it was very difficult for them.

‘We’re all worried. We worry all the time,’ he said. ‘We have no money. The village clinic can’t help her. We can’t afford the kind of surgery she needs. We kept praying, and worrying, and looking for help.’

The maize farmer felt he was failing Houssainatou because he was unable to generate the funds needed for her medical care. ‘I can only get enough food to feed my family, but not extra,’ he said. ‘I’d never have the means to take care of surgery for my daughter.’

One day, a relative living in the port city of Conakry told Souleymane about Mercy Ships. He brought his daughter to several rounds of patient selection screenings — and eventually, she was accepted for free surgery onboard the Africa Mercy.

When the time came for them to walk the gangway to the ship, Souleymane called himself the happiest man in the world. Houssainatou’s bravery had never shone brighter — as she explored the place that would be her home for the next two weeks, a volunteer crew member asked her how she felt about her upcoming surgery. ‘I’m not nervous… I’ll be asleep through it all anyway,’ she said.

Houssainatou with her father after surgery

And what a transformation while she ‘slept’! After just one day — and a four-hour surgery — Houssainatou was down in the wards of the Africa Mercy getting ready to see herself in the mirror, tumour-free, for the first time in her young life.

The sight made Souleymane exuberant with joy and gratitude. ‘I cannot believe it. She is so beautiful!’ he exclaimed. ‘I am so happy and so excited to bring her home to see the family.’

After several post-op follow up appointments, Houssainatou was healed — happier and healthier than she’d ever been. As father and daughter got ready to leave the ship and return home to their family, Souleymane reflected on what her surgery has meant to them: ‘My heart is free now. The fear is gone,” he said. ‘I used to spend every day afraid she would die young, but now I will spend my time helping her have a future. I want her to become a doctor so she can help people the way she herself has been helped.’

Written by Rose Talbot

2019 May

Adama, eye patient, seeing her babies for the first time.

Adama’s sight finally flickered out while she was still pregnant with her twins. Cataracts in both her eyes had stolen her sight. She despaired of ever seeing her babies – then hope arrived on her horizon. Watch as Adama sees here babies for the first time here

2019 May

For the last 16 years, Koumba has been serving in her village, bringing new life into the world as a midwife.

The thirty-nine-year-old estimates that in the years she’s been working, she’s helped to birth over 100 babies — some of whom she’s watched grow up and leave the village in search of higher education and job opportunities.

Her journey began when Guinean doctors from bigger cities came to her village with the goal of passing on medical training to several locals. She, along with two other women, received free training in the art of midwifery — a gift that she says changed the direction of her life. She went on to run a clinic, the only one in her village, where she became the go-to woman for all childbirth-related issues.

Koumba takes great pride and fulfillment in her role, and in her ability to pass on her training to the next generation of midwives. With six children of her own, it’s easy to tell that Koumba’s love for others runs deep and that she wears her compassionate heart on her sleeve.

“I don’t really make any money, but I’m given a better gift. I help mothers give birth,” Koumba said. “When I see a mother holding her healthy baby, it’s a very big blessing for me.”

But about five years ago, Koumba’s future took an unexpected shift when she noticed a lump starting to develop on her neck. It continued to grow, eventually evolving into a large goitre and constricting her airways.

Even with her years of medical experience, Koumba couldn’t access the surgical care she needed. Without an operation, she was fearful that she might be forced to face an early death. Her growing goitre made it more difficult for Koumba to do the work she loved as she grew tired and breathless more easily.

She remained endlessly positive in the face of her fear, a feat that she mainly credits to her husband.

‘He would always tell me, ‘We’re going to be all right. God will help us. Don’t be afraid,’ she said.

When they heard that Mercy Ships was coming to Guinea, Koumba was confident that this was the answer to her family’s long-time prayer.

While waiting on the dock to board the Africa Mercy, Koumba was thrilled — but her joy revolved not around herself, but her fellow villagers back home.

‘My whole village is praying for me — they all want me to get help here so that I can keep helping them,’ she said. ‘I want to be able to keep doing this work. There is nothing like it.’

After receiving surgery to remove her goitre, Koumba was given a hand mirror and was able to see the reflection of a woman freed from fear.

‘When I see myself in the mirror, I see peace. I’m so beautiful,’ she said.

During her time in the wards, Koumba would get up from her bed and dance — laughing and celebrating. The dancing never really stopped and her joy continued to shine throughout her time on the ship, culminating in a thank you speech on her last day.

‘This surgery has brought me so much happiness,’ she said. ‘I can move without pain now. When I go back to the village, I’ll be able to work more than before… I gave help, and I received help. This is happiness.’

Her whole village is waiting for her return, and Koumba’s not going to disappoint them. She’d planned her homecoming even before walking up the gangway. Koumba plans on buying a new dress and surprising everyone.

Once the dust settles around her big return, Koumba is looking forward to returning to her calling. She wants to continue bringing new life into the world, and while she works, Koumba says she’ll never tire of telling her story.

Written by Rose Talbot

2019 May

In so many ways, six-year-old Fatmata could be considered one of the luckiest kids in the world: she’s surrounded by love on all sides. Her parents are enamoured with their daughter; their eyes soften and alight when they talk about her.

‘She’s so smart,’ they boast in the endearing way that only family members can really pull off. ‘Do you hear the way she speaks French? And she’s learning Arabic, too!’

If Fatmata’s parents have nabbed the spot as her number one fans, her aunt Mariam is not far behind. Their dreams for Fatmata centre around her education — her father, Hassane, teaches language at the local university, while Mariam works as a schoolteacher in the city.

As such, they find it particularly heart-breaking that Fatmata isn’t able to go to school.

With bowed legs that grow more severely bent every year, walking the short distance to the local school has long been out of the question. As the only child with an orthopaedic condition in her area, Fatmata also struggled from bullying by the other kids her age.

Despite her condition, Fatmata’s family never lost hope that her future would amount to more. Working in the public school by day, Mariam would return every night and spend hours teaching Fatmata, making sure that she remained up to grade level in her studies. Her father continued sharing his love of languages even when people said it was a waste of time.

When Fatmata was six years old, her family heard about the orthopaedic surgery program taking place onboard the Mercy Ship. Her aunt brought her to the ship for several screenings and, eventually, up the hospital ship’s gangway for her operation. Mariam held her niece’s hand when she was in pain after her surgery and played music to comfort her. She was by Fatmata’s side rejoicing when she took her first steps in her casts.

When Fatmata was discharged from the Africa Mercy wards and returned for her weekly rehabilitation sessions, it was Hassane’s turn to champion her forward. He was there for every single appointment, where he’d say ‘She’s so smart. She is going to go so far. She could be a doctor; a lawyer; the president of this nation. She is full of curiosity — she wants to know everything there is to know,’ Hassane said, as Fatama danced out of the tent on her discharge day. ‘Fatmata has a great destiny ahead of her.’

Now able to return to school, it’s impossible to imagine Fatmata not going far — and while her straighter legs are a piece of that possibility, it’s the love and committment of her family that is giving her the ability to stand tall.

Written by Rose Talbot

2019 May

Ibrahima, plastics patient, being carried by his brother before surgery.

It was New Year’s Eve, the last hints of sunset fading in the sky, as 22-year-old Ibrahima abruptly pulled his motorcycle off the side of the road. He was being flagged down by a woman who needed help moving the large can of fuel she was wrestling with. He started helping her pour it into smaller bottles, but as he lost grip of the can, it tipped sideways and began to spill. The fuel soaked through his shorts onto his legs and poured a thick dark trail — right toward the open cooking fire nearby.

Before Ibrahima could register what was happening, flames were blazing and his fuel-soaked clothes were on fire. One thought filled his mind: ‘I’m going to die.’

Strangers helped beat the fire from his body and carried him to a local clinic. He spent the next month lying curled up in bed, immobilized by the pain.

Over time, Ibrahima’s open wounds began to form into ridged scars — but without proper wound care, the resulting burn contractures left his legs locked, permanently bent at the knees.

No longer able to walk, Ibrahima went from a man approached by strangers for help, to someone who had to be carried everywhere he went. Even trips to the bathroom or to his bed involved being hefted on his older brother’s back and carefully seated down. The slowly dawning realization that his independence had been lost completely shook Ibrahima’s identity.

‘I was always lonely… I couldn’t be with people the way I was before,’ Ibrahima said. ‘It was hard seeing my friends able to go out and work. Sometimes, I felt helpless, like I might really be this way forever.’

A year and a half passed slowly. Ibrahima dreamed of being able to work again, but the expensive cost of medical care made surgery seem like a lofty pipe dream.

‘It made me very sad,’ he said. ‘My business had stopped, I couldn’t get money, so I just sat inside the house.’

With many younger siblings and a houseful of mouths to feed, the unexpected drop in income struck his family hard. However, hope arrived one day when a local doctor told him about a hospital ship in Guinea. Before long, Ibrahima arrived at the Africa Mercy with tentative hopes that change might be in sight.

It took the help of his brother, and several Mercy Ships staff, to bring Ibrahima up the gangway steps and onto the ship for his operation.

Just one month later, Ibrahima faced those gangway steps again — but the time onboard had changed everything. His legs in casts, and crutches underneath both arms, Ibrahima slowly started to walk down, a look of determination on his face. Nurses called encouragement down from the top. Every simple step was a mountain to overcome, and by the end of his descent, cheers erupted.

Ibrahima’s rehab process was gruelling and intense. For several months, he visited the ship several times a week for exercises that stretched his healing legs and improved his mobility. Here his resilience shone through — Ibrahima had his independence back in sight, and he wasn’t going to lose it again.

Eventually, Ibrahima was given the news he’d been working towards: You’re good to go! His hard work at rehab had paid off, and he was free to return home and start a new chapter.

Now with his independence back and a renewed ability to return to work and earn a living, Ibrahima feels like a new man in every way.

‘I feel taller,’ he said. ‘I was always sitting and seeing the world from a lower level. It felt like everyone was looking down on me. Now, I’m seeing everything from high up!’

Written by: Rose Talbot

2019 May

Faoudou has spent most of his 24 years of life feeling a weight constricting his throat, making it hard to breathe. This suffocating burden was the result of a goitre that began to grow when Faoudou was just five years old.

Faoudou tried going to school for several years, before eventually dropping out at a young age because of bullying from his classmates.

His childhood held many difficult battles which were made easier by his mother. She stood faithfully by Faoudou’s side — hoping that he would one day receive the help he needed.

‘She has been very worried about me my whole life,’ Faoudou said. ‘She prays every day for me to get surgery.’

One day those prayers were answered. Faoudou met a woman in the market who told him of a floating hospital ship that would soon be arriving to offer life-changing surgeries to the people of Guinea. Faoudou was so hopeful that he temporarily moved to Conakry to wait for the ship’s arrival — and his chance for a changed future.

After being seen by the Mercy Ships screening team, Faoudou spent months undergoing testing and treatment to prepare him for surgery. Finally, the day came when he was told that he would receive an operation to remove his goitre!

After his free surgery, Faoudou planned to return to school – despite the challenge he would face in the classroom as an adult. While the journey may be difficult, Faoudou is eager to meet those challenges in order to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor.

‘I see a lot of sick people here in Guinea. There are not enough doctors to help everyone,’ Faoudou said. ‘I’ve always wished I could help. I want to learn how to care for people, especially those with goitres. I want to help people with my condition.’

While Faoudou is thrilled about his possible career, he’s even more excited with the knowledge that he will finally be the one taking care of his mother.

‘I want her to know I am really going to be okay,’ Faoudou said. ‘She’ll be very happy to see me come home after surgery. She will say ‘my son is back!’

With the weight of his condition gone, Faoudou is lighter inside and out. When he looks in the mirror now, he sees more than a serious pair of brown eyes staring back at him — more than the absence of a goitre that’s been part of him since his childhood. He sees the face of a man who’s now proud of his reflection, and says, ‘When I look in the mirror… I see myself as handsome.’