Destination : Africa

Riva Gunn lo sq

At a time when many were hesitant about travelling overseas, 19-year-old Riva Gunn from Thames was preparing for the do-good adventure of a lifetime – on a hospital ship in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I knew I wanted to pause my study for a semester and volunteer somewhere abroad,” she explains. “I came across Mercy Ships online and saw that it was a Christian organisation with many departments that were looking for volunteers. The prospect of serving in Tenerife and Senegal, and experiencing the wildly different cultures and environments, was very exciting.”

In April, Riva began her volunteering on the Global Mercy. Her three and a half months on board world’s newest and largest civilian hospital ship included the maiden voyage to Senegal, West Africa.

She flew into the Canary Islands to join the 32,000 gross-tonne surgical training vessel. The volunteer crew – including Thames residents Sinclair and Kathy Carter – were preparing for the first medical field service.

Riva volunteered as a steward in the hospital ship’s dining room. In addition to specialised medical and maritime volunteers, hundreds of people roll up their sleeves to help in catering, cleaning, hospitality and administration roles.  A strong ethos in the faith-based charity is that every member of the crew is important; every crew member plays a part in increasing access to essential surgery in the low income countries Mercy Ships serves.

“My role as a volunteer in the Dining Room and Food Services department could be mistaken as unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but when it comes down to it,” she emphasises, “it takes people volunteering in all areas for the ships to run efficiently.”

“By providing crew with meals three times a day, the crew have more time to focus on their own work, more time for patients, outreach and operating the ship itself.”

The Global Mercy was vibrantly and loudly welcomed into the port of Dakar in early May by the Senegalese people, the President and government dignitaries, and by the crew of the sister ship Africa Mercy.

“The most impacting experience for me was being a part all of the celebrations and the inauguration of the Global Mercy in Senegal,’ reflect Riva. “It was incredible to see how grateful the country of Senegal is for Mercy Ships and the hope they have brought with God’s grace to the country.”

The existing hospital ship Africa Mercy is on location providing free essential surgeries for the duration of 2022.

During the Global Mercy’s month-long inaugural visit, the ship’s crew provided medical capacity building courses on board for several health care specialities. The vessel was designed with the focus of strengthening local health care capacity through mentoring and training, in mind. More than 300 Senegalese people accessed professional development and upskilled in their area of medical work during this time. After some additional outfitting in the ship’s hospital, the Global Mercy returns to

Senegal in February 2023 to provide individuals with otherwise inaccessible essential surgical care, and to continue training programmes to increase local medical capacity.

Riva sums it up by saying, “Something I find unique about Mercy Ships is their ultimate goal of doing themselves out of a job.”

Having returned to her theology degree, Riva feels volunteering on board grew her in a number of ways. “My favourite thing about serving on board was the community. There were people from all over the world who gathered together with the same desire to serve. Everybody was so welcoming and supportive of one another.

“The experience developed my skills in the food service industry and taught me to communicate well and effectively with people of different backgrounds and cultures.  I have grown immensely in my confidence and independence.

I always knew growing up that I lead a privileged life by growing up in New Zealand, but the reality of that became so clear to me after spending a month in Senegal – the lack of healthcare and strong healthcare systems, poverty, unclean water, homelessness. Coming home I made it my mission to not take anything for granted, and to continually count my numerous blessings. I learned that Blessings are disguised as some of the most normal things to us – such as clean water and fresh air.

Riva urges other young people to consider volunteering. “This was my first, but hopefully not my last time volunteering on board. There is bound to be challenges throughout, but they just contribute to personal growth and development. You will make lifelong friends from every part of the world you can imagine.  It is a season of life that you will never regret.”

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maritime, medical and general volunteer roles with Mercy Ships