Sharon Walls

Her mobility was severely compromised by the burns scars on her arms

In the morning Confort put on a pot of boiling water to make some rice for her hungry daughters. She never imagined it would be the start of a nightmare for her family.

One-year-old Gamai, who had just started walking, toddled past the pot knocking it over as she fell. As the piping hot water spilled onto her torso, her piercing screams transcended through the house to her mother’s ears. The world around Confort fell silent as she tried to comfort her child.

‘My imagination took me to places a mother dares not go,’ she recalled. ‘I fell to the floor clutching my baby.’

Confort and her husband rushed Gamai to the local hospital but were only able to afford some ointment for the pain. Not knowing what else to do, they reluctantly watched their little girl grow over the next few years with contracted hands and arms, severely limiting her mobility.  Attempts to live their normal lives began taking its toll on the family due to the scorn Gamai faced from other people.

‘If we went out and she was mocked, she would become shy and cry,’ Confrot said. ‘My husband would be cross that I would put her through that. I was stuck.’

The decision was made to keep Gamai from the outside world, and for three years she was kept isolated in the courtyard of the family compound to avoid mockery. Confort shared her daughter’s pain saying, ‘I became very sad and angry that this was the way my daughter was going to grow up — hidden from the world.’

Gamai on the ward after surgery.

Then one day, in the midst of Confort’s anxiety, she learned of an opportunity for people to receive restored mobility from an operation — a specialty of Mercy Ships. When the ship arrived in Guinea, Confort made the brave journey with Gamai — now 4 years old – out of the family compound to the patient selection site.

There she was met by fellow mothers who had gone through similar accidents with their children, and she began to feel at ease. That same ease developed into hope, which eventually grew into excitement as Gamai was selected for surgery onboard the Africa Mercy.

“I am filled with happiness that being hidden will not be Gamai’s future,’ says Confort.

But even after surgery, the journey wasn’t complete. Weeks of painful rehabilitation began, and Confort had to listen to the same cries that she’d tried so hard to settle over the past three years.

‘It pains me to hear her hurting, but I know it needs to happen,’ she said.

Gamai during one of her physiotherapy sessions.

When the day finally came for Gamai to leave the ship, no one could have guessed she’d spent the majority of her life behind closed doors. Engaging and full of life, she leapt for joy as she played with her new-found friends — children that neither mocked her nor stared at her for being different.

Unable to lift her hands above her head before surgery, Gamai can now reach higher in life than she ever could before.

Sharon Walls

Former NZ Dietitian of the Year, Kerry Andersen, shares some of her remarkable experiences in Guinea working with malnourished cleft palate babies and their Mums. Read more in SMART BITES magazine here

Kerry served onboard with her anaesthetist husband Erik, while their daughter Jessica attended the onboard school for Mercy Ships crew children,

Sharon Walls

Adama was five months pregnant when the world around her started to flicker and fade. 

Because of cataracts in her eyes, soon all she could see were shadows and shapes. Months passed as her vision continued to dwindle. ‘Maybe it will clear up after I give birth,’ she told herself, hoping that the loss of sight was somehow linked to her pregnancy.But once she’d delivered her twin babies — a boy and a girl — 30-year-old Adama had to face the truth. She was blind and afraid that she might never be able to see the faces of her newborns. And without access to affordable, safe surgery, she felt like there was nothing that could fix her sight.

‘I held my babies after they were born, and I couldn’t see their faces. I thought this would last forever; that I would never know what they look like. I was very desperate,’ Adama said. ‘I didn’t have any hope.’

Adama, along with her newborns and four other children, moved in with her older sister, Aissatou, who became their caretaker. Aissatou welcomed them in lovingly, but with her own children to take care of, the burden was heavy. ‘It’s been a very hard year,’ Aissatou reflected in tears.

For Adama, the reliance on her sister was challenging in a different way. The sudden inability to take care of her own children left her feeling guilty. ‘Since my eyes are dark, I can’t walk alone, go to the market, cook, do laundry… I can’t do anything without help.’

Adama’s blindness stretched on for almost a year. The twins were six months old, their faces still a mystery to their mother, when her husband first heard about Mercy Ships.

For this family, the opportunity to access a state-of-the-art hospital ship meant more than just free surgery. It meant giving Adama the chance to step out of the darkness. It meant being able to take care of her family instead of depending on others for help. It meant being able to see her loved ones again.

It meant hope.

The day after her operation on the Africa Mercy, Adama sat on a wooden bench waiting for her eye patch to be removed. It was the moment she’d learn whether or not her eyesight had returned fully.

As the patch was peeled back, Adama kept her eyes closed for a few moments. Gradually, she blinked them open. A smile slowly spread across her face as she realized she was seeing the world again for the first time in almost a year.

Her family members, gathered nearby, were some of the first people to welcome Adama back into the world of the seeing. She walked by herself to greet them, no guiding hand needed. ‘When I die and will go to paradise and meet my own people there… that’s what the moment was like.’

She reached for her twins, drinking in the details of their faces for the first time. Tiny noses; long eyelashes; round cheeks — Adama cradled them both in her arms at the same time, eyes dancing between the two.

‘I never expected that my babies would be so beautiful,’ she murmured.

The impact of her restored sight will reverberate throughout the rest of her life. There will likely be countless moments where Adama rejoices because of the ability to see again — but it’s hard to imagine a moment more meaningful than a mother’s patient love being rewarded with the sight of her children for the first time.

Written by: Rose Talbot

Sharon Walls

Captain John Borrow taking a navigational fix during the sail.

John Borrow never planned on being a full-time volunteer, but when he first heard about Mercy Ships in the 1990’s he knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t ignore.His long journey with the not-for-profit that operates the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, Africa Mercy, has taken Mr Borrow and his family from Sydney around the world. From 2016 to 2018 he served as the flagship’s Captain.

More than 400 volunteers from over 40 nations live and work on board the Mercy Ship, providing free surgical essential services and health care education to those without access in the developing world.

Borrow learnt of Mercy Ships through a friend. After setting foot on board during a visit while a ship was in port in New South Wales, he knew he wanted to be part of its crew.

‘I was kind of disillusioned with my sea career,’ Captain Borrow recalls. ‘I went up to check out the ship and I was pretty excited. I kept thinking that I had found my thing; I found my calling.’

Joining the Mercy Ship as Third Officer, Borrow travelled to Papua New Guinea on a three-month assignment and was enthralled by the experience. After hearing about the trip, his partner Lee-Anne, who was a dietitian and had just finished her master’s degree in nutrition, was also eager to join.

Borrow Family in front of the funnel

After the couple married in 2001, they boarded the now-retired Caribbean Mercy, where Borrow volunteered as Chief Officer before moving on to the original Mercy Ship, Anastasis, in 2005, where the couple raised their first son for the first 18 months of his life.

Eventually ,they returned to Australia to have their second son. After 8 years of being at home and working ashore Borrow knew it was time to return to Mercy Ships. 

The Borrow family joined the current flagship, Africa Mercy, in Madagascar in 2015, allowing John to claim that he’s been the Chief Officer on every Mercy Ship except for one.

He took over as Captain in August 2016 and three years’ service took the family to Benin, Cameroon and Guinea. Lee-Anne used her professional skills in the Mercy Ships Infant Feeding Programme while their boys attended the onboard school for crew children. In each port Lee-Anne worked with the Mums of severely underweight babies. These infants with cleft palates require additional nutrition so they would be strong enough to undergo plastic surgery to reconstruct their clefts.

Captain Borrow and his family have now returned home, leaving a vacancy in his role.

‘We are struggling right now to find long term Deck Officers, especially Chief Officers and Captains. These roles are not only critical for the safe operation of the ship, but also to lead our deck crew, which are mostly Africans and the nicest, most gentle, respectful bunch of people you’re ever likely to meet.’

‘Our three years on board the Africa Mercy has been an amazing experience and we’ve met some truly inspiring people here, all with the same goal to help those not as lucky as we are. Once you see this level of pain and suffering you cannot be unaffected. You cannot ignore it, something changes, and you have to help.’

Captain John Borrow and Dietitian Lee-Anne Borrow

Thanks to Professional Skipper magazine for publishing this story

Sharon Walls

When M’Mah was born, her mother had a simple wish for her daughter’s life. ‘I want her to be like a diamond — to shine bright,’ she said.

Unfortunately for most of M’Mah’s life, the light inside her was overshadowed by the neurofibroma growing on her face.

When she was just a baby, her parents noticed a small lump and dark hairs growing above her left eye. By the time she was five years old, M’Mah’s neurofibroma was drooping over her forehead like a sac and beginning to dislocate her eye.

Over time, more lumps started to develop on her skull and upper lip, causing severe swelling. Even at her young age, other kids noticed M’Mah’s differences, which led to bullying and name-calling. They would call her ‘sick’ and avoid playing with her because they were afraid of her.

As a result, she was spending her childhood on the sidelines. She refused to go to school, even though her parents desperately wanted her to have an education. ‘She was so scared… she said everybody would laugh at her,’ said M’Mah’s mother.

With a heavy shroud of insecurity and fear surrounding M’Mah, it was hard to see the sweet, playful girl inside, waiting to be let out.

The family was poor and struggled to provide enough food for their two children, so an expensive, complicated surgery was out of the question. Her parents prayed every day for healing for their daughter.

When they heard about Mercy Ships, M’Mah’s mother was overjoyed. It was the first time that she’d dared to believe her daughter might receive surgery. The family travelled for hours to get to the Africa Mercy, but the end goal was worth every arduous mile.

Soon, a volunteer plastic surgeon specialising in neurofibromas removed the tumour M’Mah had carried for years.

Receptionist Esther Harrington with M-Mah

In the weeks following her operation, M’Mah spent time on board being showered in love and friendship by the nurses, crew and other patients. Esther from Taupo spent many hours playing with the little girl to help her pass away the hours as she recovered from her massive surgery. Freed from worry, the sweet five-year-old slowly emerged from her shell, and her inner diamond began ‘to shine through.

Esther says that on days when I couldn’t make it down to the hospital to play with her, M’Mah asked the translators where her special friend was.

‘One day I went to the hospital just to cuddle her because she was having a bad day. Things were sore, and she was tired. My heart broke as I held her, listening to her deep sobs, and feeling her tears on my arm. But she knew she was safe there. We sat in our own little bubble, and that was enough. I’ve learnt so much about courage and bravery from these little warriors.’

Thanks to her growing confidence, M’Mah is no longer afraid to start school and will begin her education next year.

‘When we came to the ship for the first time, I was just thanking God over and over,’ said M’Mah’s mother. ‘There is no gift greater than good health.’

Written by: Rose Talbot

Sharon Walls

Sign up to be the first notified of the broadcast date of TVNZ’s SUNDAY feature, recently filmed onboard the Africa Mercy in Guinea

Watch here for broadcast details of the SUNDAY Mercy Ships feature, due to air early in 2019.

Miriama Kamo and TVNZ’s SUNDAY team present a weekly in-depth current affairs, bringing viewers award-winning investigations into the stories that matter.

They are kicking off 2019 with a special filmed on board the Mercy Ship in Conakry, Guinea. Producer Chris Cooke, reporter Tania Page and videographer Gary Hopper had the experience of a lifetime as they followed the journey of a dozen Kiwis volunteering on the Africa Mercy, and met the courageous patients receiving free essential surgery onboard.

Why not receive a notification of the TVNZ free-to-air programme airdate by joining Mercy Ships NZ’s monthly EDM (you can unsubscribe at any time), and then you can plan to have a few friends over to watch along with you!

Sharon Walls

from the Mercy Ships NZ team. Office hours over Christmas: closed December 24 – January 11 inclusive. Emergency contact through voicemail at 0800637297

Sharon Walls

When 25-year-old Mercy arrived on the Africa Mercy to be accessed by the screening team, she was in a state of depression. She looked older than her years as she spoke of the sadness and suffering that had consumed her.

Orphaned as a young child, she had lost both of her own children to sickness in the last three years. It was during this time of grief that she first noticed the lump in her mouth, which eventually grew to a large tumour.

‘I was so down I didn’t even think about my health,’ Mercy said. ‘Everyone I have been close to has been taken from me. I wanted to die.’

When her church in Liberia heard that Mercy Ships was coming to Guinea, they came together to raise enough funds to send Mercy to find help. The two-day trek to the port city of Conakry was long and tiring, but Mercy knew she had no other choice. Tears slowly fell down her face as she sat patiently waiting for the outcome of her screening.

The past three years had seen her struggle to eat, talk, and eventually even breathe. But after a long wait, the news finally came that she was approved for surgery! She began to sing right there on the dock, filled with a joy she had forgotten how to feel! Mercy was given something she hadn’t had in a long time — hope.

Following the operation to remove her tumour, Mercy smiled at the thought of all the future held. ‘I am so happy to have been given a chance,’ she said. ‘I have been sad for too long.’

As she began the journey back to Liberia, she finally started to imagine what her life might be like — dreaming dreams she had not let herself imagine before. Despite still grieving the loss of her children, she now believes she has a chance to try again.

‘I would like to find a husband now, and maybe one day I will have children again. That is possible now that I know I will not die,’ Mercy said. ‘I am so thankful to Mercy Ships because now I can start again.’

Written by: Georgia Ainsworth


Sharon Walls

The real Esther from Mercy Ships New Zealand on Vimeo.

VIDEO: Most people didn’t know the real Esther. They only looked as far as her leg. At school, she was teased. In public, she was shamed. Esther’s grandmother searched the country for a solution to rickets—a vitamin deficiency that caused her daughter’s legs to soften and bend incorrectly under pressure. One windswept leg was robbing Esther of the joys of childhood while threatening her future. Time was running out

Sharon Walls