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VIDEO: It looked like a boot on Tene’s leg – but it wasn’t. When she was still in the womb, a band of tissue wrapped around her leg. As Tene grew, so did the swelling. They couldn’t find anyone with the surgical skills who would help them, and her mother despaired.

But thanks to friends like you, free surgery on the Mercy Ship turned Tene’s clunky gait into the happy skip of a typical three-year-old. Watch Tene’s inspiring story now

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It was a stranger who eventually told Valerie about Mercy Ships. One day, the 14-year-old left the shop on an errand, only to be startled by a woman following her, trying to give her information. ‘I was scared,’ remembered Valerie, ‘but, looking back, I think that woman was an angel.’

Not long afterwards Valerie came onboard the Africa Mercy. She was one of 78 children and teenagers who would receive orthopaedic surgery during the ship’s 10-month field service in Benin. But for especially older paediatric patients, correcting bowed legs isn’t a quick process. Even after her successful surgery, Valerie’s legs needed lots of time and physical therapy in order for her to be strong enough to walk.

Fast forward a few months, and Valerie had almost finished with rehab. She wasn’t staying in the hospital on board anymore, but instead she was living in the nearby HOPE  (the Mercy Ships Hospital OutPatient Extension) centre. It was a sunny afternoon, and she was lying down, looking at the sky. ‘I was very happy that day,’ she remembered. ‘I told myself, ‘Now that [Mercy Ships] have healed my legs, I no longer want to be a seamstress … I want to go back to school.’

Not long after that moment, Valerie’s legs had become strong enough to go home. She didn’t go back to her apprenticeship. Instead, she was going to return to school to learn a trade. ‘It will be great,’ she anticipated. ‘People will say, Is this the same girl? Her legs are straight!’

And they most certainly did!

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VIDEO: Aicha’s mother believed that someday, someway, help would come. Her huge-hearted hope that her daughter’s sight would be restored was fulfilled. Shadows turn to light when Aicha received a free operation on the Mercy Ship, and her future was changed forever.

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What went wrong – or did it go right? Of the 6,000 people who lined up to be accessed for surgery during screening event in Guinea, West Africa last year, only six children presented with cleft lips or palates! Normally, we would expect to see hundreds of little ones suffering from this birth defect.

It was far from a disappointing result. This significantly reduced number is due in part to medical capacity building and surgical mentoring that has taken in Guinea in recent years. Dr  Diallo participates in a mentorship with Mercy Ships and has helped facilitate the work of local surgeons performing 323 lip and palate surgeries in the capital city over the past two years.

‘We have put ourselves out of a job (in one of the 56 countries in Africa), which is what we have been trying to do,’ explains Dr Gary Parker, Chief Medical Officer onboard the Africa Mercy.

‘Depending on what statistics you look at, every three to ten minutes a child [somewhere in the world] is born with a cleft lip or palate. It’s a major public health issue,’ Dr Parker explains.

‘I first mentored Dr Raphiou Diallo in 1998,’ reflects Dr Parker. ‘He had already left his education at this point, and his dream was to build a team of people who could help this region of West Africa. Because of his formal training and his ‘heart’, he is the one who can move things forward.’

Since then, Dr Diallo has taken further surgical exams in France. With these qualifications, he could easily move himself and his family to Europe, where the standard of living is higher. But he doesn’t. His commitment is to West Africa — to his home.

‘It says a lot about his position and his commitment to building his continent up,’ Dr Parker comments. ‘When you find someone passionate about helping those in their own country and who wants to teach, you can go so far.’

Praised for his ability to do great work with limited resources, Dr Diallo has also enabled those mentoring on the ship to see that medical training means very little if participants can’t apply what they’ve learned in the field.

‘Dr Diallo can do so much more with a lot less compared to high-income surgeons. He is teaching me how to make things go further. As the world goes forward we need to learn how to be more economical,’ Dr Parker said. ‘I have learned a lot over the years from this man, and he has shaped how I teach. We continue to grow together.’

As one of the greatest influencer in West Africa, Dr Diallo’s impact is far bigger than we can measure and makes a lasting difference in thousands of lives.

‘For lasting impact, you need people who are determined, and a place they can do it,’ Dr Parker said. ‘Diallo needs support and infrastructure — that’s where Mercy Ships comes in. But before this, you need someone with the heart to do something about the need — that’s who he is.’

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Let me tell you about how the remarkable began for Tene.

Mariam, a successful West African businesswoman, was passing through Tene’s Guinean village. She spotted a group of children by the side of the road, and she stopped to offer them a handful of sweets when her eyes landed on one girl in particular: three-year-old Tene.

With deep amber eyes and a smile that is quick to come and slow to leave, little Tene captured Mariam’s heart immediately. She watched the child playing for a while before she noticed Tene’s imbalanced gait and uneven feet. One was normal, but the other had an oversized ankle and foot. She would later learn that this condition was caused by an amniotic band — thin strands of tissue that wrap around forming body parts during pregnancy, restricting blood flow and affecting limb growth.

According to Dr Tertius Venter, a volunteer plastics reconstructive surgeon onboard the Africa Mercy, when treated soon after birth this condition can be cured with a relatively simple surgery. However, the longer it’s left untreated, the more complicated it becomes – and can even result in the loss of a limb.

“I was really sad … It was my first time seeing this kind of sickness,” Mariam said. “She’s just a baby.”

Like you, Mariam was touched by Tene’s plight but she didn’t stop at feeling sorry for the little girl. Mariam put her compassion into action and decided to do what she could to make a difference for Tene.

Mariam knew they needed something amazing to happen because fixing Tene’s leg seemed like an unobtainable dream. She began asking at local hospitals if anyone knew where help could be found.

An answer came. News of the upcoming arrival of the Africa Mercy had spread through Guinea, and Mariam set out to connect Tene with the Mercy Ship — hoping for a miracle.

Despite not speaking the same language, Mariam brought Tene and her mother, Saran, into her home only a few kilometres from where the Africa Mercy was docked in Conakry.

Tene was accessed by the Mercy Ships medical team. She met kind-hearted volunteers from New Zealand and around the world donating their skills to provide what had previously seemed impossible. Your generosity meant the whole medical process – from assessment and surgery to physiotherapy – would be provided without any cost to Tene’s family or to Mariam! Tene was admitted and had the operation on board to remove the amniotic band and cut away the swollen tissue.

After surgery, Tene’s foot gradually shrank back to normal proportions. Through regular rehab exercises, her clunky gait slowly grew into the confident walk of a curious three-year-old. Puzzle books, colourful toys and TLC from our crew members nurtured her through recovery.

Just a few months later Tene was able to wear regular shoes for the very first time.

Saran and Mariam watched on with pride knowing Tene would now grow up with the chance of a normal life. Thanks to the generosity of huge-hearted people like you, dreams became reality.

With her leg healed, Tene spent Christmas with her family. Now she can walk on two sturdy feet, run races without holding back, attend school and enjoy a carefree childhood without the condition that once defined her future.

This Christmas children like Tene are hoping for a gift that will change their future – the ability to hold a pencil, to see clearly or to stand with straight strong legs.

Thank you for being an answer to their prayers by making a gift today!

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Sai’douba and Alason have been through a lot together and as a result, have developed a very unique friendship. Alason was there the day that Sai’douba’s life changed drastically.

When he was 18 years old, Sai’douba was horribly burned in a gas explosion at the garage he worked at, leaving his legs frozen in a bent position. Since the accident, his injuries have made Sai’douba depend entirely on his friend.

“If I want to go to the bathroom Alason is the one that helps me go,” Sai’douba said. “If I want to eat, Alason is the one who comes to help me. Whatever I want to do, Alason is the one that helps me, because I can’t do anything by myself.”

For the past eight months, Alason has been Sai’douba’s support and legs, caring for his friend and carrying him wherever they went.

“When I carry him, he’s a little bit heavy, but no one will help him if I don’t help him,”Alason said. “Sometimes my muscles get sore, but I have to care for him. Whenever I look at what happened to him, I want to cry inside my heart. Sai’douba’s injuries kept him in pain, but his inability to work caused him a lot of frustration.

“Before this accident, I was working at the garage,” Sai’douba said. “I worked a lot and made a little money. I would take that money and bring it home for my mom to buy food. I know my parents don’t have enough money so I’m very scared about it.”

One day, Sai’douba heard about a hospital ship that was providing free surgeries to those in need and shared the news with his friend. Alason carried Sai’douba to the ship knowing that it was his one chance at possibly finding healing. In preparation for his rehab, they measure the severity of Sai’douba’s burn contractures.

When they arrived, Sai’douba met with the volunteer medical staff measured the severity of his burn contractures. The next day, much to Alason and Sai’douba’s joy, he was scheduled to receive surgery onboard the Africa Mercy. After a four hour surgery that helped straighten both of his legs and his arm, Sai’douba was on his way to recovery.

“When I saw him coming out of surgery, I could see his legs were straight,” Alason said. “I now have hope he can walk again. He’ll be able to do everything for himself.”

After a couple days of rest, Sai’Douba began his rehabilitation, focusing on one goal — to walk again. It took a lot of practice and determination, but soon Sai’Douba was back on his feet, walking on his own for the first time since the accident.

“I’m so happy, after such a long time I’m walking again! So many people are encouraging me,” Sai’douba said. “I feel confident now. After a few months, I’ll be able to do everything I used to do. I can work, earn money, and provide for my parents!”

 

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It was eight years earlier when Charity first met Sylvester. Even back then she strategically draped across her face in an effort to hide the tumour growing around her mouth.

At the time, Sylvester was in the remote Ghanaian village to work on a humanitarian construction project. His heart immediately went out to Charity, but when he offered to bring Charity to a hospital for surgery her family refused, deciding to use herbal medicines to help heal her.

In 2018 Charity saw Sylvester in her village again. The seven years in between had left their mark in the 39-year-old’s life. Charity’s tumour had continued to grow and was now larger than her head. This time when Sylvester he asked if he could like help, Charity bravely accepted.

Charity didn’t know about Mercy Ships and the free surgery that could change her life – but Sylvester did. He was no stranger to the ship, having coordinated for several patients to come for surgery during its 2016 field service in Benin through his organization, VARAS*. He knew how to arrange for Charity to be seen by the surgical screening team to determine if her tumour was operable, and VARAS even helped provide funds for the necessary airfare to reach the Africa Mercy.

Charity courageously undertook the journey to the ship despite having to encounter so many strangers along the way. Her enormous tumour drew curious looks and ridicule at every turn – but she wasn’t alone. Sylvester kindly accompanied her. After spending so long hiding her face from view, Charity wrestled with being seen by others. Having her passport picture taken to get on the plane from Ghana to Guinea took an inspiring amount of bravery —but she crossed every bridge necessary to bring her to healing.

‘She’s been laughed at, and people attach superstitions to her, explained Sylvester. She’s always indoors and told to cover herself. She has had to eat in a separate room from everybody else. I needed to be here with her.’ After spending so long hiding her face from view, Charity wrestled with being seen by others. Having her passport picture taken to get on the plane from Ghana to Guinea took an inspiring amount of bravery —but she crossed every bridge necessary to bring her to healing.

Once on board, even with the burden she was carrying, Charity’s smile was radiant as she met other patients in the Mercy Ship wards before surgery. On the day of her operation Charity was filled with nerves, and so was Sylvester. But soon after her successful surgery, the remarkable Charity was strong enough to get up and walk around the wards. Sylvester was so overcome he couldn’t stand, saying, ‘I was crying because of the shock of seeing her tumour gone.’

Despite the enormity of her tumour, Charity’s recovery was quick and uncomplicated, a blessing they both thanked God for. When her bandages were removed Charity couldn’t help but smile each time she glimpsed her tumour-free face in the mirror.

‘I’m looking forward to being welcomed back. The people who had negative thoughts about me will be surprised,’ declared Charity. ‘They will see that there’s nothing wrong with me, that it’s all been taken away. I am well,’ she stated. But Charity was more than well; she was transformed!

‘The effect of an untreated tumour in her case would be death. Now, Charity’s life is saved,’ reflects Sylvester.

Charity returned to her village where she was greeted by her husband and five excited children. They were amazed by her transformation. She was almost unrecognisable.The friendship between Charity and Sylvester won’t end here. He has arranged for VARAS to continue their support and provide capital for Charity to expand her farmland, they also hope to train her in further options to earn an income.

Charity’s future had once seemed dark, but is once again full of possibilities — and so much joy.

‘She can rejoin her community. We’re thankful to Mercy Ships for this miracle,’ says Charity’s Good Samaritan.

* Volunteers for Amelioration of Rural Areas (VARAS) is an NGO that seeks to help bridge the development gap between rural and urban communities.

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Several hours northeast of Conakry, Guinea is the Fabik farm — a rare oasis of green amidst a desert of dry and dusty fields. In some cases, the land is still smoking, a result of the slash-and-burn farming technique that’s common in this part of the world.

Among the freshly planted rows of corn and lettuce, there’s a group hard at work planting, watering, and weeding. This group of 32 Guinean men and women are the participants of the Mercy Ships Food for Life program. Nominated by local NGOs working in the region, these participants gathered to learn the ins and outs of nutrition, crop production and packaging and organic agriculture. They’re also taught how to train others, with the goal of returning to their communities and continuing the education program long after they graduate.

While the main focus of Mercy Ships is on providing surgical care, nutritional agriculture is a key component for maintaining a healthy community.

‘Mercy Ships is investing in farming because we recognise that in order to have good health you need to have good nutrition — and for good nutrition to be effective, you need to have safe food,” Agricultural Program Manager Eliphaz Essah said. ‘To do that we need to get the best knowledge of how to produce safe food, and that’s why [the Food for Life program] is here.’

Essah’s words ring true as many conditions on the ship — such as orthopaedic cases — are often linked to malnutrition. By educating a group of innovative and socially-minded locals, the goal is to see a ripple effect in each nation as they return to their homes and teach others what they’ve learned.

‘When participants go back as trainers in their communities, there’s a type of paradigm shift that happens,” Essah said. ‘The impact that we see in the community is that people are able to secure their product and their income. The quality of the food that they eat improves, and even the way they put their food together changes.’

Among the 32 graduates from this year’s program was Marie-Louise Kantabadouno, a Guinean NGO worker who came highly recommended by her organization, and became a stand-out student.

After graduating, Marie Louise immediately jumped into action to apply what she’d learned. Along with two other course participants, she’s now travelling to smaller villages across the region, teaching women nutritional basics, food production techniques, and packaging methods so that they can store or sell their food more efficiently. They also stopped in a local classroom to run an interactive workshop — and gave the children nutritious food that the volunteers had grown themselves during the course.

‘I learned from this training that children are malnourished because there is a lack of means and a lack of education of their parent in the area of agriculture,’ Kantabadouno said. ‘Their parents are all farmers, but they do not have any experience. I’ll now have the chance to talk to families and help them evolve in the field of agroecology, the association of cultures, the rotation of cultures and mulching, and the use of compost to abandon chemical products.’

Without the partnership of local NGOs and workers, the Food for Life course wouldn’t be possible. It’s a medley of different organisations, goals, and methods — and a beautiful symbol of the successful way in which these can all work together to reach a common goal.

‘There is hope and healing through this program for African farmers,’ Essah said. ‘When someone starts understanding that the way they used to farm was not good for the field, they’ll try to understand the best way to be a friend to their land. When the soil is happy and yields good crops, healing can begin for both farm and farmer. Hope comes when there is sustainability and long-term growth.’

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Highlights and surprises of teaching crew children aboard the world’s largest civilian hospital ship are shared by Auckland’s Karin Kitshoff in Education Central

 

Academy students wave their flags as the Africa Mercy arrives into the Port of Dakar.

 

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Young Drissa lives in a town in northeast Guinea, where his father Mory works on a farm, growing maize and rice while raising his six sons with his wife. When Drissa was five-years-old, life changed dramatically for his family.

He was playing on the ground close to where his mother was cooking with a pot of hot oil hanging over the fire. While playing, Drissa tripped and fell into the hot oil, getting burns over his neck and chest.

His parents immediately took him to the clinic and spent the next two months with him in the hospital. Eventually, his wounds healed, but he still had painful burn contractures on his neck. It was hard for Drissa to move his neck or look around, and his family struggled with being unable to help him — Mory felt that they had very little hope to find healing for his son.

Before the accident, Drissa’s home was full of happiness, but after his accident, life became harder.

“I used to have enough money to buy food for my family — but afterwards, we had to find money to buy his medicine and pay for his care at the hospital,” Mory said. “I couldn’t provide enough food for my children anymore, so my wife had to start working in the mines.”

It was hard for Drissa too. When he went to school after his accident, his friends would laugh at him because of his burns.

Four years after Drissa’s accident, a friend who works in Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, came by to visit. When he saw Drissa’s neck, he told Mory about a hospital ship that was coming to Guinea with volunteers that would provide free surgery to those in need.

When Drissa received his date for surgery, he and his father left the rest of their family at home and travelled for two days to get to Conakry. When they came to the ship, Mory was amazed at the interaction between the volunteers and his son.

“I thought, ‘I have never experienced this type of kindness before.’ They took care of my son even while he was sleeping,” Mory said. “The way they treated him is the way that God wants us to be treated, so I can see that people on the ship really know God… When we go home, I will tell everyone that Mercy Ships is real — Drissa is the proof that help is possible, and that we are all equal and deserve to be treated with kindness.”

Now that Drissa is healing from the scars that caused him so much pain, Mory says that his son will be returning to school as soon as possible.

“By coming [to Mercy Ships], I have seen the importance of education,” Mory said. “What happens on the ship is not magic — it is possible because many people have studied and are now putting their education to use. I want my son to have that same education and to know that anything can be possible.”

 

Reported by Rose Talbot