I had one of the most rewarding, challenging and life changing experiences of my life last year, volunteering onboard the charity hospital ship, the Africa Mercy. Run by the international charity Mercy Ships, it provides free medical care and humanitarian aid to the poorest countries in Africa.
I arrived at the ship on my first day in Togo and was overwhelmed by its size. I knew that it needed to be big to sleep over 450 volunteers, have a 78-bed ward, six operating theatres, a dining room, a school and other facilities. But staring down the gangway, waiting to embark on a seven week journey, I was very taken aback.
I was nervous and very apprehensive about being so far away from home but I soon found out that a nurse onboard the Africa Mercy doesn’t have long to be nervous. Before I knew it I was downstairs on the ward meeting patients and other volunteers.
I was sharing a cabin with five other people which was a bit confining to say the least! There wasn’t much room but like most situations you adjust, and it was a new experience for me.
All the volunteers eat together at mealtimes – the cooks, cleaners, doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, agriculturalists – everyone. We all had breakfast, lunch and dinner in the canteen and it’s amazing to think it’s all prepared by other volunteers who spend their days in the kitchen. The food on board is wholesome – by this I mean ‘no frills’.
I remember my first meal onboard the ship. We had blueberries with pancakes for breakfast and in the evening we had blueberry gravy with roast beef: nothing is wasted!
Evenings are spent doing your own thing but no one need ever be alone. There is a medical lecture each evening and other fun and interesting things to do. Everyone sits with everyone; there is absolutely no hierarchy. Everyone talks to everyone and no one is left out. If you want peace and quiet you have to work to find it.
The first few days working on the ward were incredible. Nobody moaned, nobody complained, everyone looked at me with pleading beautiful wonderful eyes and I loved them all. Most of the patients had nothing and couldn’t sign their own names to consent to operations, so we had to take thumb prints instead. Patients walk for days to reach the Africa Mercy in the hope that they can lead a normal life.
All the volunteers work so hard and for no financial reward – in fact we pay the crew fees to cover the cost of our stay. But we all want to make a difference and every single volunteer does just that. Thousands of lives are transformed and improved every day by ordinary people giving their time and sharing their expertise on board the ship.
Days onboard went by very quickly but each smiling face has stayed in my mind.
During the seven weeks that I volunteered, I worked with top surgeons who performed maxillo-facial surgeries to remove large benign tumours and repair cleft lips, but I also helped alongside engineers who kept the ship running, cooks who prepared our meals and cleaners who kept the ship in order. Without any of these people the ship could not function and everyone’s job is just as important as the next person’s.
It was so inspiring that I have decided to do it again! I’m heading back on the 9th March for another four weeks, this time to Sierra Leone. Mentally I’m packed, physically I’m not quite there, but at least I feel prepared as I know what to expect this time. I made lifelong friends last year – volunteers that have lived on the ship for many years. I’m looking forward to being reunited with friendly faces, but I’m also looking forward to meeting new people and taking on new challenges.
Volunteering onboard the Africa Mercy has given me a broader understanding of healthcare in Africa and has also developed my skills as a nurse which has been valuable working back in the UK. It has truly changed my life and I would recommend it to anyone.
If you are interested in volunteering don’t forget to put your name down on our Volunteering page so that charities can get in touch with you with opportunities!