Saturday, July 14, 2007

Independance Day, Republic of Congo

This is slightly old news, actually, 2 weeks old, but it's still a fun story to tell. A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in the midships lounge, the living room of the ship. A friend of mine from Nigeria stopped by. Turns out there are a couple people here on the ship that are from the Republic of Congo and that day was their equivalent to our 4th of July. They had invited my friend to go to the Congolese Embassy and then my friend invited me. I had no idea what to expect, but who's going to pass up the opportunity of a trip to the embassy? That was 3:30 and we were supposed to leave at 5pm. I got to my cabin and all of a sudden realized that I had no idea what to wear. It was probably very naive, but the only thing I could picture was something very formal and grand, a little like some of the scenes in "Coming to America". All I have are clothes that make me look like a missionary, long skirts, solid-colored t-shirts, and sandals, definitely nothing formal. I tried a new skirt my roomate bought that is some gorgeous african fabric. The problem is, it's a big tube skirt, sort of like a wrap to wear at the beach. You tie it in a knot and hope it doesn't fall off. That was not going to do for an event at the embassy. I finally settled on an outfit and off we went. That's not quite true, because we had to wait a while for the taxi. Jean-Claude, the guy who is from the Congo, has a taxi driver that he knows and calls when he needs a ride, but that's still on different time than we would expect at home, so we actually left around 5:30.

I had not been to the part of town where we were going, actually I hadn't seen much of Monrovia at all, so it was fun to get out and see the town I call home for the summer. We went past the University of Liberia, the former presidential villa, and the UN headquarters. The area where the embassy is has many embassy buildings in the neighborhood. Many of them looked like they had suffered a lot of damage during the war, so I began to realize they may not be as nice as I was thinking. When we arrived at the Congolese embassy I got out of the car and across the street was the Liberia Mennonite School. I was a little bit proud to notice that it was in better repair than most of the buildings I had seen. I would like to try to stop by there sometime if I'm in that area again.

The embassy was the size of a very large house in the U.S. The celebration was in the back yard. I was expecting a very formal affair inside and it turned out to be a big barbecue on the lawn, just like a wedding reception or graduation party at home. We found out, though, that there had been some sort of miscommunication. We had understood that the party was from 5pm to 8pm. No, it started at 8pm, so we just all sat in the yard, talking, listening to the music that was playing, and talking. It was fun getting to know everyone. It's a little tricky because French is the primary language in the Congo so Jean-Claude and his wife, Anastasis (yes, the same name as the ship that just left), speak english, but with a very strong french and african accent. The other complication was that the people preparing for the party had already set up the sound system. It was a lot of fun dance music, but it was loud enough, that it was hard to hear each other, so we did a lot of just hanging out, drinking diet coke (mmm) and watching the preparation. After sitting there a while, I realized that that was the first time that I had seen a lawn since I've been here. It was nice, it felt like a little bit of home to sit in the yard in a resin lawn chair under a rented tent.

There was a man in one corner of the yard grilling. The grills were a series of 50 gallon drums with fire pits in the bottom and then a grate stretched across them with several large things being grilled. After a while the lady that seemed to be in charge came over and told us that once the food was ready we could feel free to help ourselves. There would be grilled goat, sheep, and chicken. That was when I realized that I was seeing a nearly whole animal on one of the grills.

Around 8pm people started arriving. We had decided to stay until 9pm, but the party was just nicely getting started, so we stayed a while longer. The food wasn't ready until around 9:30. Jean-Claude and Anastasis had been invited by someone else and she didn't want us to leave until we had eaten, so we extended the time. Taxis sometimes become a bit of an issue because they aren't always readily available, and they may already have 7 people in them. Jean-Claude finally ended up calling the driver to come wait and eat with us, so that we were assured of a ride home. I thought that the driver seemed a little bit annoyed at the inconvenience, but when we got back to the port, he refused payment in thanks for future business and the meal. Things definitely work differently here than in other parts of the world.

The party consisted of a bunch of Congolese people that are currently living in Liberia, lots of UN people, and people from other NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, humanitarian aid organizations. Mercy Ships is an NGO, just also a Christian organization which is a bit different than some of the others.) There were a lot of people dancing to the music, which to me sounds a bit like Reggae. It's not the same, but still similar. We finally got in line to eat and I had some of each of the meats, rice, cassava, plantains, and french fries. It was all very good, but a lot of food to eat a 10pm!

All in all, it was a very fun evening. It was nothing like "Coming to America". It was, however, very much like a 4th of July party in America. It was nice to go since I wasn't at home for the 4th of July. I just celebrated on the 30th of June. It's not every day that you get to go to a celebration at the Congolese Embassy in Liberia. It was definitely an experience I felt privileged to have. My roommates were pretty jealous that I got to go and they didn't.

Friday, July 13, 2007


She has totally stolen my heart. She's a 40 year old VVF patient who has been here on the ship now for 3 weeks. She was here for a week and a half before she even had surgery. There were about 5 ladies from a couple hours away who came for the screening, driven by their pastor. For some reason, he left them here, so they stayed in the hospital as hotel patients for a while before they actually had surgery. Most of them speak Liberian English as well as their own tribal languages. Korto only speaks her tribal language, so she just looks at you and starts talking, but none of it makes a bit of sense. To talk to her, I have to have one of our translators talk to another patient, have that patient talk to her, and then back through the 2 again. It's a job. Most of the time, she just looks at you, waves her hand, and laughs. I've been pretty sure for quite a while that she thinks I'm crazy. You have to wonder what these ladies are thinking. Many of them have never had any sort of medical care. They don't understand a lot of what we say to them, and I think a lot of what they learn as far as what's going to happen during the course of their stay is by observing what happens to the ladies that have surgery before them, moreso than understanding the details we tell them.

So at the end of day shift, it's the responsibility of the day nurses to take the ladies outside. It's definitely the highlight of working day shift. They sit in a big circle and sing for an hour or so. I'm pretty sure that that hour does more for them than all of the care they receive the other 23 hours of the day. After the surgery they've had, stairs are not a good plan, so we take them from the ward, which is on deck 3, up to deck 7. It's sort of like the front porch of the ship, it's just on the side, not the front. There is a roof over it, so you can go up there even when it's raining, which is pretty much all the time. We take them to deck 7 on the service elevator. It says on the door that there is a maximum of 10 people. I had never operated the lift, which is what the rest of the world calls an elevator, but how hard can it be? Shut the door, push the right button, and off you go. Well, that was true, but only to an extent. We got in, 9 patients and I (remember only some of them even speak Liberian english, which is still VERY different than American english. Swallow every consonant, speak with a lazy tongue, and you start to get close to what it sounds like), and headed up to deck 7. We got to the top and Korto was clinging to my shoulder, rolling and crossing her eyes, and moaning. She still managed to laugh the entire way. She is always laughing and smiling. For someone who has lived such a difficult life, she is very joyful. Well, we got to the top and the door slid open. There's a sliding door, but also a very heavy door that swings open. I was just turning the knob on the swinging door and all of a sudden the sliding door slammed shut, just missing my arm. Down we went. We got to the bottom, I started to open the door and the same thing happened. All told, we went up and down 3 times! It took no time at all before I looked around and noticed that there were 9 terrified women, who have never ridden in a lift before and they were all looking to me to figure out how to make the world stop jumping up and down. Here we are in a small metal box, moving up and down, getting dizzy, and they're not really sure how to understand that we leave one place and strangely show up somewhere else. Looking around in desperation, I noticed that there was a phone, so I called reception, hoping to have them call the ward and send someone down the hall to get help for operating the lift. Finally after the 3rd trip, we stopped and someone still at the bottom opened the door. It turns out that one of my co-workers had not waited long enough when we got to the top before she called the lift back down. By the time we stopped, the lift was offset from deck 3 by nearly a foot. Needless to say, as soon as the door opened, Korto nearly dove out of the lift and into the hall. I was amazed that she actually agreed to get back on a few minutes later. During the time we were going up and down one of the electricians showed up and told us that we really should only have 5 people, not 10. Lesson learned!

I said earlier that Korto always looks at me like I'm crazy. I've tried talking to her several times, but it's so complicated that it doesn't usually work very well. They way she just flips her hand and laughs, I figured she must be nearly exasperated. As I've spent more time caring for her, I've decided that even though we can't communicate with words, she's decided that we're pals. We use a lot of sign language. She does know a few english words and uses them as much as she can. One day a couple people were sitting talking. I walked over and just stood listening in. Her bed was already full of people sitting on it. She kept trying to get the attention of the lady in the bed beside her. Finally she did and motioned for her to move. The lady looked confused but moved anyway, then Korto patted the opened spot and looked at me, motioning for me to sit. When I did, she smiled a big smile of satisfaction, apparently happy that she had been able to make me welcome. The day we had the whole episode on the lift, ,on the way she was walking ahead of me and turned, calling "mama". That's the name used for nurses, mothers, grandmothers, anyone who is any sort of female caregiver. I walked up to see what she needed. She held out her hand so I held out mine. She took mine in hers, smiled an adorable smile, and continued walking down the hall holding my hand. Frequently at work if she notices that I'm not busy, she will call out Mama, and then pats the spot beside her, motioning for me to sit, and then just sits there smiling and talking. In my rough Liberian english, I tell her "no undertand". She just smiles and keeps talking anyway, often patting my back or knee. How can you not love a sweetheart who just wants your company even when you can't really talk or get to know each other on a deep level?

Yesterday when I worked it was beginning to seem as if her repair was failing. She had a little leaking starting again. I've not seen her look so blue before. She didn't sleep the entire night and could not bring herself to smile. She knows painfully well what it means to go back to the leaking. I think that it was just due to a spasm, but how do you do sign language to explain a spasm? After a while, I sat beside her, and just said "I pray?" With a very somber look she nodded her head. I prayed in english. I know she didn't understand a word I said, but from some of the conversations I've heard through the other ladies, I believe that even though we don't speak the same language, we both trust the same God. I guess she could tell by the tone of my voice when I was just about finished, because when I said Amen, she said it right along with me and gave me a look of gratitude. I'll have to check in on her today or tomorrow, just to let her know she's being remembered.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Dress Ceremony

My heart is so very full today and at the same time broken. I'll write about the fullness first. I've just come from the first Dress Ceremony on the Africa Mercy. Three women were presented with new African dresses just before going home, now 2 weeks post-VVF repair. I happened to walk into the room where they were getting ready and they were all putting on their dresses and head wraps. At first I thought there was something wrong and then realized that it was squeals of delight I was hearing. It sounded like girls at home getting ready for the prom.

All of the staff and other patients gathered in one of the wards and the drums, singing and dancing was started down the all by the princesses for the day. They paraded down the hall dancing and singing with bright smiles on their faces. Once they got to the ward the party really started and there was a long time of singing, dancing, and praising. Nearly everyone in the room was either beaming with delight or moved to tears and unable to sing. Each of the ladies then took the opportunity to offer their thanks to God for His faithfulness after many years of living in the condition that they were. I have to say that is definitely the most fun I've ever had at work, and it wasn't even my shift! To hear their stories is such a humbling experience because of the emotional and physical pain that they've endured makes any complaint I could come up with pale in comparison. That brings me to the broken-hearted part.

About 10 minutes before the ceremony started I had to go to the ward to look something up, and I ran into Jianjay, who had the second VVF repair here on the ship. I asked how she was feeling and with a smile she said that she feels well, but the urine still keeps coming. I had no words to say to comfort her other than how terribly sorry I am. I know from things that she said in the ward that she trusts in God, but today my heart felt so heavy for her. When I went to the dress ceremony, she was sitting there on the bed of one of the other patients, still finding a way to smile and singing in worship. Even though she did not have a successful repair, she's still grateful for the things God has done for her. Some days it's just so hard trying to reconcile the happy and the sad.