Aboard the Mercy Ships Africa
Aboard the Mercy Ships Africa: an experience quite out of the ordinary
"May 2018. When I’m invited to join the Mercy Ships moored in Douala (Cameroon), I feel a certain apprehension. Although I’ve seen plenty of photos of this hospital ship, I still cling to many preconceived ideas: a creaking old liner, seasickness, an overrun, patchily equipped hospital, patients with rare and severe diseases, the risk of malaria, or even kidnapping by a terrorist group with an appetite for humanitarian aid workers. Despite all this, I make my preparations for a journey that will, in a subtle way, completely shake up my vision of altruism. After a pleasant flight, Douala airport awaits me. The port is only about twenty minutes away by car, and we travel in an impressive Jeep painted in the Mercy Ships colours. Once we’ve arrived at the quayside and passed through two checkpoints, the Mercy Ships Africa looms into sight. An immense white liner, it is, a former ferry that has been refitted and refurbished to its gleaming, magnificent state. Pitched around it are three or four inflatable tents for the dispensing of medical aid, as well as a long wooden shelter where a few patients are waiting for their consultation as twilight falls on a day of still scorching heat."
A unique way of life on a floating campus
"First surprise: upon boarding the ship, I find the kind of fresh, clean space you would expect on a cruise liner. The cafeteria is immense, and two buffet bars groan under the weight of a rich variety of delicious foods. On the lower deck of the ship, I discover a hospital floor. The other decks are shared and resemble an enormous campus teeming with dozens of aid workers, doctors, carers, logistics personnel, administrative staff and many others. When I subsequently make a detailed tour of the ship, I find apartments housing entire families, some of whom have been there for fifteen years. There is a school catering for all ages from nursery class to the end of secondary school, a space equipped with computers, a number of comfortable lounges, a small swimming pool on the top deck and, by some surreal twist, the only Starbucks in Africa plonked right in the middle of the atrium where it acts as a meeting place at every hour of the day. A calm, peaceful atmosphere reigns aboard the Mercy Ships, where 400 volunteers of all nationalities live together as part of a very American organization, smooth-running and perfectly managed and structured. Many of the humanitarian aid workers I meet aboard the Mercy Ships have been there for many years, whether alone, as a couple or with their families. Due to their status, they claim no payment whatsoever even though they still pay the costs associated with their stay (accommodation, food). And they have a unique way of life: even though the framework in which they act remains the same – same workplace, same restaurant, same neighbours, same apartment – their external environment changes every year as the Mercy Ships Africa makes its way around the continent’s coastline. This is clearly a unique existence."
The Swiss community, a close and welcoming circle
"The Swiss community, which when I arrive consists of some forty persons, has assembled to give us a genuinely warm welcome. I am surprised by such attention as well as by the fact that they are there at all. This gesture touches me, and I am suddenly inspired by a genuine feeling of belonging to my country of origin. There is the sense of pride, of having a shared dialogue with compatriots who have chosen to put their well-established lives in our beautiful country on hold to offer their skills to the ill and impoverished living some 6,600 kilometres away from their homeland. Our delegation had the idea of bringing various types of chocolate, which we savour while talking about life on board and the reasons that have brought these Swiss citizens to the Mercy Ships. There, I meet a number of young people, aged between 20 and 25, who have come for their period of work experience as part of their studies at Lausanne’s hospitality management school. I ask them about their way of life. Don’t they get bored spending their time aboard a hospital ship? They tell me about their cinema evenings organized in front of a large screen erected in the seminar room, where they lie on the carpet, comfortably propped up by large cushions, their regular evening trips around Douala, always in small groups, the local market, the impromptu volleyball games on the quayside, the people they meet. Some of them speak about their religious beliefs and the pleasure they take in going to Mass every morning, a happy, song-filled occasion that floods the atrium and is driven by the enthusiasm of the chaplain, a gentle, rounded African woman wearing eccentric clothes who happily joins the various tables at meal times full of interest in our lives and our intentions."
Doctor Gary, emblematic of the Mercy Ships
"It is, without doubt, the smallest, the most English enclave I could hope to discover: the office of Doctor Gary Parker, better known simply as “Doctor Gary”, who has lived with his family on the hospital ship for 30 years. Unshakeably calm, a permanent smile on his face, he evokes stirs of admiration wherever he goes, thanks both to his imposing stature and his exemplary commitment. The only permanent surgeon on the ship, he carries out a continuous stream of highly complex maxillo-facial operations. In recognition of the 400 or so operations performed during the Cameroon mission in 2018, Dr Gary was honoured, exceptionally, with the title of Knight of the National Order of Valour. Around this emblematic character, numerous doctors from all sorts of countries place their skills in orthopaedics, ophthalmology, plastic surgery and dental care at the service of the deprived population, which consequently benefits from state-of-the-art care administered absolutely free. Many of them return every year, such as Prof André Mermoud, an ophthalmologist from the Swiss Medical Network. Famed both for his surgical skills and his humanitarian commitment to Africa, he has been visiting the continent as a volunteer for the past 20 years, on each occasion carrying out glaucoma operations that have saved hundreds of patients from total blindness. During their ten-month mission to Cameroon, the medical and care team, which consists of some 400 volunteer humanitarian aid workers, will thus perform more than 13,500 surgical operations on board and give some 1400 Cameroonian doctors short training courses in order to transfer their skills."
"By the end of my visit of discovery, I am bolstered and reinforced in my commitment, and I share my motivation to support the activities aboard the Mercy Ships with dozens of doctors, carers and co-workers in the Swiss Medical Network. In the months and years to come, they too will immerse themselves in this unique environment and, no doubt, return inspired by the subtle, deep-seated change in understanding that I underwent as part of an unforgettable and totally extraordinary experience."
Mission conducted in May 2018
"I was impressed by the fact that every aspect of the project is so well organized. The result has been a significant increase in humanitarian and medical efficiency as well as an obvious social and cultural impact. The welcome I received was quite perfect. However, the most memorable moment of my trip was undoubtedly my visit to the wards where I began to understand the enormity of the task. The ball is now firmly in Genolier Foundation’s court, and it is up to us to ensure that we participate in this worthwhile project."
Dr. Philippe Glasson
soggiorno sulla Mercy Africa in Guinea, marzo 2019