Emotional memory packs a punch. It lasts long after an experience has soaked into who I am. I remember so many emotional experiences from my years with Mercy Ships. Now I don’t use the word emotional to refer to grand mountain top experiences. I am talking about the diverse range of people and places that nudged my understanding of the world outward. Mercy Ships has taken me to eighteen countries, nine of them in Africa. Another country is just a shaded shape on a map until you step foot on the gritty dirt and walk with the people who live in a very different culture. Being on the ship for my DTS partly prepared me for this. I started in Reception.
In Reception I dealt with European, North American, Asian and of course African people. Everyone had a different accent, different words, even different ways of writing the alphabet and on a deeper level different ways of thinking about the world. For a week, I volunteered with the village medical team. Initially I tried doing triage where I was quite confounded when each person seemed to have “body aches.” We were always trying to ensure that things didn’t get lost in translation. This would take time and patience and of course a little mercy; mercy on ourselves and on others.
One of the first countries we visited was Ghana. Ghana is a tropical West African nation with a reputation for friendly people. I found myself walking through open air markets that sold food that was new to me. In the absence of refrigeration they sold a chocolate that had something in it to stop it from melting. Unfortunately that made it taste a little like candle wax. Yum. Another food was fufu which is a paste made from cassava, a root crop. I thought it tasted like wallpaper glue. Of course when I think about it people from other countries often found the taste of Aussie Vegemite disgusting.
At that time the ship was not air conditioned so it felt like living in a hot tin can. Getting my feet on the ground and looking around the ports of Tema and Takoradi on the weekends was something I enjoyed. We did have a few air conditioned vehicles that could be lifted by crane off the ship. They were used when a team from the ship had to venture further afield. I made several trips with those teams to lend a hand and I mean that literally as I was part of the puppet team. Kneeling in the dirt on a hot steamy day making my puppet dance to a song that a translator had introduced, well it was surprisingly rewarding. Hearing laughter and seeing smiling faces needed no translation.
Behind the smiles there was something that took time to see. I knew that living standards were different but that difference was in what I did not see rather that what was visible. Many of the houses were made of concrete blocks and had corrugated iron roofs. In the country they were often mud brick houses with thatched roofs. The thing that was often missing was running water. I had running water on the ship. Many people did not have the basics that I took for granted. That is of course the whole reason for Mercy Ships, to provide health care where it is either insufficient or nonexistent. Seeing the reality of this need packed an emotional punch for me. I don’t remember all of the details about my time with Mercy Ships but I do know that I now have my own hard-to-define body ache. It sounds like a cliché to say you feel someone else’s pain but it is the beginning of mercy – after all I did not choose to be born into a wealthy country. I hope my meaning is not lost in translation. Have a little mercy on yourself and others for we are all the same under the skin.