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Dopo un lungo viaggio, siamo giunti all’ aeroporto di Free Town, dove abbiamo incontrato 37 volontari provenienti da Olanda, Belgio, Gran Bretagna e Australia che hanno lasciato tutto per imbarcarsi come volontari per un periodo che va da uno a tre anni, alcuni con bimbi piccoli. In particolare, abbiamo conosciuto una famiglia olandese con una bimba di diciotto mesi ed un’altra di tre anni.

A short taxi boat ride, followed by a further thirty-minute journey in a minivan, brought us to the port, where we stood in front of the impressive Global Mercy – the second Mercy Ships vessel, which I had previously visited in Rotterdam for its launch.

The organisation of Mercy Ships is impressive: every individual is a vital piece of a huge jigsaw puzzle, and everyone is special.

The cabins are spacious and cosy, everything is immaculately clean and the spaces are thoughtfully organised. Remarkably, the ship is equipped with facilities to recycle organic materials for reuse as fertiliser in local agriculture.

Everyone on board is conscientious about water consumption and has a deep respect for each other, the community and the environment. They are here to serve, driven by a sense of privilege and consider being on this ship a precious gift.

The atmosphere is calm and relaxed, we felt there was love everywhere.

The first meeting of the day, the “All in hands meeting”, was beautiful: we felt at home, as if we had been welcomed by a large family. The captain gave us all the latest updates, including news about the Africa Mercy ship, which is currently in Madagascar. The General Manager and other key personnel then gave us some information on the day ahead. Three challenging surgical and ophthalmological operations awaited them and they asked everyone to pray for the patients, doctors and nurses.

People pray together. There is even a chapel on the ship.

The first day was all about finding out how the ship works. We met different volunteers in charge, each with their own story. We also visited the school area, for the volunteers’ children. It has a modern educational system, with almost one teacher every five children, who see them through to university.

The captain, a 72-year-old American, has been on the ship for ages. He met his wife on a mission in Madagascar, but sadly she died three years ago. He proudly showed us pictures of his two grandchildren.

He loves working for Mercy Ships. Sitting in the quiet control room, staring out at the sea, he never feels alone.

The people on board are like family to him. He believes that “if one of us has a talent, whatever it may be, we should share it and use it for others”.

Everyone here has a strong faith and sees this mission as a lifelong calling, a constant exchange of giving and receiving.

The ship’s general manager, Jeoff, was there with his family – his wife and two boys, who are happy to call this ship home.

He is American but grew up in Zimbabwe. Thanks to his father’s work, he graduated in Scotland and trained in the USA. He told us that it is the people who make Mercy Ships so special and that it is a privilege for him to be on board.

He has a passion for music and he sometimes plays to share his music and lift the spirits of those around him.

When his work is done, he changes his clothes to show that he is no longer the general manager, and his work continues the next day. It is not easy on this ship to separate personal and professional life, but he seems to have found a good compromise.

He also loves doing DIY and sometimes isolates himself in the “Carpenter room”, which could be more accurately described as Geppetto’s tool room.

What helps him in this job is his ability to listen.

“We believe in change. It is not possible to leave this ship without undergoing some internal change”, he said, and with these words he bade us farewell.

We also met Suzanne, who told us that Mercy Ships is also involved in “training”, “education” and “advocacy”.

300,000 people are waiting for surgery on the Mercy Ships hospital ship, but they cannot treat them all, so they have to think long term.

Suzanne has been there for twelve years and will continue to stay in Sierra Leone to negotiate with governments to make them understand the importance of investing in infrastructure, education and training. Mercy Ships also sponsors the studies of some local students, such as dentists who study in Ghana, where they also learn French so they can return to serve their country.

Nursing courses are run locally by Mercy Ships. There is an urgent need for nurses and anaesthetists.

Mercy Ships also creates opportunities, spreads knowledge, offers encouragement and instils hope and confidence in a better future, supports local agriculture and is involved in a wide range of activities, striving to establish effective communication with local governments – a difficult path to navigate.

Sadly, it is often said that people in Africa go to hospital to die, and this happens because they first seek local, home-based care through word of mouth. By the time they reach the hospital, it is often too late.

On the ship, two separate centres provide sociological and psychological support. Specialised teams organise recreational activities and provide psychological support, guiding individuals through difficult tasks, including refusing patients and delivering bad news.

The two centres serve different purposes, either for the ship’s community of volunteers or for the hospital staff.

Living together in shared spaces has its challenges, and saying no is not an easy task, especially when operations may become impossible due to infection or unexpected illness.

“If one of us has a gift, it must be shared,” Suzanne said, gently reminding us of this with her smile, graceful demeanour, calm and serenity.


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