27 April 2011


I can't believe it has been over a week since I last blogged!  I feel like time is going pretty quickly the past few days.  In about a week I will reach my two-month mark already.  Unreal.

I titled today's post "freedom" for two reasons: I will be recounting Easter on the ship (arguably the most important day in Christianity) and because today is Sierra Leone's Independence Day, and today they are celebrating FIFTY years of independence!

Before I get into all that, let me share a little bit about last week.  We had the pleasure of doing two days of eye screening at the Good News Assembly of God, a local church in Brookfield (a different Freetown neighborhood).  The pastor, Pastor Moses, has been working with Mercy Ships since their first visit to Sierra Leone in 1993.  He graciously agreed to let the Eye Team take over the church, rearranging pews and benches, for screening.  Here is a shot of the interior of the church during screening (shot from the pulpit area):

Patients entered form the left and proceeded to the area on the right, where they had their visual acuities checked.  They then move to the area in the back right where they were seen by a doctor and then they could get scheduled for a secondary screening or get reading glasses, which were fitted by yours truly.  Here is a photo that (vaguely) shows me working, fitting glasses on a patient:

I would also give out sunglasses to children, which is always fun!  The kids like to pick out their favorite color.

Pastor Moses' son, Josiah, was also on hand to help out with the screening.  He was a huge help and worked with me as a translator.  He was practically my shadow all day.

As much of a ham as he is, he can also be quite shy:

By the time we put in a full day of screening, our crew and day volunteers usually devolve into some sort of silly antics brought on by our sweaty exhaustion.  Here is an unknowing Martha posing for a shot with Doug in the background:

We may be doing more screenings at Pastor Moses' church later in the year, but now on to Easter!

The major Easter festivities on board the Africa Mercy began last Thursday.  To celebrate Maundy Thursday, the chaplaincy set up feet washing on the deck 7 outdoor promenade.  As a Brethren, I am quite used to feet washing, but as I walked outside, I soon realized that the ship would be practicing (GASP) co-ed feet washing!  In church, men and women traditionally go to separate rooms for feet washing and then rejoin for communion.  While I have no theological qualms against co-ed feet washing, it did feel a bit weird having my feet washed by my friend Laura.  Afterwards we headed to the Queen's Lounge for communion.  When the Africa Mercy was a Danish rail ferry, the Queen's Lounge was a cabin/quarters for the Danish Queen when she was on board.  Today, it is a very nice lounge/meeting space, and on last Thursday, it was transformed into the Upper Room.  The walls and ceiling were covered with sheets of fabric, with chairs and cushions tucked in to dim corners with candles and plants.  In the center of the room was a table with the Bread and Cup.  In addition to the Upper Room, the International Lounge (our largest meeting space on ship--can seat all 400 crew!) was transformed into the Garden of Gethsemane.  The chairs were removed and replaced with plants, huge palm fronds, dimmed lighting, and a "garden" soundtrack.  It was a place for quiet meditation and prayer, open all night, until 6am on Good Friday.  

On Friday morning, there was a service commemorating Christ's death at the cross.  As you walked into International Lounge, you were greeted with a spotlit cross, draped in a long red fabric that then trailed on the floor leading to another cross lying on the ground.  The service was held with the chaplains being hidden, so only their voices were heard, leaving the audience to focus on the cross and projected imagery.  "What would you have said to Jesus if you were at the foot of the cross on that day?" they asked.  "Write it down, and nail it to the cross."  One by one, people walked to the cross on the ground, wrote down their thoughts and nailed it to the cross.  Starting with just one person, the sound of hammers on nails echoed through the virtually silent room.  Each strike reverberated in my heart as I thought about Isaiah 53:4-9, which reminds us that it was our sin that nailed Christ to the cross. 

But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
   our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
   that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
   that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
   Through his bruises we get healed.
We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost.
   We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,
   on him, on him.
He was beaten, he was tortured,
   but he didn't say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
   and like a sheep being sheared,
   he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
   and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
   beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
   threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he'd never hurt a soul
   or said one word that wasn't true.

[From the Message, emphasis added.]

 I love how the Message just puts it out there.  No fancy language.  And the craziest part is that this passage is from the Old Testament...written years before Christ's earthly ministry and death.  That is something to wrap your head around.  I was also reminded of a lyric from the song "Breath of God," that says "It was an unfair deal on the part of Christ/He got my sin, I got eternal life."  Wow.  Just wow.  Needless to say, it was a heavy service that I'm sure left many people reflecting on thoughts like this.  

Finally, Sunday arrived.  I got up at 6am, dressed, brushed my teeth, and headed up to Deck 8 (the top deck) for the Easter Sunrise Service.  Despite the cloudy weather and lack of an apparent sunrise (we will just go with Son rise), the service was an awesome way to start the day.  A few crew members played guitar and djembe (the African drum) and led us in singing some Easter-themed worship songs.

After the service, I showered, put on nicer clothes, and then joined the other early risers for the hot cross buns served in the Midships Lounge.  The main Easter Service began at 8:30am.  While I love the contemporary services on board, it was nice to have a traditional service with a bulletin, an order of service, a responsive call to worship, etc.  Following the service was a no-less-than glorious (!) brunch in the dining room.  Here is a spread of fruit and breads, topped with gingerbread lambs:

A banner hung in the dining room:

After giving the kitchen staff a standing ovation, we piled into line.  The menu included vegetarian and bacon quiche, baked beans (those silly Brits!), clove-spiced ham, hash browns, turkey, deviled eggs, fruit, and a variety of breads.  Everything was delicious, even the ham, which was so heavily coated with cloves that it had an anesthetic effect on your tongue.  After the meal, some friends and I watched the movie "High Crimes," featuring Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, and Jim Caviezel.  (Coincidentally, Jim Caviezel played Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," so it seemed like appropriate movie choice for Easter.)  The legal thriller was really great and I would definitely recommend it!  Afterwards, I headed to the Midships Lounge to hide Easter eggs with my friend Claire, who I had met during my 24-hour layover in Brussels.  We had about an hour to hide 250 (paper) eggs, which we managed to pull off with some additional help.  Once the kids arrived, two of the high school girls told the Easter story with the Resurrection Eggs, which are plastic eggs with different elements of the Easter story within.

The kids then went wild, running around the 5th and 6th decks, searching for eggs.  Unfortunately I do not have too many photos of this I was running around myself, getting the prizes together and helping kids who couldn't find eggs.  All in all, the hunt went really well--the kids had a lot of fun and the parents were super appreciative.  One mom personally told me that it was so nice to have an event that the parents themselves didn't have to plan, and that it was fun to just hang out with their kids.

Monday was a ship's holiday, so that meant I slept in.  Tuesday was back to work.

Since I arrived in Freetown, I had been hearing about April 27th.  50 years ago, today, Sierra Leone became independent from Great Britain.  As you can imagine, this is a HUGE HUGE HUGE deal for Sierra Leoneans.  Despite still recovering from the crippling civil war, the excitement and pride for the event exudes from each citizen.  Earlier this week, ribbons and decorations of green, white, and blue (the colors of the flag) began appearing in the hospital, and today, just about everybody was donning the same colors in their outfits. Many day volunteers even painted their faces or had patriotic colors in their hair.  At lunch, a group of us honored our patients and day volunteers by singing the Sierra Leone National Anthem in the wards and in the dining room during lunch.
High we exalt thee; realm of the free;
Great is the love we have for thee;
Firmly united ever we stand,
Singing thy praise, O native land.
We raise up our hearts and our voices on high,
The hills and the valleys re-echo our cry;
Blessing and peace be ever thine own,
Land that we love, our Sierra Leone!

Everyone was super excited and joined in the song, included the excitable children on the ward.  Covered in stickers, a few of them even enthusiastically followed us down the hallway in the wheelchairs and crutches!  The galley even baked several cakes for the occasion, iced in green, white and blue.  

Tomorrow we are going to the local World Vision office, the headquarters for their Sierra Leone mission, to do eye exams for the staff.  Surgeries will start back up on Monday, which I am really excited for because that means I will resume my role as Peri-Operative Team Coordinator.  

Hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the start of the spring season.  Take care!

ALSO, if you have any ideas or suggestions for what you'd like me to blog about, or any questions you'd like answered,  feel free to send them my way!  You can either leave a comment on the blog, or email me at seth.mcelroy@gmail.com   As always, thanks for doing what you do by supporting me!

17 April 2011


I'm still cleaning the dust out of my ears.

It's been a week since my last post, but with good reason.  Last Monday, 11 April, I found out that I would be going with the rest of the Eye Team on the upcountry trip to Koidu, Kono District, to do eye exams for school children.  I was supposed to be attending the trip at the end of the month, but with an open spot and less-than-finalized plans for the second trip, I was invited and gladly accepted to go on this trip.  I found out that evening so I had a lot to get ready, mostly mental preparation, for the following morning.  I went to bed at about 11:15pm that night.  We would be meeting at 7:30am the next morning to pack the Land Rovers.  

At about 12:15am, in the middle of a deep sleep, my bunkmate woke me up, handing me a pack of children's multi-vitamins that was taped to our door--a birthday gift from the pharmacist (Thanks Miriam!).  Oh yeah, did I mention that the first day of the trip would be on my 23rd birthday?  Anyway, I was EXTREMELY confused as to what time it was and my first thought was that I had overslept and missed the trip.  I quickly fell back asleep with the bag of vitamins still in my bed.

Hours later, I re-awoke, finished packing, and got some breakfast, packing extra bread and peanut butter just in case.  After a quick meeting with the team, we started gathering the equipment and materials we would bring with us.  I was under the impression that we would be leaving around 8am, but I was sadly mistaken.  Other team members planned on leaving around 9am.  They were sadly mistaken.  It took quite the while to load up the two Land Rovers, including hoisting several items on to the roof and strapping them down.  I believe we finally set off around 9:45am, sweaty and tired from packing, but excited nonetheless.  I was looking forward to potentially seeing some monkeys, which my day volunteer, Sylvia, promised me I would see.  More on that later. 

From Freetown we headed northeast towards the city of Makeni, the country's fifth largest.  This would be our halfway point where we'd stop for lunch.  The drive was pleasant: sunny weather and a paved road.  Our air conditioning didn't work, but with the windows down it was just cool enough to keep us from sweating.  About three hours later, we arrived in Makeni and stopped at a gas station.  Some locals quickly approached us, selling corn and mangoes.  I headed for the little store to get a Fanta and what turned out to be some very plain tasting crackers.  We ate in the parking lot: bread, peanut butter, nutella, jam, and other snacks.  We then piled back in the cars and continued on east.  

The road was still paved.  A pleasant surprise.  Our surroundings were a mix of mountains, grassy plains, and lush hillsides.  We passed over several rivers and streams of varying sizes.  One of the more striking:

About an hour outside of Makeni, we reached the small junction town of Matatoka.  Just past a police checkpoint, the real adventure began.  The up-til-then very pleasant, paved, not-unlike-America road became  a mess (for lack of better description).  The road was paved at one time, but decades of rainy seasons and presumably zero maintenance left the highway pock-marked, stripped, dusty.  Ohhh the dust.  Craters.  Literal craters in the road.  Potholes that make the ones in Pennsylvania look like mere divots.  Rocks.  Lots of gravelly rocks.  Our speed decreased considerably as we wove, left and right and left and right, around the cracks and crevices in the road.  Half the time we drove with to wheels on the dirt shoulder and two on some version of pavement.  Remembering this, Elvis' song "All Shook Up" seems appropriate.  If that Land Rovers had front-end alignment before the trip, the most certainly did have such alignment by the time we reached Koidu.  The following picture truly does not do it justice:

We passed through several villages and towns.  And saw lots of goats.  Actually, the whole trip was marked with the welcome sight of goats.

Two hours of bumps and rattles later, we reached the Koidu city limits.  With instructions to stop at the World Vision warehouse first, we collectively wondered how we would find such a place in the middle of this wilderness town.   Then all of sudden, it magically appeared, like a beacon in the night.  We stopped and met Michael, a World Vision administrator who guided us to our accommodations in town, Uncle Ben's Guest House.  Not the Uncle Ben of rice fame, but the guy did actually go by Uncle Ben.  After getting settled in, we had a quick meeting followed by a dinner of chicken and chips, cards, and bed.  The rooms at Uncle Ben's were quite nice by Sierra Leone standards (generator power from 7pm to 6am, en suite bathrooms, air conditioning), but did lack a few basic amenities (i.e. my room did not have a toilet seat and the A/C didn't actually work).  That being said, they were private, clean, and the roof didn't leak during the nightly thunderstorm--we were satisfied. 

The next morning, we had a breakfast of tea, bread, and an egg and onion omelet.  We piled back into the vehicles and followed Michael out to our first school.  We would be working in the Fiama Chiefdom.  Sierra Leone is subdivided into 3 provinces, then 14 districts, then several dozen chiefdoms.  The road to Fiama was even less evolved than the one into Koidu.  To illustrate the dust and rockiness, please observe:

I'm pretty sure that Koidu is the Krio word for "dust."  Anyway, our first school was a United Methodist Church-sponsored school in the village of Njagbwema.  When we arrived, the students were outside, lined up for roll call.  We exited our vehicles and began to prayer, when the children were released like water from a dam.  The ran over to and surrounded us, waving, smiling, and repetitively saying "Hello!  Hello!"  It is quite possible that this was the first time some of them had ever seen white skin.  I quickly became friends with a little boy named Samusa, who I later found out didn't actually attend the school, but was just hanging around for all the excitement.  

Screening went well.  The World Vision folks were really organized and we saw around 350 students, plus the teachers.  Not one student needed prescription eyeglasses--they all had great vision.  We handed out loads of vitamin A, some artificial tears and prescription eye medicines for minor infections.

The kids love having their photos taken:


After screening all the children and teachers, we ate a late lunch, then packed up and headed back to Uncle Ben's.  The evening ritual of cards, dinner, shower, bed was carried out.  

The next day, Thursday, we followed Michael back out into Fiama Chiefdom, on the same road as Wednesday, but this time we actually turned off this road onto a different "road."  Now, I put "road" in quotes because I am using the word VERY loosely.  This time, by "road," I simply mean "swath of land of varying width on which there is no vegetation, but sometimes there IS vegetation, and always marked by rocks, steep hills, and general unevenness."  Note:

These are "roads" that are basically suitable for no vehicles, but the occasional 4x4 can get by.  This time, we truly were in the jungle.  Along and along we went, about 7 kilometers, until we reached the secluded settlement of Yekior.  I'm talking this was straight out of a "Lost Villages of Sierra Leone" documentary.  Very remote.  We pulled up to a school and could hear the clapping and laughing of the children dwelling within.  Set-up began in an empty classroom, and then we started the exams.

Ellen, the peri-op nurse I work with, in the foreground, 
and Xenia in with a patient explaining the auto-refractor.

Me, using the auto-refractor on a different, but equally as fidgety, patient.  The auto-refractor tells us what the lens strength should be for prescription eye glasses.  

The patient with her new "Harry Potter" style glasses!

After finishing up at the school we had some extra time, so we headed back into Koidu, to the World Vision headquarters where we were able to bless their staff with eye exams.  The staff consists of about 50 local Sierra Leoneans who were very appreciative of the exams.  We gave out a bunch of reading glasses, sunglasses, and prescription glasses.  It nice to give back to the organization that truly made our trip happen.  

The following day we got up early and made the long trek back to Freetown.  On the way home, I told Sylvia that I never saw a monkey.  But I had spoken to soon.  About an hour outside of Freetown, we went to pass a pickup truck when all noticed something swinging from the railings around the bed.  It was two dead monkeys!  "There's your monkeys!" Sylvia said.  Only in Africa.  

We made it back to the ship where we were warmly greeted by friends and the news that the hot water was back on!  I did laundry later that night.  Finally!  The rest of the weekend involved sleeping, a little baking, and generally getting caught up and refreshed.  At worship this evening, the chaplains laid out all the events for this Passion Week, leading up to Easter.  I'm looking forward to all the events, particularly the Easter Egg Hunt on Sunday which I am in charge of!  And for all you Brethren reading this, yes I will get the chance to do foot-washing and communion on Thursday.  Don't worry!  And for all you GW friends reading, they ARE having an Easter Brunch on Sunday (sans mimosas).  

Whew.  That's all for now.  Wishing you well wherever you are.


10 April 2011

banana islands

MOST IMPORTANTLY: The ship is currently experiencing a severe water shortage, meaning no showers, no laundry, no hot water, paper products in the dining room, and potentially cancelled/postponed surgeries for our patients.  While the engineers are working on fixing this, please pray for a fast solution to this problem.  Thanks.

Yesterday, I went to the Banana Islands with a group of 10 other Mercy Shippers.  The Banana Islands are a group of three islands off the coast of Freetown's peninsula.  Our journey started with an early 6:30am departure, when we all hopped into a rented poda poda (the 21-passenger vans that function as taxis), and we headed for the village of Kent, about an hour's drive outside of Freetown.  The traffic was minimal that early in the morning, so the ride was quite pleasant with the window's down and the cool morning air rushing in.  I had very low expectations for the condition of the roads to Kent, but to my surprise, the whole way there consisted of a paved, two-lane road.  Once we arrived in Kent, we were led down a rocky path do a little bay that was filled with wooden boats, fishermen, and their families.  We eventually found our captain, Dalton, and we loaded into the wooden fishing boat that would transport us to the islands.  This boat was a bit smaller than the one I had taken to River No. 2 Beach (see previous posts), but it did come with about 6 life jackets.

THIS JUST IN (6:34pm): The Captain just announced that we can all take ONE two-minute shower (cold water of course).  I'm saving mine for tomorrow after screening at Kissy.

Anyway, the ride lasted about 25 minutes in very calm waters.  When our boat finally arrived on shore, he reached in the boat and threw overboard a very large pink fish.  Just as I was about to ask why he did that, he told us that it was our lunch! More on that soon.  We gathered our items and headed up a footpath following behind the captain's son on his bicycle. Trekking through a small village, we arrived at the oldest well on the islands, and then walked down a small hill to arrive at the guest house that would be our base camp for the day.  About 900 people live on the islands today, most of them descendants of former slaves from the 18th and 19th centuries.  One resident, however, is Gregory, the Greek owner of the guest house, and his British-Sierra Leonean girlfriend/wife.  Details were few.  Gregory, who among other things claimed to be an ethnomusicologist, runs a small guest house on the island, and provides food for day-trippers.  It was about 9:30 by the time we got settled.  Gregory said lunch would be served at 1pm, so our group split for the morning.  About half went for a short hike, while my group went to find the ruins on the island, walk through the village, and then to the beach.  After a quick walk back past the aforementioned well, another local found us wandering in the wrong direction and led us to the ruins of an old Portuguese church in the forest.

Since there was no cement on the island back then, the Portuguese explorers/settlers would crush up oyster shells to use as a cement-like building material.  Our guide then took us to the site of a former British embankment to show us the cannons they used to fire at French ships who would try to steal the slaves.  Several cannons were still planted in the undergrowth.

We continued our walk, passing by a (presumably Episcopal) church as we followed the trail into the forest.  Near the church was a starfruit tree, literally dripping with fruit, a reminder that we were indeed on a tropical island.  

At this point, I had worked up a bit of a sweat as the heat and humidity was picking up as we got closer to noon.  Upon reaching a fork in the road, we could hear the crashing waves, so we turned right and beheld a glorious sight:

The water was incredibly clear.  Not crystal-clear like on commercials for Caribbean vacations, but clear nonetheless.  We were the only people on the whole beach.  We played in the surf for a while before breaking to take some photos and then headed back to the guest house to get ready for lunch.  As promised, around 1pm our group was presented with a veritable island feast.  Dalton, the boat captain, had prepared the meaty grouper, simply grilled and garnished with fresh limes, rice, couscous, a tomato-onion-garlic-oil sauce, fresh bananas, coconut, pineapple, and fried breadfruit.  Everything was delicious and the fresh fish was out-of-this-world.  We took our time eating, sitting under the guest house's canopied patio with views of the ocean.  In my rush to enjoy the food, I completely forgot to take photos of it until after the dishes were cleared.  I think someone took a few pictures, so I will see if I can post those later.  Feeling refueled, most of us climbed up a steep staircase/ladder to a platform in the trees, to read and take naps.  

We spent the rest of our afternoon up there until about 4pm, when we settled our bill and headed back to the boat, and then the poda poda.  The whole day, including the poda poda, the boat ride, the meal and soft drinks cost me only 83,000 Leones, roughly $19 USD.  Considering that I would have probably paid more than that for an equivalent meal back home, I'd say that the day was a bargain.  

On the ride back to the ship, our poda poda got behind a truck filled with dancing, smiling children.

Where they were going or why there were so happy, I do not know, but I could relate having had a pretty good day myself.  

Tomorrow is another screening day for the Eye Team, and then Tuesday, most of the team is leaving on the first upcountry trip to Koidu.  Please pray for their safety and I will post more details as I get them.  Wishing you and yours the best from sunny Africa!

03 April 2011

a group of pill pushers

Friday was a good day.

To start, the eye team had a meeting from 8am-10am, which meant I could sleep in an extra hour.  In the meeting we discussed detail about our upcountry trips.  I will be going on the second trip, April 26-29.  The first trip is April 12-15, to the city of Koidu in Kono District.  Koidu is located on the other side of Sierra Leone, near the country's eastern border with Guinea.  It is the heart of Sierra Leone's diamond mining industry and about 50% of the country's Gross Domestic Product comes from the diamonds of this district.  While details for this trip are mostly ironed out, the details for the second trip are not.  We are still not decided on a location, so please pray for guidance and discernment for our leadership in making these plans.

After our meeting, the eye team was pretty much finished for the day (Fridays are our slow days since we don't usually have patients then), so I went to work my Minor Job.  Crew members are able to volunteer to do Minor Jobs in various departments, working once a week or whenever available.  I decided to work in the pharmacy with my pharmacist friend, Miriam, from New Zealand.  The rest of the afternoon, I counted and packaged loads of children's multi-vitamins (eating all the halves I came across) and ibuprofen into small bags.  The pharmacy has only two main crew members, so they really love having the extra help to get caught up with small things like this.

To continue with my good day, the kitchen served Breakfast for Dinner, which was a bit of a new concept for some of the ships non-American crew members.  I, on the other hand, wish we could have this meal every Friday.  Scrambled eggs, bacon (more like ham), French toast, homefries....some of my favorites!  For whatever reason, the galley insists (!) on appeasing the Brits by serving beans with hot breakfast.  ATTENTION UNITED KINGDOM: BAKED BEANS ARE NOT A BREAKFAST FOOD.  They should be reserved for picnics and/or only served with hot dogs.  I digress.  The meal was awesome, and a large chunk of my evening after that was spent reading the hilariously witty "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson, about hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Tomorrow, we've got another day of eye screening at Kissy Eye Hospital, so be in prayer for the success of that.  That's all for now!  Take care.