A Jungle Escape

March 27, 2010

A weekend away in Kpalime to hike Togo’s tallest mountain (hill). Mount Agou is dotted with villages, and their children enjoyed skipping alongside us, eating our snacks and marvelling at the balloons we inflated for gifts. During the descent, gray clouds rolled through, and the skies opened up in a fantastic inauguration of the rainy reason.


Magic plastic numbers

March 17, 2010

Smoosh a boat full of Westerners into a country of West Africans, and you find that many cultural differences are irksome or complicated or both. Some differences, though, just make me grin:

Before being scheduled for eye surgery, each patient provides Lauren with personal information such as name, cell phone number, tribe, language, etc. Most queries receive fairly straight forward answers, but the one sticking point is age. You and I list our birthdate as a trio of day, month and year. Not so in Togo, where the important information is not any of those bits. What is important is the day of the week on which you were born. In fact, many people are named after their birth day. If you were born on Saturday, your name is Komi. On Tuesday, you are Komlan. So the average patient can certainly tell you that he was birthed on a Thursday. But ask whether that was 50, 55, or 70 years ago, and all you get is a shrug–only God knows. The sort of thing that drives our statisticians mad.

To encourage order when bringing people from outside to inside a clinic, I always distribute small cards stamped with sequential numbers. Otherwise, moving people inside is a bit like turning a medicine bottle upside down and hoping that only two or three pills fall out. I can point to ten people I want to follow me, but then I turn around at the doors and a swell of fifty has gathered behind me. At the end of the day I reorder my numbers, but each day a few go missing. Apparently, patients sometimes keep the “lucky” numbers. This means forsaking a coveted spot in line, since you must have a number to come inside, but I suppose the hope attached to that card outweighs the hope of medical intervention. 137 ran away last week, and I haven’t seen 59 since our first day out. I’m hoping that once the bandits abandon faith in their laminated yellow squares, they will trod back to the clinic, line up, be examined by the docs, and return their numbers. It would be nice to have a complete set again.

Ward Church

March 7, 2010

With shore leave prohibited, I cannot venture to my regular church downtown for Mass. But one path blocked means another opened! Today I joined in the church service held for hospital patients, dubbed the “ward church.”

Fifty people, patients and crew, pack into one ward. Children with double casts on their legs are carried in and propped up on empty beds. Four mothers walk in quietly, carrying blankets that envelop teeny tiny babies. Each infant has a cleft lip, palate, or both. This defect makes nursing incredibly difficult: Without a solid surface to press the tongue against, baby’s mouth cannot create the suction necessary to drink. Many are brought to the ship severely malnourished and must enter a feeding program to chunk them up before surgery.

Clementine, a long-term Togolese crew member with a peaceful yet regal presence, leads the service in English. A Togolese day volunteer stands beside her to translate to the tribal language Mina, and then other translations begin to pepper the room: French on one side, Ewe in the back corner, maybe Adja as well. A small boy with double casts whimpers in his mother’s arms, his legs itching under the plaster. A few tears leak from mom’s eyes onto the boy’s forehead. But soon enough the drums appear and voices are raised and songs are belted out in the half yell/half sing characteristic of African worship. A foot taps, hands clap, and bodies jive back and forth across the narrow aisle. A woman thrusts her torso in praise, tossing to and fro the toddler papoosed to her back, his neck jolting almost violently. I cringe with fear of whiplash or worse, but a few minutes later he is freed from the cloth sling and crawls over to a day volunteer, apparently unaffected. The melodies die down and transform into spontaneous prayer. I close my eyes. Even with no understanding of the languages, I can hear the urgency of petition, the fervor of thanksgiving, and I thank God for something I have never thought to thank Him before: That He listens to every word spoken to Him, and that His understanding far surpasses my own.


March 6, 2010

News of a Mercy Ship landing spreads far and wide. Some will walk, hobble, and limp through countries, across borders to seek help. These photographs (taken by the ship’s photographers) show the orthopedic and maxillofacial screenings. Somehow grief and hope can coexist in the heart: Imagining the devestation caused by deformity, but knowing that, for many of these, physical and emotional healing is within reach. Finally.


March 5, 2010

Off-ship clinics were cancelled today, so instead of coordinating/organizing/instructing/managing/fetching, I held babies and played with kiddos. Now this is my kind of Friday =)


March 4, 2010

Rarely am I out in Lomé past dark, and very rarely until our 10 pm curfew. After all, as a yovo [a better pronunciation than “yova,” apparently]  woman I should never go beyond the ship without either a man or at least two other yovo women. At night, no yovo should travel on foot, be you man or woman.

Last night, however, curfew was pushed up to 6:30 and the gangway closed with every crew member on board. The ship will remain in lockdown throughout Thursday, and beyond that is unknown. Today is election day.

Every billboard, concrete wall and pole in the city is plastered with political posters, mostly endorsing one man, the current president. I must tread lightly here, because Mercy Ships has been graciously welcomed and hosted by the Togolese government, and we are strongly encouraged to consider this when writing in the public domain. From conversations with our translators and local friends, though, I’d be willing to put a fat stack of cash on the current president claiming victory. Legitimately? You can do your own research.

What we do know is that elections in Togo have produced violence in the recent past. Most opinions I have heard about this election predict relative peace, but it is smart for this organization to be overly cautious. Many international NGOs in Lomé are monitoring the situation. If things get really sticky, we can quickly load the Land Rovers and dockside equipment and sail out within hours: the benefit of a boat-based mission!

The eye team plans to hold our Friday clinic tomorrow, but that will depend entirely upon the security situation overnight. After a security update at 6 am, our 8 translators will call me to check on the status…assuming the cellular network is running. Togo Cell, the country’s main provider, is operated by–you guessed it!–the government, and they switch it off at times to make it more difficult to organize riots. We are also subject to the ban on road traffic in place today, and possibly tomorrow, for nonessential vehicles.

So while the president’s supporters and the opposition parade today in white and yellow, respectively, tooting car horns and filling the dusty streets, I am enjoying a quiet day in the AC, for once far from the masses.