Kiwis delivering vital medical help in converted ferry in Africa

There’s something about the African continent that gets under your skin, it’s vibrant, challenging and humbling.

I was based as a foreign correspondent in Johannesburg for six years so I’ve seen my fair share of it but there is always more to experience so I was itching to join the SUNDAY team heading to Guinea in West Africa to cover the work of Mercy Ships.

Landing in the capital Conakry along with producer Chris Cooke and cameraman Gary Hooper we were assaulted by the muggy heat and for me, a flood of memories.

It was exciting to be back and I loved the hustle of the airport, communicating with sign language, passports disappearing in a strangers’ hands, taxi drivers shouting for our custom - all dealt with through the haze of a very long haul flight.  

Medical staff on board the Mercy Ship anchored off the coast of western Africa. Source: Sunday

But our first TIA (This is Africa) moment came at dinner as we were recovering from the flight in the refuge of an air-conditioned restaurant.

We were alarmed to see a man emerge on the lawn wearing full overalls; boots, gloves and a mask, not an inch of skin showing – like a beekeeper.

He had a big backpack slung over his shoulders and proceeded to unleash an enormous white cloud of pesticides into the bushes lining the hotel. Guinea is malaria country.

The haze of toxins filled the air and to our horror seeped through the copious gaps between the windows and the frames.  I held my breath and weighed up the pros and cons of breathing in a little poison over the risks of getting malaria. The poison won, leaving me with only a slight headache.

Sunday reporter Tania Page is surrounded by children in Guinea. Source: Sunday

Heading to the ship for the first time I was struck by how busy the capital Conakry is. I’ve been to two other West African countries and so Guinea seemed to confirm my understanding that, when compared to Southern Africa, the west is busy, populated, heaving in parts.

Down narrow alleyways there were glimpses of domestic life; kids bathing in buckets, women washing clothes at taps, men carrying crates of chickens before spilling out onto the sidewalk into a city alive with peak-hour hub-bub.

And the noise! Motorcyclists, cars and pedestrians, beeping, yelling, they all seemed to know the secret choreography that prevented collisions and got everyone where they wanted to go. It all seems to work, somehow.

The Africa Mercy is a converted ferry, the biggest civilian hospital ship on earth. To the uninitiated it’s a rabbit warren of stairways and corridors filled with people from all over the world in medical scrubs.

But even the simple act of climbing stairs is foreign to some of the patients. Many of them are driven to the capital by the Mercy Ships outreach teams from the country’s farthest regions.

For them, the city itself is a novelty let alone seeing the sea for the first time and then boarding a ship. Patients place an enormous amount of trust in Mercy Ships, it is a leap of faith for many of them to place their hopes and health in the hands of total strangers. But the reality is they have no choice.

Roaming the ship’s corridors it’s easy to understand why.

There are before and after photos everywhere of people with tumours, bowed legs, cleft palates and cataracts.

The impact of helping or fixing those conditions cannot be underestimated. Journalists have a vital role to play in shining a light on need, but it is those at the coalface of services like healthcare and education who do the practical real work.

And, of course it isn’t just the small army of foreign volunteers who answer the call to help. Our local translator Sia runs an orphanage for kids who lost their parents during the Ebola outbreak.

She houses, clothes and feeds dozens of kids on a shoe string. And having worked as a translator for Mercy Ships on its first visit to Guinea six years ago, this time Sia spent months spreading the word that the Africa Mercy was coming before it arrived into port.

When it docked she spent days driving people to and from their village to the ship.

I’ve seen plenty of people with treatable, but untreated conditions in Africa. Millions of people go without. But to see so many in one place at one time was quite something.

But even though a surgery can have an enormous effect on someone’s life, it’s not a silver bullet.

We met a youngster who’d been spared a slow, horrible death by the work of a surgeon on the Africa Mercy’s first trip to Guinea.

He’d had a tumour removed to unblock his airways and was alive and healthy.

But his parents couldn’t afford to send him to school, so he had joined the scores of kids not getting an education. Hope and heartache. TIA.

The story was made possible with the help of NZ On-Air.

Your playlist will load after this ad

The Sunday team followed a group of Kiwis working on the world’s largest hospital ship, The Africa Mercy. Source: Sunday