Thursday, August 22, 2013

Africa Mercy - In the Land of Congo: One Nurse's Journey

Long awaited news from my dear friend in Africa! She has finally arrived in the land of Congo and has yet another interesting tale to tell. This is a running post about her journey as a nurse on the Africa Mercy, a fully staffed hospital ship that travels up and down the coast of Africa. Learn with her as she discovers and relates  to life in Congo and the people firsthand.

Online image of Pointe Noire market
In the Land of Congo

We arrived in Pointe Noire, Congo a little over a week ago now, although it seems much longer ago that that.  As expected, we spent last week in a flurry of cleaning and unpacking.  The job is not done yet, but it's beginning to look like a hospital again, and it is certainly much cleaner than it was before.  We'll be ready in time for our first patients on September 2nd.

This week, we are beginning to train our day workers.  We have eleven day workers assigned to the Eye Team.  They are all Congolese who speak English, and usually four to seven other languages.  They are not medical personnel, however, so we begin at the beginning. Today I taught basics like handwashing, use of gloves, body mechanics, and waste disposal.  Tomorrow we'll teach about blood pressures and administering eye drops, and then move into basic eye anatomy and eye diseases. I do wonder how much of this they are understanding--but we do a lot of show and tell and we give them written material so that they can read what they miss.  And I'm sure we'll be re-teaching the material individually in the coming weeks, but at least we've laid some groundwork.

Probably the most interesting exercise we did today was to blindfold half the class and have their partners lead them up the gangway and down two flights of steps into the hospital eye room.  I participated, and it was interesting to see how frightening it was to make that journey blindfolded, and how much difference it made when my partner led me by the hands and gave me verbal cues.  That's what our patients will experience, only more so, since they are not familiar with our ship, have probably never been in a hospital, and don't get to take off the blindfold at the end of the journey.  Most of them have been blind for a long time and depend on family members to guide them.  Now they have to leave that caregiver outside the ship (we don't have room for them inside) and go in alone to face surgery among strangers.  It makes you appreciate their courage and their desperation, to entrust themselves into our care that way.  Well, hopefully today's exercise will make our day workers both sensitive to the patients' situation and skillful in guiding them along.

First impressions of Congo: 

1.  Weather:  Right now is their winter season, very pleasant, usually sunny, but not too hot.  I hear that the rainy season lasts from October to May, and it gets hot and humid then.  So, I'm enjoying this good weather while it lasts!

2.  Plastic:  Congo outlawed plastic bags a couple of years ago.  You can get quite a fine if you put a WalMart bag in the garbage.  We didn't know that when we arrived--a lot of plastic went out with the trash that accumulated during the two weeks of sail  Oops!  Well, someone is figuring out what we need to use to collect our trash in--it'll all get clear sooner or later.  Meanwhile, I can certainly see the wisdom of such a law.  Pointe Noire is not buried in plastic like the places I've been before.

3.  Market:  Pointe Noire has a very large open air market downtown.  It is organized and relatively tidy. Here there is a whole row of little stalls with traders selling shoes.  Next is a whole row of little stalls with bananas.  Fruits and vegetables are in abundance as far as the eye can see.  Some stalls have clothing, or cooking pots, or electronics.

Whatever you want, it is probably there somewhere.  I was struck with the lack of trash piles or garbage underfoot.  I hear that the traders must completely vacate the market two days a week so that the city can clean the area.  It certainly makes the shopping more pleasant.

4.  Traffic:  Unlike Guinea, Congo has traffic laws that are enforced. Policemen in the intersections are not offering suggestions, they are giving orders. There are a few traffic lights in town, and they actually work.  Taxis are abundant and relatively cheap; most people do not own cars.  The roads are crowded, but not like I've seen elsewhere, and traffic goes in the right direction, not every which way.  For the most part, traffic flows without major bottlenecks.

5. Port Security:  Congo takes their port security very seriously. That's good, but it has also been a hassle for us, bumps in the road that haven't been ironed out yet.  It is about a mile from our ship to the port gate.  Our vehicle generally gets stopped about three times in that mile so that they can check our ID badges--very carefully, comparing our pictures to our faces for everyone in the car.  Problems arise when we pick up new crew at the airport and try to get them to the ship, since they don't have a proper ID badge yet.  We've worked out a compromise, giving the port authorities a list of expected arrivals each day.  Then  our new people just need a picture ID of some sort, which is compared to the list.  In theory.  Not every guard seems to know the procedure.  Vehicles get hung up, and Mercy Ships officers have to go out and negotiate again. Soon we'll face the same issues trying to bring patients in to be ship.  Do all of them have a picture ID of some sort?

I doubt it.   We are an odd duck, moored here for ten months, with
patients, caregivers, patient visitors, new crew, and ship guests all coming and going, giving those port guards heartburn, I'm sure.  Well, resolving these issues is above my pay grade...but I'm sure it'll get smoothed out before long.  This is the first time Mercy Ships  has been to Congo, so a lot of little details have to get ironed out as we go.

Blessings on you all.


Click here to learn more about the nurses and doctors on board the Africa Mercy.


  1. I always enjoy reading the posts about the Africa Mercy. It brings me back (I feel) a hundred years to a time where people did adventurous things and wrote eloquently about them when they did. Interesting about the plastic bags...

    Diana at About Myself By Myself

  2. I enjoyed reading this! Plastic bags are outlawed? Does that mean you have to bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store?

    1. Diana and Sherry,
      Thank you again for your feedback on the Africa Mercy. Marilyn's attention to detail has made her posts all the more interesting. She really gives a well-rounded view of the people and locale that I find so rare and rewarding. I know from my stats that more and more are reading her (email) posts, although few comment. But word is getting out about the good work of this ship and its crew and that's good.

  3. Hi Sharon .. I've popped over from Diana's recent post about your site - how very interesting .. and what a great organisation to be involved with.

    I found your notes about the organisation of Congolese 'urban' life .. how refreshing too - just makes so much sense: I hope other African countries take note.

    Good luck with the opening of the eye clinic in a week's time - I'm sure many will be so happy with your help - a magnificent job ...

    Cheers - nice to be here .. Hilary

  4. Hi Sharon - thanks for fixing the commenting ... and glad we've met .. cheers Hilary

    1. And thanks for joining this blog, Hilary. Always nice to meet other bloggers! I know my friend on the Africa Mercy really appreciates feedback, too. Her experience as a nurse in Africa is a rare one, straight from the heart and as it happens. I'm glad that more people are reading her emails. Sharon


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