A Mission of Mercy

Life & Work

Popeye wouldn’t have approved of this at all: a toddler running across deck, brandishing a model of the said sailor man, while an older child tests out a go-cart. Nearby, basketball hoops stand off duty ready for playtime. For a few disorientating moments the only clue that you are on board a ship and not in a school playground is the fact that the hoops are carefully tied in place, braced for stormy seas. Another giveaway is that the smiley gentleman keeping a watchful eye over proceedings isn’t a dinner supervisor but an immaculately dressed senior officer. Captain Jay de Guzman joined the Anastasia because, he says, he loves to help people and because he loves God – hardly typical recruitment criteria for the manager of a major seafaring vessel with a flexible crew of up to three hundred people.

But the Anastasia is no ordinary ship. Docked for a fortnight within site of the Tay Bridge, the well-travelled “Mercy Ship” is taking on supplies ready for its next trip to the West Coast of Africa where it will offer practical aid and medical expertise to some of the poorest people in the world. The next port of call will be Benin, west of Nigeria, and then Liberia; most recently, the Anastasia has been in Sierra Leone. Isn’t that dangerous, I ask Tourism Manager Brian Finley? “Our parents think so,” he laughs. “There’s definitely a security risk but we’re very well liked in the countries we go to. We’re there to show love. Our services are free. We’ve got a good thing going here.”

This “good thing” has been going since the late 1970s, the vision of an American couple, Don and Deyon Stephens. The Anastasia is now just one of a growing fleet of hospital ships. A fourth, considerably larger vessel is currently undergoing a £15 million re-fitting having been bought for the enterprise by Scottish businesswoman and philanthropist, Ann Gloag. A former nurse, she herself has volunteered on board the Anastasia, working as an assistant in the hospital ship’s operating theatre.

Someone who knows that theatre well is Douglas Sammon, a retired orthopaedic surgeon from Yorkhill Sick Children’s Hospital in Glasgow. He has just delivered to the ship a consignment of donated crutches and regularly spends three-to-four week stints on the ship. As one would expect, the facilities are a little more cramped compared to those he used to work in, but in Africa “they’re certainly much better than what’s available on land.”

Ann Gloag agrees. Having worked with other health projects in Africa she is convinced that “this singular and most efficient ship is the perfect solution. You don’t know who the next government will be or where the next rebellion will be.” The Mercy Ships have the virtue of being flexible in such situations: they can go where they’re needed and get out places that have become too dangerous. But wherever they are, they bring “a team that is well tried and a hospital that actually works. The surgeons that we use take their holiday to be there. They are,” she adds with forgivable irony, “at the sharp end.”

Sammon reckons that this is where The Anastasia scores, by “showing how it can be done.” He and other professional colleagues work in rotation to offer the range of clinical expertise required, providing a balance of surgery specialisms that accurately reflects patients’ needs in the countries the ship visits. Of high priority is eye and facial surgery (not least, reconstruction work of the type made more widely known by Boy David) and the treatment of long term gynaecological conditions that result in many African women being rejected by their families and living on the streets.

The scale of need is formidable. “Of all the problems in the world, human deprivation is up there at the top. In the increasing gulf between rich and poor, lack of access to health provision is one of the most obvious aspects.” (In a telling re-working of traditional missionary priorities, when I speak later to a member of the ship’s evangelism team she tells me that her task in Benin and Liberia will be to promote AIDS awareness.) But in an increasingly congested and competitive charity market, surely there is a real question about supporting an independent organisation whose work can only ever be, as it were, a drop in the ocean.

However small-scale in relative terms, Sammon responds, the focussed, flexible response of The Anastasia is entirely valid. While he doesn’t in any way criticise the work of multi-national agencies or co-ordinated charity action, nevertheless he believes that “there is no big organisation that can cope. Certainly the local governments can’t.” In other words, every little helps.

What The Anastasia also does is put individuals on the front line of mission who wouldn’t necessarily expect to be there. Because of the wide-ranging needs of such a ship, it offers an opportunities to a hugely diverse range of people, from hairdressers to accountants. Such support roles help the ship to function. “When you think of a missionary, you probably think of a doctor or a pastor”, suggests Brian Finlay. “As a chef or an electrician you probably think there isn’t a role for you. But we have twenty-five families on board, so there is a school with nine teachers. We have one hundred and fifty computers, so there’s an IT department.” If The Anastasia is no ordinary ship, neither are its crewmembers ordinary missionaries.

Take, for example, James Haworth from the American state of Idaho. Tracey, his wife, is a trained nurse who will help run the wards on the ship. James, however, has spent twenty years working for a major U.S. credit card company and, as he says, “there isn’t much demand for credit cards in West Africa.” But for some years Tracey has spent a couple of months at a time volunteering on The Anastasia and finally she asked James to consider committing to a full year’s work on board. “We’ve spent twenty years following my career,” he says. “I figured she was due a year.” So James has taken an extended career break, a period in which he will reassess what to do with the next twenty years of his working life – and while he’s at it, he will become part of the ship’s communications team.

By way of contrast, Rachel and Steven Newcombe have brought not only their work with them but their family too. They were willing to do anything required, but when they said they were teachers The Anastasia offered them positions with the ship’s school. Steven teaches science and maths; Rachel teaches “life skills” – which, in this context, has a lot to do with new languages, rates of exchange and how to get on with 47 other children. Compared with the daunting and complicated notion of taking a family to the middle of Africa, say, The Anastasia offers a sustainable and supported way for them to engage with long-term mission work, while ironically “the children have got a lot more freedom to go out and play on the ship than at home.”

For the privilege of working with The Anastasis, volunteers pay crew fees – in the case of the Newcombe family, £10,000 for the year. Many, like the Newcombes, are supported by networks of friends or local churches. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Ann Gloag considers The Mercy Ships “one of the most cost effective charities around.” She readily agrees that working with so many volunteers doesn’t always make for perfection. It is a little disconcerting, for example, to speak with the ship’s young banker who is preparing, with no apparent training, to set up a children’s play therapy centre in Sierra Leone. Overall, however, Gloag considers the occasional gap in experience to be outweighed by the high levels of commitment and enthusiasm.

It’s enthusiasm that extends well beyond the ship’s childproofed railings. Along with the supply of crutches and a batch of bicycles (restored by prisoners in England), The Anastasia is also taking on board four tonnes of potatoes, donated as the result of an arrangement between James Haggart & Sons in Perthshire and Auchterarder Parish Church. Rev. Michael Shewan is clear about the value of his congregation’s support, which has resulted in a couple of his members considering volunteering their plumbing and engineering skills. “It gets people thinking about what they can offer and what they can bring back to the church also, because we live in ignorance of the real world. I see how a little makes a huge difference in people’s lives.” Caithness potatoes, it seems, will be this year become Christmas gifts of priceless value.

Meanwhile, back on The Anastasia, a large space has been cleared on the main deck because the children have re-appeared for their lunchtime aerobics session. Captain Jay de Guzman looks on benevolently, no doubt pleased that even the youngest of his missionary crew are getting themselves into ship shape for the voyage ahead.


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