Good hearts set sail

LAUREN O’CONNOR-MAY
Sambany was waiting to die. He had a tumour on his neck the size of two extra heads. He had travelled to 10 hospitals across Madagascar hoping to find help. There was no hope or help to be found.
Then one day, listening to the radio – his only companion while his family worked in the fields – he found hope: a hospital ship had docked in Madagascar. 
Sambany’s story found a special place in Brenda van Straten’s heart. She spent 18 years as an on-board volunteer for Mercy Ships Southern Africa. Now, as the international non-profit organisation’s national director, Brenda, 54, is based at Mercy Ship’s Cape Town office in Diep River.
Brenda, who lives in Muizenberg, was 34 when a Mercy Ships team spoke at her church about their work. At the time, she was restless.
“I was at a stage where I felt like something was changing in me, and I wanted to change.”
After hearing about Mercy Ships’ work – the free reconstructive surgery saving and changing lives along the African coast;  the land teams training communities and NGOs in farming, health and nutrition and the upgrades to hospitals and clinics in the countries where they docked – Brenda was no longer restless.
“I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she said. “I applied and was accepted. So I gave up my job, and my church supported me with sponsorship.”
Within a few short months, everything was finalised and Brenda was on board for the first time in July 1996 – and that’s where she stayed for the next 18 years.
“It was amazing. Those 18 years were the best of my life. I felt like I received more than I actually gave. People saw the value of what I was doing and supported me for all those years. I have had such a fulfilled life,” she said.
Brenda’s story is exceptional in that she stayed on the ship with the multi-national, multi-cultural “floating community” for such a long time, only coming home for short periods when the ship docked for repairs and then boarding again before its next 10-month stint at a different African harbour.
“When you first join the ship, it seems so big, but then it becomes so small,” she said of the Anastasias, which Brenda first worked on before it was retired and replaced by the eight-decked Africa Mercy. 
“I’m an extreme extrovert. I loved eating with hundreds of other people and living in cabins with nine or 10 other people, sharing a little space, but it’s not for everybody. It’s community living. We share together, we eat together, you launder in the same place as everyone else, and your doctor is someone you may have lunch with after he’s examined you today.”
Onboard life also has other challenges, with a never-ending list of work and frequent safety drills.
“Even our youngest kids on board know what to do if there was a pirate attack, but it’s never happened though.”
Brenda regaled the Bulletin with stories of people that had been helped, like Jean, a Congolese farmer who had a heavy mass of tissue growing on his back and neck. 
“And he was such a humble man,” Brenda said. “There are so many stories.”
Sambany’s story had started 36 years before, when the 7kg tumour started growing on his face and neck. By the time Sambany heard about Mercy Ships, he had given up and was “waiting to die”. The massive tumour had consumed his life and confined him to his house where he could avoid the shame, scorn and superstition. The extremely uncomfortable tumour made even the simplest daily tasks difficult.
On Mercy Ships’ website Nancy Predaina wrote: “It was a journey that only a desperate man would attempt. The closest road was several days away; the ship was hundreds of kilometers away. Sambany struggled to walk around his house. How could he survive such a trip? But his family recognised his desperation and determination. They sold a rice field to pay for him to travel. Five people took turns carrying him on their backs for two days. Then Sambany endured a painful six-hour taxi ride … but he made it.
“Due to multiple health concerns, Sambany’s surgery would be extremely high-risk. For almost two weeks, he rested as the medical team determined the best course of action.
“Finally, with one word, Sambany’s entire world changed. After a lifetime of hearing, ‘No, no, no,’ the medical team said ‘yes’ to performing the difficult surgery. Sambany was well aware of the risks. ‘I know without surgery I will die. I know I might die in surgery, but I already feel dead inside from the way I’m treated,’ he said.
“The operation took more than 12 hours, and over twice of his body’s volume of blood was lost and replaced. Our crew, our living blood bank, literally poured life into Sambany. The blood of seventeen people from six nations now runs through his veins.”
Sambany’s surgery was a huge success and he went home free of his physical and emotional burden.  “It’s a very special experience,” Brenda said. “Seeing lives completely transformed.”
* The Africa Mercy is currently docked in Durban for repairs. In early August it will come to the V&A Waterfront and visitors will be allowed on board for tours. For more information about Mercy Ships visit www.mercyships.org
Mercy Ships facts: 
* Volunteers of every profession work on board, maritime staff, engineers, teachers, accountants, cooks, IT professionals, tradesmen, and so on.
* Sometimes the ship needs to return to a country for several consecutive years. The Africa 
* Mercy spent the last two years in Madagascar. It’s next trip will be to Benin.
* There are 400 crew from more than 40 countries on board.
* There are about 50 children with their families currently on board. They attend an on board school and are taught by volunteer teachers.
* Mercy Ships is funded entirely by donations.
* It has 16 national offices including one in Cape Town.