23.10.2008 -17 °C
As I write someone down in the lounge below is playing the piano very well - those of us on the internet often have a merry accompaniment to out toils! Sometimes it's not so merry ie when a child is practicing! Several crew members give lessons, and one of my friends here helps children with their German grammar. There's a wide range of ability here on the ship!
A Liberian man who valiantly records all the patient visions in the clinics also helps run a local charity, WODRI. It helps destitute people who live in what I believe is the poorest area of Monrovia, West Point. He'd asked myself and colleagues if we wanted to see what they do. As we don't have official clinics on Tues we went along. I wasn't prepared for the level of poverty; it was indescribable, however, I will try. We saw 2 schools, one small and one larger, both with a wooden frame matted with vegetation. These schools are for the use of children who wouldn't otherwise go to school and whose parents are out all day. Most children seemed happy enough, they were certainly happy to see us. The 2nd school was near the beach, Cole told us that, with the winter tides the school gets washed away, also nearby houses. The awful part of the day was walking to this school; we wound our way through slums for 10-12 minutes, past people carrying out their daily activities within a few feet of where we walked, ducking under washing lines and around people lying on mats by the side of the path. The smells weren't nice; their were lots of flies and 1 dead rat. Apparently over 50,000 people live in this small area, over 30,000 of them children. The worst part were the ' homes' these people lived in; I'm used to seeing shacks, but these were bunched up on each other a few feet apart. There were hazards every few feet such as sharp corrugated tin sticking out at a childs' head-height and pots of boiling oil or water. It's easy to see why skin grafting after burns with contractures is a common surgery on the ship.
Most of the people we saw on this trip had an air of desolation about them, as if they'd given up. From their houses they could see sky, apart from that nothing but filth.
One unexpected humourous moment though - we rounded a corner to find 2 teenage girls sitting - one was carefully attaching false nails to the others toe nails! Female vanity exists everywhere!
WODRI showed us plans for 6 latrines with public washing areas they want to build. It's about £1600 - nothing in our money. We knew we were going to be encouraged to give money; I will be leaving some money here as I haven't spent all the money I've been donated. One of the orphanages wants to buy bunk beds and mattresses for the children, as some of them sleep on thin foam on the floor. Also, most weeks people take food to the orphanages, and to the prison. This work will continue after the ship leaves. One of the single men is going home to the States when the ship leaves, but is then coming back to volunteer/work in an orphanage.
I want the prayer chain at Church to permanently put West Point on our prayer list.
To more cheerful things - last night 2 landrover loads of people, plus equipment went out to a Sierra Leone refugee camp to show a film in the middle of nowhere. It was very atmospheric - the screen was hooked up high on the back of one of the vehicles, and the auditorium was the night sky with masses of stars and lightning continually flickering in the distance. This was a small village, only a few hundred gathered, but one a recent occasion there were around 1000 people, apparently. Our driver was a young S Korean electrician, like our last driver, he was also good at negotiating the huge potholes.
Since we've spent hours in the landrover going to clinics I've had plenty of time to talk to locals - the war is always a difficult subject to talk about, but sometimes the translators will talk about it. One of them told me that absolutely EVERYONE left Monrovia, even the elderly, though many must have perished in the effort. They went into the bush, though they probably weren't safe there. The rebels 'recruited' locals as they went so the forces got bigger and bigger and could probably penetrate everywhere. Although I've only seen a little of the interior the evidence is there to see - derelict, fire-damaged bulidings, and everyone living in shacks. Young patients with one cataract describe being hit in the war as they were running through the bush. The translator I talked to said they survived by eating plants, cassava root etc.
Home now - to snow, on my immediate return! (Only on the hills).
I've had plenty of time to reflect on Liberia since my return; it's been more difficult to settle this time - last time I was only there 3 weeks. A friend on email said she felt 'lost' when she returned. Life on the ship is so lovely, even if the work is hard. What I can do over there feels much more valuable than what I do here. I'm sure I'll get used to it again!
Something I noticed is that there appeared to be less signs of vitamin A deficiency than last time,(one of the signs is a cloudy cornea) though I don't know if that's true in practice. MS had to discontinue the clinic where I saw this, as mentioned earlier.
Something it was useful to help the patients with was to explain options to a patient with corneal scarring. Quite alot of patients presented with this - they think it's a 'catarac', and that we can remove it. They're usually young; I especially felt sorry for young females with this, as it affects their 'marriageability'. Apparently, one surgeon had done a graft on the ship, obtaining a cornea in just 1 day, I think from USA. This was a one-off though. There is no corneal graft to be had in Liberia normally; I found out that the nearest place doing this is in neighbouring Ghana. So I'd explain this to the patient, going on to draw pictures to show the operation, and telling them that it wasn't quite as straight-forward as a cataract operation, that they'd need to stay in that country a week or two. If the opacity was in one eye and they saw well in the other eye that wasn't so bad, but some were bilateral, probably from measles. These latter patients we prayed with - Isaac prays real powerful prayer!
I reasoned that at least then the patient knew what the score was, and that they could save and go to Ghana if that was within their reach.
Liberia badly needs an eye screening service for children.
We were able to help some patients financially to enable them to pay for medical care; one 2 year old boy received care for malaria courtesy of my mother - she'd been saving small change!
I feel sad at leaving Liberia and the translators I worked with last year and this. They include: Joyce, she is undertaking nurse training; Catherine and Sarah. I know that I probably won't see them again - but God! The UN leaves in 2010 - what will happen then, and what will happen to them and their families? Most of their menfolk have gone, and they have children to support. There will be elections in 2011, and it's said the UN may return - I hope they do.
In the war apparently abut 75% of Liberian women were raped. You'd never guess it; they're always laughing and joking - it's a good thing they depend on God and that they're tough.
There's a funny story about Sarah - she has a child and I guess she's about 35. In the clinics you get used to people without registration slips hanging around - they're trying to have a word with you. When I noticed one old gent had been there for a while I asked 'what is this elderly gentleman waiting for?' I was told 'he's Sarah's fiance!' Honestly, he looked about 100! Sarah laughed!
When examining a small child I often noticed that he/she clutched a Liberian dollar in one hand - this is apparently a bribe to persuade them to be good. Something seemed to work, though often I think children were transfixed at seeing what was probably their first white person!
I have had a couple of emails from WODRI asking if I can help financially. It's hard to know what to do - where exactly would the money go?
Well, at least now I don't have to remember to check in on the ship after returning from clinic. The phone in the cabin rings about 11.30pm if someone's not checked in or - even worse - someone hammers on the door about 2.30am! That's makes you really popular! (Especially as I sleep with earplugs to block out the engine noise!)
The eye room is near the 2nd gangway so we leave and return to that, carrying our stuff in and getting on with re-stocking the next day. Hence it's easy to forget to go to the other gangway to check in, especially as you approach it from inside the ship and the Ghurka thinks you're checking out. It's fun!
Good news! The eye surgeon that I've mainly worked with has given up his private practice and is going to volunteer on the ship for the whole of the next outreach, Feb-Dec '09. His wife, who has been escorting patients to and from OR (Theatre), will also be here. That's great, though the eye field team will need to be on their toes to keep him supplied with surgical patients all that time!
I've just had an email from Jean, a Practice Nurse from Sheffield who was on the ship with me - she's returning early next year. Often, she will give up a job to go to Mercy Ships, not try to get enough time off, as I did. This is testimony to God about trusting Him - Jean's the same age as me, has had many jobs, and said that not once has she ever left a job and had another one to go to. God always provides! She's on her own too, so her trust is very great. Blessing follows obedience.
That's all of my reflections from an eye nurse for now; let's see where I can get to next time. Thank you Liberia.