Docked in the port of Cotonou is a ship that will be here for a while, 9 months in fact. Its not delivering any cargo, but instead takes aboard ordinary Beninise in order to perform free, basic surgeries.
Mercy Ship is a Christian, US based aid organization. All of the doctors, nurses, and other staff on the ship volunteer their time. They each pay a monthly fee to be there, but it usually is paid for by their church or another sponsoring organization. One of our friends here in Benin works as a translator on the ship, and he and several of the crew gave us a tour one afternoon.
When they get ready to go to a country, Mercy Ship sends out advance teams to do pre screenings of possible patients. Sometimes, the teams have to go deep into the villages, and they are always building awareness about the organization so that people will trust them and come to the ship.
Most of the surgeries are basic ones. Here in Benin, we were told of one of the most common procedures. For many women who do not receive pre natal care, after having a child, they will have continuous bleeding. Because of the bleeding, their husbands will often leave the women, and they will be ostracized in the community. A simple, low risk surgery can stop the bleeding and allow them to reenter the community.
Even though it is a Christian organization, Mercy Ship treats all people, regardless of religion. And, its not just nurses and doctors who volunteer. On the ship they need cooks, cleaning staff, translators, mechanics, and many other kinds of volunteers. They also have different teams that go out into the country, building schools and homes.
In order to dock in a country, the host government agrees to provide a docking place and water to the ship for free. It also agrees not to charge the ship any taxes. The volunteers live on the ship, which has game rooms, a small school, jungle gym, free internet and computers, and even a Starbucks. Volunteers can serve for several months, or, as in the case of a man we met on the ship, 21 years.