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Kanwal Prakash (KP) Singh

This past June, I had the special experience of visiting Togo, West Africa and the majestic Africa Mercy, the world’s largest Non-Governmental hospital ship and witnessing first hand the important work of providing hope and healing to those with dramatic health care needs in that country. The Africa Mercy, operated by the global charity, MERCY SHIPS headquartered in Texas, delivers free medical and healthcare services to some of the world’s most disadvantaged people, primarily in Africa. My wife Janice and I and Noel and Ruth Yarger of South Bend were invited by Joyce Ann Ketels and her husband John Paul, who serves on the Board of MERCY SHIPS International, to join them for a Humanitarian Vision Trip to the Africa Mercy Ship that was engaged in a ten-month port call docked in Lome, Togo. On the World Heath Organization’s index of all countries, Togo ranks near the top for the highest in need of essential medical and healthcare services and near the bottom in terms of capability to meet that need. For Togo, Africa Mercy is a blessing. For me and our group, the Vision Trip was an inspiration.


I was introduced to the founder of Mercy Ships, Mr. Don Stephens, by John Paul Ketels a few years ago in Washington, D.C. I was very impressed by Mr. Stephens’ spiritual and morally grounded vision and humanity and learned that John Paul Ketels, a partner in the law firm of Clifford Chance LLP provides legal Services to the Mercy Ships as their proud contribution to this humanitarian endeavor.

We came to know that Mercy Ships is one of the largest faith-based organizations engaged in charitable and humanitarian missions of providing much needed health services to the poor in developing countries. A hospital ship in the Mercy Ships fleet, stays at a port with the permission of the government of the country for up to a year. The screened patients come on board for the treatment for a variety of medical conditions such as cataract removal, dental and facial reconstructive surgeries, removal of massive growths, and a host of other critical health and hygiene services. The Africa Mercy is a state-of-the-art hospital with six operating rooms, eight wards, numerous screening rooms, first class medical equipment, and electronic interface with research hospitals for diagnostic purposes.

The all-volunteer crew of 400 aboard the Africa Mercy includes doctors, nurses, physician assistants, teachers, engineers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, cooks, sailors, and many other skilled caregivers who come from more than 35 countries. Each brings his/her own financial sponsorships - from a religious or philanthropic organization, work or business related institution, or his/her own personal resources - to have the privilege of serving the poor. Philanthropists and individual contributions sustain this endeavor. Each year, the Africa Mercy serves thousands of patients.


As we entered this seven-story tall and nearly 500-foot long imposing white ship, we immediately realized that there was much more to the story than our previous knowledge based on conversations, brochures, videos, and the story of Ships of Mercy, a fascinating book by Don Stephens. We witnessed first-hand the nature and scope of services provided on the Africa Mercy Ship, and what we saw during the next five days was simply incredible. We had briefings from the senior staff, saw cataract surgeries, visited with patients on the Ship and in clinics managed by Mercy Ships, and had informal discussions with many volunteers. We saw a school for children and a variety of facilities and services for the residents of the Ship. The coordinator of Vision Trips, Ms. Anouchka Bourgeois; Managing Director, Donovan Palmer, Captain Tim Tretheway, and others made our stay aboard this mini-floating city a memorable experience.

What we saw was a deeply transforming experience. It was a powerful testimony of human goodness at work. Over the years, we all have read about many philanthropic organizations and individuals doing wonderful things for others across this planet: rallying to help victims of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, famines, and great human tragedies. For me, Mercy Ships ranks high among the truly imaginative endeavors that are being carried out by volunteers. Aboard Africa Mercy, volunteers representing many nations and special skills provide critical services that offer hope and healing to people continents away.


The volunteers are willing to sacrifice their cherished freedoms and put personal ambitions on hold for a while. They know all too well that the task will be demanding, comforts and privacy are limited, and the host countries sometimes can erupt into chaos without warning. Volunteers are motivated and eager to make a lasting impact on the forgotten among the human race. Their dedication and idealism reminds us that we are all stewards of the sacred faith ideals and commandments enshrined in every major faith tradition: “To serve the least among you.” The Ship family finds its anchor and strength in the knowledge that they have been called to serve in the Name of the Lord. Besides the exotic nature and spiritual and cultural romance of the experience, this is a powerful driving force that attracts the volunteers, some of them with their families and others serve many repeat ‘tours’ of humanitarian duty with Mercy Ships.


For those who serve on the Ship in spite of inherent uncertainties and occasional dangers in the countries where the Ship docks, this is their higher calling. For them, their reward is the satisfaction of doing the Lord’s work and in making a difference in the lives of people where the Ship has designated to deliver care and where opportunity and destiny has called them. Amidst this labor of love, lasting friendships blossom among the shipmates and with the local people who assist and continue the work of healing after the Ship has departed for another country to a new ‘port of call.’


In daily prayer, Sikhs are reminded, “When God’s Grace is upon us, the undreamed-of becomes manifest to our mind and spirit.” Aboard this Ship, we saw a deeply humanitarian spirit manifested before us and witnessed the life-changing service that the Africa Mercy is performing. We saw physical and emotional healing of the patients; introduction of productive initiatives to improve human conditions that raise the quality of lives of the people being served. We saw programs in place that recognize the changes taking place in these countries from the once-strictly-agrarian-societies with tribal cultural underpinnings and lifestyles to opportunities and challenges of modern societies. We noticed that the caregivers make sure that the valued traditions and experiences of their patients are thoughtfully integrated into their programs.

The Africa Mercy recognizes the need to teach new skills for living to their patients after successful treatments and surgeries: cleft palette, cataract, dental, facial, and vvf surgeries, and a host of other debilitating medical conditions common in countries on the West Coast of Africa. Mercy Ships has been exploring ideas and investing resources to add dignity and self-worth to their patients and create opportunities to rebuild their lives.


Our Vision Team was fortunate to witness a patient celebration at an off-ship Eye Clinic run by the Mercy Ships. There was a joyous demonstration by patients who had benefited from successful eye surgeries. One could see excitement in their faces and immeasurable gratitude in their dance of joy. This summed up what the heart and soul of what Mercy Ships is all about- repairing the scars and restoring the joy of living for members of our extended human family.


The formidable task of extending hope and healing to millions suffering across our planet and in need requires many more imaginative, innovative, and daring initiatives like Mercy Ships, International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, literacy initiatives, and the serving of daily free meals without distinction to over 100,000 at the Golden Temple at Amritsar. We need many more benefactors and dedicated volunteers ready to serve in capacities, and in places, that stretch the bounds of personal comfort and self-interests.

We need spiritual and humanitarian leaders to come together for critical causes when the very survival and basic quality of many is at stake. We also need hands-on leaders like Don Stephens who see a vision and offer a carefully thoughtout framework to implement the promise of their vision. In spite of occasional human indifference in the face of terrible tragedies, unconscionable and agonizing conditions, man is never too far away from innate goodness and transcending the frontiers of race and ethnicity to safeguard life and honor our Creator. Once we are past the ethnic and cultural divides, human civilization has the infinite capacity to fulfill a sacred moral mandate: to love and serve another and see God’s Light in each other.


Mercy Ships has brought the world’s many cultures and countries together to unite behind its mandate of ‘bringing hope and healing’ to others. For more information and opportunities to serve or learn more, visit:


KP Singh is an Indianapolis based architectural artist, author, community volunteer, and public speaker ( Indianapolis, Indiana USA December 17, 2010