Over two months, Olivia Guerra gained a Sierra Leone sister.
During her time aboard hospital ship Africa Mercy, working as a general steward, the Peninsula woman personally experienced the hospitality of the country when she was paired to work with a local in her age bracket. Nancy taught Guerra songs and dances and the pair spent two months singing and swinging their way through mopping, sweeping and the like.
“We had the best time. We had so much fun,” Guerra said, with an ear-to-ear grin. “We really got close we were like sisters.”
She went to Nancy’s church and home, where the new friend gave and gave, not to mention fed and fed in the thrown-together shack that housed 10 people.
“And she’s scraping by with all these little mouths to feed,” Guerra said. “They have so little, it makes you take a step back.”
Community is everything too, with people easily parting with something a neighbour may need, and everyone always in and out of each other’s homes.
These are the little things Guerra learned in her two-month stay in the African country.
“I think you absorb so much, but you don’t really know how much,” she said. “I think it will take some time and reflection.”
During her months as a volunteer aboard the hospital ship, she often visited the HOPE Centre. There she hung out with tons of little boys, who were there long before she arrived in Sierra Leone, and stayed long after, because they were in for drawn out orthopedic procedures requiring multiple surgeries. Little boys in casts, who prized visitors.
“It’s good to just get off the ship sometimes too … because the ship like a little bubble, a Western bubble,” Guerra explained.
“At first I found it really intimidating,” she said of the streets crowded with a bursting population that flooded to the city after the civil war. Walking down the street she would hear friendly greetings from the youth teeming in the streets shouting “hello, hello”.
“I grew to love how much attention they give to white people,” she said.
As she prepares to enter her third year studying sociology (alongside pre-med courses) at the University of Victoria, Guerra says the trip was an affirmation of her aspirations to go into medicine. “I just know now that that’s where I want to be,” she said.
In her down time she shadowed doctors, and spent a couple hours one day in a meeting where a medical team discussed their options and attacks in a cancer case — a disease they rarely tackle aboard Africa Mercy.
“Just hearing them talk about that … it was two hours but it was so exciting. I thought ‘I want to be a part of this’,” she said.
Part of the preparations to return to UVic include moving to be closer to school.
“I’m moving now and packing up all my stuff and realizing how much stuff I have,” she said. “I thought that’s an important lesson … and how important friends and family are.”
Guerra expects to be a Mercy Ships repeat, in slightly different terms.
“I’d love to go back when I’m done school, as a doctor,” she said. “I think I’m hooked on the whole humanitarian travel thing.”
Learn more about Mercy Ships online at www.mercyships.ca.