Whangamatā couple Kathy and Sinclair Carter had their first volunteering adventure aboard global humanitarian aid organisation Mercy Ships go awry when they found themselves far from home in the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

The ship is about the size of an inter-island ferry with an international crew of 450, all dedicated to providing essential surgery for people living in abject poverty in West Africa.

After 45 hours of flying, they were due to spend three and a half months in Senegal on the ship that provides free surgical interventions and dental treatments.

Having raised more than $10,000 in airfares alone, they got to witness patients onboard for a month before having to leave due to the pandemic. The ship had been in port for eight months prior to their arrival and provided surgery for more than 1400 patients when the Carters arrived.

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"It was so humbling, it really changed our outlook on life for the better as I'm sure the pandemic has done for a lot of people around the world," says Sinclair.

"The work we and this organisation are doing is even bigger and more extensive than we thought. We will definitely be back, and have extended this time onboard until at least August."

As crew, Sinclair is an engineer and Katy is a project manager and has a nursing background.

The following is taken from Kathy and Sinclair's travel blog www.2ezi2travel.com

March 11 2020, Dakar, Senegal.
We're told that Senegal is one of Africa's most stable countries and has a long history of participating in international peacekeeping and regional mediation. However Senegal relies heavily on donor assistance and foreign investment and with 48 per cent unemployment rate and 47 per cent of the population below poverty line, they are still a long way from economic success.

The Mercy Ship advance team arrive about two years before the ship, preparing and doing preliminary screening of patients so that once the ship arrives, treatment can begin as soon as possible.

Life expectancy here has risen to roughly 66 years, the under 5yr mortality has also made great strides over the years however at 46 per cent it still sits well above the New Zealand rate of 3.6 per cent.

The number of physicians per population is at 0.06 per 1000 persons where back home its just over 3 per 1000. Senegal has come a long way, but still have a long way to go.

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From the ship, its an easy 10 min walk to the nearest shops, cafes, restaurant and a pretty good supermarket.

Street scene in Dakar. PHOTO/Sinclair Carter
Street scene in Dakar. PHOTO/Sinclair Carter

As we leave the port, the first impression is one of pandemonium, with lots of noise, vehicles and people coming from all directions, it is a bit unsettling at first. Cars, buses and scooters seem to come out of nowhere, and the regular beeping of horns is distracting, but we found out that it's generally nothing more than a warning to pedestrians that something is coming behind you. You certainly need to have your wits about you though!

Dakar is a city of extremes…from wide swept boulevards reminiscent of France to small dusty alleyways with street hawkers trying to sell you something. Lots of semi finished high rises leaving mounds of rubble along the roads and although the main roads are swept and quite tidy, you'll still find rubbish strewn along some of the side roads and in particular areas.

It's been 50 years since Senegal gained independence from the French, however there is still a big French influence; the wider boulevards, the open squares like Place de L'Independance and I haven't even mentioned the 'patisseries' and 'boulangeries' (pastries and bakeries) that you find on most street corners. Ice cream is also a big thing here with many 'glaces' (ice cream) places.

Street scene in Dakar. PHOTO/Sinclair Carter
Street scene in Dakar. PHOTO/Sinclair Carter

March 15
We head off to visit the Island of Gorée, off the coast of Dakar, where between the 15th to 19th century due to its centrality and geographical position, Goree was a prized place to anchor for ships to use as stopover and for the slave market.

Remnants of Fort dEstree, a 19th century fortification remain to this day as do slave owners houses and slave quarters.

Gorée is a very colorful island and still has a functioning community living there however the main drawcard is its history and role played in the slave trade.

The House of Slaves museum, once was the holding centre for African slaves to be taken and sold overseas and the Door of No return found in the museum is said to be the final door that Africans went through , never to be seen again by their families. The museum now stands as a testament to the human suffering and devastation cause by the slave trade.

Street scene in Dakar. PHOTO/Sinclair Carter
Street scene in Dakar. PHOTO/Sinclair Carter

March 26
Although Senegal was slow to get the virus, our situation on board has changed quite dramatically in the last week.

To help contain the spread of the virus, all the crew on the Mercy Ships have been in quarantine since last weekend. No new volunteers have been allowed to come aboard; surgery has slowed to a stop and patients visitors have been asked not to visit. All non essential crew have left with Dakar's international airport now closed. Crew numbers have almost halved and jobs are being reassigned on a day to day basis.

With all this happening, it probably seems quite strange that amongst all the madness going on across the world, this ship has become a haven of safety and comfort, both to patients, their families and crew. Of course, our 'quarantine' bubble will burst at some stage and when it does, those in charge don't want us to be in Senegal.

We will be sailing away from here…it's just a matter of time. When and where is still to be determined. The urgency to sail revolves around the fact that our quarantine bubble is not fool proof and it is likely that, at some stage, someone on the ship will get the virus.

If that happens, it would be disastrous and there is no guarantee that they could be looked after on the ship and the thought of leaving someone behind in Senegal is… well…need I say more!

April 11
As we packed up the ship last week, we had bitter sweet feelings; of course grateful for the safety and protection of our quarantine bubble but very sad that we didn't fully accomplish what we set out to do in Senegal.

We watched as the last of the crew leave before the airport in Dakar shut down due to the lockdown being imposed, the tents packed down, the cars being transported onto the ship, and the final tangible piece – the gangway – being lifted onto the ship; only then does the reality of what is happening finally sink in. It makes us more determined to find a way to come back to either Senegal or another country of Africa sometime in the future.

ANZAC aboard Africa Mercy. PHOTO/Supplied.
ANZAC aboard Africa Mercy. PHOTO/Supplied.

May 3
Life in quarantine on the ship continues. Bar a few exceptions, no one is allowed on or off the ship. Again the main concern of those in charge is that we stay virus free so that means no contact with anyone except the other 239 crew onboard.

Someone getting sick with the virus would be a disaster as they would need to be quarantined on the ship, along with anyone they had come into contact with in the days leading up to their symptoms and those they had contact with…well, you get the gist!

The original plan was for the ship to leave Dakar at the end of the field service early June, arrive at Las Palmas on Gran Canaria – one of the other Canary Islands – and have shipyard for two months which is the time they do ship maintenance and get ready to go back to Africa.

Of course, this year is different. We are here in Tenerife and will remain here for the maintenance period.

The timing will all depend on when the quarantine starts to be relaxed as we need to bring on quite a lot of contractors to complete some of the ship work.

At this stage, some non essential crew are starting to leave as flights permit. There aren't many flights going at this stage, but over the next month, the hope is that we will get down to around 130 crew.

Engineers and deck crew are considered essential crew so we are likely to stay on for another few months. There is plenty to do onboard particularly leading up to shipyard time; lots of maintenance and getting things ready to return to Africa. No one knows when that will be - everything depends on the spread of the virus in Africa.

On the ship, we are being well looked after; the work keeps us busy and there are lots of activities to keep us entertained if we wish.

Easter was a wonderful time of rest and relaxation including an Easter Sunday feast. Food that we hadn't eaten since leaving New Zealand like prawns, smoked salmon and blue cheese.

And so, whist we remain protected here in our bubble, we hope and pray that you all stay safe.

As life begins to return to some sort of normality, someone very wise and dear to me has said it so well, 'let's relook what is normal and remember what is important… let's slow down and take time to enjoy each other, our family and friends and life's simple pleasures.