She first came to the Africa Mercy in a peach-colored dress, a thin veil waving around her face and flapping against her swollen cheek.
Her dress whipped around her frail legs as she climbed the gangway, her ascent slow and labored. That day, no one had any idea what Mabouba had been through for the last six years, nor how close her brush with death was yet to be.
“It was in 2010 that it started,” the 23-year-old recalls. Mabouba was finishing up her junior year of high school with plans to become a midwife. Then the tumor appeared, and everything changed. For the next six years, Mabouba remained at home, staying with her elder brother in Togo while the rest of her family lived abroad in Switzerland.
By 2014, her tumor had grown so much that it began to block Mabouba’s esophagus and windpipe.
“It had become very hard for her to eat, even to breathe,” recalls her Uncle Yousef, shaking his head. “Even in the night you could hear – she was drawing air with great difficulty.” Unable to swallow more than little bits of rice, eggs and torn-up morsels of bread, the young woman began to starve.
All the while though, Mabouba’s father was searching for help and trying to bring his daughter to Switzerland for treatment. “He did everything,” she recalls. “Nationality card, passport, everything. But, because of my condition, the visa application process continued to drag.”
The family scrambled for another solution. Uncles, grandparents and cousins gathered what money they could and sent Mabouba to Ghana for surgery.
But there, calamity struck. “The doctors said they had to remove some teeth before they could remove her tumor,” recalls her Uncle Yousef. “But something went wrong, and she was bleeding, bleeding, bleeding everywhere.” He looks down as he recalls this. “She almost died.”
With the precious money gone and her health in shards, Mabouba returned home. “Those days my mind was preoccupied with the tumor,” she recounts. “I could think of little else.”
In January 2016 Mabouba’s father came to Togo to see her. Shocked by her condition, he contacted the Swiss Mercy Ships office and found out that the floating hospital would be coming back to Benin that very August … and, yes, Mabouba would be seen.
But as January turned to April and April to July, Mabouba’s clothes hung more and more loosely off her body.
Finally, on September 17th, 2016, the young woman arrived at the ship and slowly lifted her feather-light frame up the gangway.
“When I finally stepped onboard, I felt immediately different.” she recounts. This moment had been six years coming. “I said to myself then, ‘I’m already healed.’”
But the trial wasn’t over. Tests revealed that the tumor would soon starve her to death, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to remove. “I took courage, though,” recalls Mabouba. “It was their kindness … I had confidence in God and in the team too.”
The morning of surgery, the operating team gathered around Mabouba to pray before the surgery began. Over the loudspeaker, the entire Africa Mercy crew was asked to intercede for an unnamed patient undergoing a difficult surgery.
For nine long hours, there was prayer all over the ship.
As evening approached, Mabouba was finally wheeled out of the operating theater. Miracle of all miracles, her tumor was gone.
“I remember when I woke up – I was transformed. I was a new person,” Mabouba recalls, wiping tears from her eyes. “You have saved my life, and I don’t know how to thank you. But God says when you care for your neighbor, heaven will be guaranteed for you. So I wish you heaven.”
Written by Anna Psiaki, Africa Mercy Writer