The courage to challenge leads to change. This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating all the women who #ChooseToChallenge – volunteers, donors, and caregivers – leaving a lasting impact. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this is often demonstrated by courageous women who, despite overwhelming odds, have held onto hope that a brighter future is possible for their loved ones.
Many of these women have already endured one of the hardest fates imaginable. They’ve had to watch as their loved one suffers with a medical condition that they are helpless to treat, which often means leaving school and facing mockery from others. Yet many of the stories of transformation we encounter begin the same way: with a woman who refuses to accept that a life with limitations is the only future for their child. No matter how far the distance or how great their fears, the hope of healing is worth it.
From women who fought to see their child healed from blindness, to women who stayed by their child’s side through every step of a challenging recovery onboard, here are just a few of their incredible stories.
When Confort heard the piercing screams of her baby daughter, Gamai, a normal morning turned into a mother’s nightmare. One-year-old Gamai had knocked over a pot of boiling water, leading to excruciating burns across her upper body.
“My imagination took me to places a mother dares not go,” said Confort. “I fell to the floor clutching my baby.”
After a trip to the local hospital, Confort was unable to afford any medical care beyond some ointment to treat her baby’s pain.
Over the next few years, Confort watched as the complications of her daughter’s burns led to contracted skin, restricting the mobility of her hands and arms. To protect her from the mockery of strangers, Confort decided to keep Gamai safe from the outside world. The two stayed home together every day, which caused Confort great grief: “I became very sad and angry that this was the way my daughter was going to grow up — hidden from the world.”
But Confort wouldn’t let this be the ending of Gamai’s story. When she heard news that a Mercy Ship was coming to Guinea to provide life-changing surgery, she brought Gamai, now 4 years old, to claim her chance at a different future.
The road to recovery wasn’t easy — in fact, surgery and post-operative rehab were incredibly painful for Gamai. Listening to her daughter cry brought back scarring memories of the accident. But Confort never gave up: “It pains me to hear her hurting, but I know it needs to happen.”
Months later, Gamai’s hands and arms were free to move — and she was free to live her life outside of closed doors, without fear or pain. “I am filled with happiness that being hidden will not be Gamai’s future,” said Confort.
Aicha was just a few months old when her mother, Fatmata, noticed the telltale signs that something was wrong with her baby’s vision. By the time she started to crawl, visible cataracts had begun to show in Aicha’s eyes.
For Fatmata, the grief of having a blind daughter was paired with the helplessness of being unable to afford surgery to help her. She worked in the market every day with Aicha cradled on her back, overhearing people call her daughter a witch.
Even though Fatmata was afraid of letting strangers touch Aicha, she decided that her hope of healing was stronger than her fear of the unknown. She decided to bring Aicha to a Mercy Ships eye screening, where they were told that she was a good candidate for cataract surgery.
After Aicha’s surgery, this mother’s fear was replaced by complete joy as Aicha began to smile and walk around, looking up at her mother for the first time.
“She was like a new person. She was dancing and laughing… She was sick and now she is healed. I have no words to express how happy I am.”
Mariam, a businesswoman from Guinea, was passing through a village when she saw a little girl, Tene, playing by the side of the road. The first thing she noticed was Tene’s capturing smile. The second thing she noticed was Tene’s left leg, which was incredibly swollen, making it difficult for the three-year-old to walk.
Mariam would later learn that this condition was caused by an amniotic band — thin strands of tissue that wrap around forming body parts during pregnancy, restricting blood flow and affecting limb growth.
“I was really sad … It was my first time seeing this kind of sickness. She’s just a baby,” said Mariam.
Although the little girl was a stranger, Mariam felt an instinctive desire to help her. She heard that the Africa Mercy was in Guinea and offering free surgeries onboard. Despite not speaking the same language, Mariam brought Tene and her mother into her home, housing them for weeks while they waited for a surgery appointment. Once Tene was onboard recovering from her operation, Mariam came to visit and play games with her. Months later, when it was time for Tene and her mother to return home to the village, Mariam waved them goodbye at the bus station with tears in her eyes. The kindness of a stranger gave Tene a chance for a new life where she can walk confidently into her future.
Francoise lived an experience no mother should have to endure. She watched as her newborn baby, Paul Pascal, inched closer to the brink of death every day. Born with a cleft lip and palate, Paul struggled to drink milk and dropped to a dangerously low weight. “We were so scared … we thought he would die,” said Francoise. She stayed up with her hungry newborn night after night, rocking him as he cried, desperately trying to feed him, fighting for him to survive.
When the Africa Mercy arrived in Cameroon, Francoise rushed her baby to the ship in search of help. The medical staff brought him onboard before the hospital was even officially opened to offer him the critical care that he needed. Her tears of fear turned to tears of joy as her baby blossomed in front of her, his cheeks slowly filling out and his hair growing thick and healthy, until he was strong enough to receive cleft lip and palate surgery.
When it came time for the ship to leave Cameroon, Francoise was celebrating a milestone she never thought she would see: her baby’s first birthday. “The Lord has changed the life of Paul and given him a new one!”
Celebrating the strength of women around the world
Each of these stories is unique, but these women are not alone. The history of Mercy Ships is filled with courageous, faithful, patient women who never gave up hope for their loved ones. The hope of watching their children walk on straight legs, see for the first time, or smile without any limitations. They put it all on the line to trust strangers with the lives of their children — and as a result, we’re able to see lives transformed for patients, families, and entire communities.
We can all see ourselves in the stories of these women. It takes conviction and courage to find help for your loved ones, no matter the obstacles. The drive to advocate for a better future and improved quality of life for your family and friends is one that we all share.