Saturday, June 4, 2011

An African President and a Hungarian organizer

In 1 word: ....... - ok, i have to admit, I had way too many words flashing through my mind like "wow, never again, fun, exciting, nerve-wrecking, nightmare, awesome..."

I read other people's blog and accounts of that day, if you are interested in the factual report, go read those. For me, I had nightmares before and after the event. Before Friday I dreamed that he came unannounced and we were not ready. After his visit in my dream he returned for a second visit and again, we were not ready... :)

Many people from the ship were involved in some ways to make this visit a success. We tried to think of everything that would be affected for those 2 hours while His Excellency, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma is on board and I can tell you there was not a single person whose schedule remained unchanged. 436 people!!!

The VP entering with his entourage, I am standing in the back
The real challenge came when a few days prior to his planned visit we got word that the Vice President might come as well. I personally doubted that since in most cases the President and the VP should not be at the same place at the same time. Nonetheless, we had to be prepared. For many reasons I preferred this option, because this way we had to stop normal ship's routine operations only once instead of twice. On the other hand this presented a whole new set of questions like "How to take down 30-40 people to the hospital deck at once?"

With my FAVOURITE boss - Donovan Palmer,
the Managing Director of Africa Mercy
The President was supposed to arrive at noon - that means the VP should have arrived 15 minutes prior so proper protocol can be observed. As you can imagine though, the President got caught up in some official business and was delayed first 30 min, then 1 hour, then another 90 minutes. And of course the VP had to adjust to that... :)

Finally we got a call from their security that the President is about to leave the Court House and the VP is already on his way. The relaxed atmosphere that took over during the waiting disappeared once again as everybody hurried to their position. (The entire ship was in shut down mode since 11.30) The flowers in my office started to fade from "breathtaking" to "very nice" so it was high time they came! :)

The flower girl went down with our leaders to welcome the VP. Each year it's a different girl from our school who has the honour of welcoming the president of the country on board with a huge bouquet of flowers. It's amazing how FAST these things go. You plan it for weeks and make million changes on the schedule (who stands where, who says what, when we do what...etc). From arrival to receiving the flowers, going through introductions and disappearing on deck 3 for a hospital tour... it was only 5 minutes!

We had a few minutes of silence, a quiet before the storm - you can say. Then the first motorbikes arrived, followed by some more and some pick up trucks with AK47s in the guys' hands... :) It was obvious that the President of Sierra Leone is about to arrive... We went through the same protocol, but this time the flowers were given by a girl called Hawa, who received a life saving operation on board the last time Mercy Ships was here. She had a benign tumor growing in her mouth and was facing a slow, excruciating death. The way Dr Gary (who did the operation) explains it often "with tumors like this it is better if it's malicious, because that way it kills you faster. Benign tumors suffocate you slowly..." :(

But Hawa didn't die, she quickly recovered from the surgery and with both parents deceased, she lives in an SOS Children's Village in Freetown. Of course we didn't have time to explain any of that to the President when His Excellency arrived. BUT - after the tour of the hospital Dr Gary gave a short presentation in the International Lounge and he showed pictures of her when she was 3. The standing ovation started when he said "but maybe a before-after photo is not convincing enough. Probably you didn't realize it, but you just met this very same girl a few minutes ago" And Hawa stood up to smile and wave at everybody... :) It was very emotional!

The President visiting the ward, meeting some patients
So, after our speeches it was time for the President to deliver his message. His aid quickly jumped up to the podium, opened the folder and laid out his prepared speech. The President went up, quickly glanced at it and then shut it. He changed his message last minute to deliver a heartfelt thank you instead. It was amazing to see how he was touched by what he saw and instead of giving a boring official response he spoke from his heart. With Captain Tim's words: "It is only on Mercy Ships where you can impact the poorest of the poor and the President of the country on the same day!"

There were some socializing and refreshments afterwards in MidShips Lounge. While I stood stand by in one corner, the President's chief security guy came up to me. After exchanging pleasantries he quickly steered the conversation onto his mother, who (surprise, surprise) had a medical condition and wanted to know if he can bring her to the ship. :( Thank God I didn't have time to respond as I got called away. His Excellency, the VP and the entire entourage of about 40 people (as opposed to 15 as discussed and agreed upon...) was about to leave.

It was extremely entertaining to see how fast these people can be, if they see fit. Because the President has all those motorbikes to clear the way and shut down roads, everybody wanted to tag along for an uninterrupted ride home through the traffic of Freetown. :)

For me, it was a highly stressful day, week, - month really with all these dignitaries and International Board coming at the same time. But it is over now and finally yesterday I had my first real day off in May (on the second of June...) :)

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