THE last six months have been a world of adventure for the Forrest family of Tathra.
David and Justine Forrest, as well as their children Annabelle and Charlotte, left the Bega Valley in June last year to work on the hospital ship Africa Mercy, part of the Mercy Ships fleet that aims to bring healthcare to developing nations.
David has been working as the principal at the onboard school, which Annabelle and Charlotte have been attending, while Justine has been using her photography skills to document patients’ stories and the ship’s journey.
Their initial plan was to head to Benin, West Africa, via Texas and Haiti for training, but the family was unable to make it so spent time in the US before meeting the ship at the Canary Islands at the start of August with the expectation of sailing to Benin that month.
“However, Ebola was spreading through parts of West Africa in an unprecedented manner,” Justine said.
“It is the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976.
“There have been more cases and deaths in this outbreak than all others combined.
“We personally have been unaffected by it in the sense we are nowhere near the outbreak.
“However, there are a large number of crew who are from those parts of West Africa and they have certainly suffered the loss of family, friends and the freedom to travel home,” she said.
Africa Mercy’s departure was put on hold and its crew waited in the Canary Islands until they found another place to serve, as Ebola was spreading from Guinea to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal.
“While the Africa Mercy is a hospital ship, its focus is on surgery not disease,” David said.
“Secondly, if the ship sailed into those ports it would be banned from other ports making supply of food, fuel and water etc impossible.
“Mercy Ships had no other option than to seek a non-Ebola affected nation to serve.”
Ebola was spreading through West and South Africa, so after six weeks of waiting the ship set sail for Madagascar, off the eastern coast.
The journey took them to Cape Town, where they stopped to allow people on board to tour the ship.
“As for me and the girls, school continued as ‘normal’ all this time,” David said.
“In fact, the girls sat their first term exams in Cape Town.
“One month they had an excursion to a museum of science in Spain, the next they had an excursion to an aquarium in Cape Town and visited the Atlantis Sand Dunes in South Africa and went sand boarding.
“A very unique school indeed!”
From there they sailed to Madagascar, which was an uncomfortable affair as they encountered a six-metre swell in the Agulhas Current down the southeast coast of Africa.
“The boat did some serious rocking, while the school continued, we slept and tried to eat,” David said.
“School only closed for one day!
“That was when the students couldn’t stay in their seats.”
Arriving in Tamatave on the east coast of Madagascar, the Africa Mercy crew was given a presidential welcome where David met the country’s president, prime minister and half of the cabinet, after which they had a formal reception at the town centre with around 4000 people attending.
Madagascar’s President Hery Rajaonarimampianina gave a speech saying Mercy Ships was the example of 40 nations working together as volunteers, and said this should inspire the 18 different ethnic groups in his country to pull together and make Madagascar great.
“To realise we were impacting a country just by turning up was something I have never considered,” David said.
Since then, the ship has been completing hundreds of operations with hundreds more to come, while David continues his job, Justine sends her photos around the world and Charlotte and Annabelle keep studying.
The family has been recently joined by their daughter and sibling Chloe Jane, who will be working in housekeeping and shadowing nurses as she is studying nursing.
Challenging, yet rewarding journey
FOR the Forrest family, living on the Africa Mercy has been challenging, but also an incredible experience.
“The adjustment has not been easy emotionally, physically and socially but change always has its challenges and its rewards,” David Forrest said.
“Spiritually, it has been amazing to see miracles.
“To see lives changed not only physically but in people's hearts.
“You can see in their faces a new hope for the future,” he said.
Both Mr Forrest and his wife Justine agreed they miss family, friends and the Bega Valley community.
“But we know that sometimes you have to leave comfort and security and step out in faith to see and create so much more,” Mr Forrest said.
“Just like Matthew Nott [of Tathra] had to step out and make a stand on the environment.
“Like Andy Johnson [of Tathra] had to pick up rake and start clearing a track for the mountain bikes, and the Tathra Surf Club Wharf to Waves Committee had to make the ocean swim happen, people have to step up and step out to help each other out.
“Both at home and around the world.”