This past January I was fortunate to take part in another amazing volunteer opportunity – this time back to Africa! I was part of a 15-member team from my church that ventured across the pond to serve those in need in Niger. The weeks leading up to this trip were filled with tons of excitement as I prepared for yet another African adventure, nervousness due to timing of visas and yellow fever shots (which apparently are a rare commodity in this country), and laughter (a lot of laughter actually) at the amount of times I was asked if I would return home with Ebola. While it comes as no surprise to me, some of you might be shocked to learn that I did indeed go to and come home from West Africa without Ebola!
Our team spent two weeks in Niger: one week in Niamey which is the capital of the country and another week in Galmi which is a town about six hours (ten hours in a van) outside of the capital. Our first week was spent serving the needs of a local hospital in Galmi, but before that we took a mini road trip from Niamey to Galmi, and quite frankly I loved every second of it! There is no better way to see a country than a good old-fashioned road trip! This six hour ride quickly escalated into a near ten hour ride, but it was not without excitement. We passed through more than 50 villages, got gas on the side of the road from a man carrying a jerrycan, saw hundreds of wild camels roaming free, witnessed the ever-so-popular means of transportation – a donkey pulling a wagon, almost hit a cow in the middle of the road, and had a real interesting encounter with two elderly African women and a man with a machete when we stopped to use the restroom (not to imply that there was an actual restroom). Not to mention, we were the main attraction in every village that we passed through. I mostly try not to put on my americano costume when I travel abroad, but sometimes the blonde hair and blue eyes make blending in a somewhat difficult task! Did I also mention that we drove on one road for the entire trip?
One of the members of our church, Deb, is a full-time missionary/occupational therapist at the hospital in Galmi (galmi.org) and has single-handedly developed an entire therapy unit and has made strides in advancing the care within the emergency burn unit in the hospital – all in a couple of years’ time might I add! As the hospital is mostly led by a team of international volunteer doctors, our team was there for the week to simply lend a hand with whatever tasks needed completing.
As we arrived on the hospital compound, I was overtaken by the serenity and peacefulness of the sights, the sounds, the gentleness and humility of the local workers, and just the overall ambiance. Simply put, I was overwhelmed at how at home I felt in this tiny little community in the middle of nowhere in Africa. As we were now on Deb’s soil, she made sure we jumped right into the African lifestyle and prepared for us some delicious homemade African cuisine during our stay. Our first night at the hospital compound we discussed the various ways that our team could serve the hospital and also those that keep the hospital running. Our main objectives were a few organizational projects and simple encouragement. Life can be very difficult financially and also emotionally draining at times for missionaries, and organization of records often comes secondary to patient care, especially in a region where sanitation is not always a primary concern. So those were our primary tasks, and with that we concluded our first night at the hospital.
As we headed to our rooms that night I heard, “Hey Kath, hang on a second. We have something for you to do.” Deb called me over and explained that they had a special project for me to help out with. In my head I’m thinking, “I’m probably not anymore organized or organizing ‘capable’ than anyone else on this trip. I wonder what this is about?” To my surprise, the hospital was asking for help with their accounting! I never in a MILLION years imagined this would be an opportunity on this trip, and boy am I ever so grateful that it was! I spent the entire next day helping the finance manager of the hospital reconcile cash, post entries, close out a few months in preparation for year-end close, and also discussing internal controls. I learned about Nigerien payroll, how the Nigerien social security system functions, got hands-on experience with their accounting software, and most importantly was able to fill a vital need for the hospital. My heart was overjoyed by and through this experience, and it was just unexpectedly perfect at the way it all fell in place together. And as a result, this nerdy accountant had the biggest cheesy smile glued to her face for the days following.
There were a lot of mixed emotions at the sight of the hospital. There was happiness as we learned about all of the improvements that they have been making on a continual basis. However, I was heartbroken as we walked through the ICU and learned that there were only so many oxygen masks to go around and if someone needed it more than you, simply put, you could be out of luck. This hospital is one of the best hospitals in the entire country of Niger with incredibly skilled doctors, and the realization that they are limited to the resources around them is a tough pill to swallow, especially knowing that there is a television in probably 95% of the hospital rooms in America. I’ve had a few hospital visits in my day, but this was by far the toughest.
Another highlight of this trip is the day I got to ride a camel, in the desert, in Africa. I had the pleasure of riding the best camel ever. His name is Carl and he is awesome. This was without fail, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done! Carl is also the most photogenic camel I’ve ever met — #selfiegamestrong.
Stay tuned for part 2!!
By Kathy Sikora, CPA | 609.520.1188 | firstname.lastname@example.org