Wednesday, 30 September 2009

More Heritage Day Celebrations...

This past Sunday and Monday evenings our South African Heritage Day celebrations continued as we were invited to a concert hosted by the Ambassador on the Sunday and then a buffet dinner on the Monday.

The concert on Sunday evening comprised a local Beninoise group followed by a South African cappella group, Amaryoni (Zulu: The Lions). The setting was a lovely open-air jazz cafe. I really enjoyed the evening and both groups were brilliant. The SA group sung many songs in Zulu and even sung the National Anthem of South Africa, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (Xhosa: God Bless Africa). The whole audience stood as the national anthem was sung. It was really special.

The following evening a group of South Africans from the ship, along with the band Amaryoni, and representatives from MTN (a South African cellular network provider which is a large player on the African continent) and government, joined the Ambassador at her Official Residence for a buffet dinner. We had a swordfish starter followed by a barracuda fish main course with jollof rice and vegetables. Dessert consisted of crepes and fresh fruit. Amaryoni put on an informal, impromptu concert and the evening wrapped-up the Heritage Day celebrations at the Embassy here in Benin.

It really is lovely to meet up with fellow countrymen and women in a foreign setting. I also enjoy that all political affiliations are no longer important when we're outside of our country. We see each other as South Africans and find unity and a common spirit - despite our diversity. I've been really impressed by the South African Embassy here in Benin. They've really welcomed us and have made me even more proud to be South African. (Not that I have ever not been proud of my heritage - but it's nice to be reminded of home and our wonderful Rainbow Nation.)

With Amaryoni at the Ambassador's Residence.

Hanging out at the Official Residence of the Ambassador.

South African crew members with South Africa's Ambassador to Benin.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Heritage Day Celebrations...

Last Thursday (24th September) was Heritage Day in South Africa. It is a public holiday and celebrates South Africa's culture and heritage. I didn't think I'd be celebrating this holiday here in Benin, but the South African Ambassador invited all the South African crew members to some special events happening this weekend in celebration of South Africa's diversity and exports. And so yesterday I went to the International Convention Centre here in Cotonou for a small exhibition of South African arts, crafts, wines, and other products.

The event was kicked off with the playing of the National Anthem of South Africa, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, and then some speeches from dignitaries and the Ambassador herself. It was lovely to see some familiar sights from back home and celebrate SA culture in a totally different nation. The festival continues tonight with a concert featuring an acapello group from back home along with a local Beninoise group. I'll tell you more about that later. But for now here are some photos from yesterday's little exhibit.

The Ambassador is in the centre of the shot.

Nelson Mandela poster on the wall.

Theo and I at the exhibition.

South African bead and wire crafts.

With my lovely flag.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A Morning at the Market...

This past Tuesday I was able to take a couple of hours off in the morning for some overtime I had put in over the weekend, and so I headed out to one of the large markets here in Cotonou. I took a group of friends with me and getting there was a bit of an adventure in itself.

Driving in Benin is a whole new experience. There are literally thousands of motorbikes and scooters, locally called "Zemidjans" (not sure on the spelling of that one - there are many differing versions of the same word), and it's always quite, well, interesting - and hazardous - driving in traffic surrounded by groups of these bikes. Never a dull moment driving in Benin.

The Market itself was a new cultural experience - although not too dissimilar from Duala Market in Monrovia, Liberia. We wandered up and down endless rows of stalls; stalls where one can by literally anything - from car batteries and shiny watches to fabric and goats. There was even a bicycle loaded with live chickens tied by string to the handlebars. The SPCA wouldn't be too chuffed. Although I doubt there is an animal anti-cruelty organisation here. The colours and smells are so pungent, powerful, bright too - it really is a vast kaleidoscope for the senses.

Many people shouted "Yovo, yovo!" ("White person, white person!"), trying to make a sale as we walked past, and I got quite a few comments because I was wearing my South African cricket shirt. "Hey, you from South Africa! You my friend!" in broken English. Indeed, South African business is booming here in Benin - well, certainly in the area of telecommunications. MTN, a major South African cellular network provider is everywhere here. They certainly have branched out into Africa and are doing really well - with advertising for the 2010 World Cup on posters and billboards in many different, strategic locations - including the Market.

It was a fun experience and is always good to soak up the culture and atmosphere of a new place. But soon the time had come for us to bundle back into our trusty Mercy Ships Land Rover and head back to the ship. And soon enough, we were all safe and sound onboard our big floating home here in Benin.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Manning Reception...

As promised in an earlier post here are some photos of me working at the Reception desk and manning the Fire Panel. I also include some photos below of me standing in front of the Africa Mercy.

I know that my hair is quite a mess, but don't worry, for I have now had a really sweet haircut and so it's nice and short. And I'm now clean-shaven (although still sporting a gotee), which makes a huge difference when you have to wear a uniform each day!

Work this week has been busy and a little tiring, but otherwise I'm still enjoying it. It's great to play a small, but important role in supporting the general crew and (of course) the medical staff on this wonderful ship of mercy. We are all, after all, part of one body.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ [...] Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
(1 Corinthians 12: 12, 27 NIV)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Moving the AFM...

Today the Port Authority made us move a couple hundred metres down the dock so that they could evaluate whether dredging was necessary at our berth. Three or more hours later and repositioned along the dock, we got the word that dredging was not necessary (there is enough depth to the water) and so we headed back to our original berth again. It's been a long day for our hard working deckies and engineering crew. They really do a wonderful job and may God bless them for all their work. Pictures below taken from when they moved us down the dock.

Argonaut 1 dredging the harbour.

Local fishing boat coming in from the sea.

A larger fishing boat coming into the harbour.

Another fishing boat heading out to sea.

Moving down the dock.

And finally at our temporary berth.

Port of Cotonou breakwater.

With friends watching the process. When you only sail three or so weeks out of every year moving berths is rather exciting!

Casa Del Papa...

Yesterday Paul and I took a Land Rover packed full of people to Casa Del Papa, a couple of hours drive towards the Togo border. Casa Del Papa is a resort with kayaking, mini-golf, tennis courts, swimming pools, a restaurant, and a beautiful beach. However, before we reached this lovely place we drove past The Gate Of No Return, a memorial to the many thousands of men, women and children who were taken from their homes and forced to sail across the Atlantic to become slaves in an unknown land. Before I left Cape Town I watched the movie Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce and his unwavering efforts to end the slave trade. To be here in Benin and to know what these souls suffered was rather poignant. And to know that slavery still exists in many forms and in certain areas of the world today is very sad.

But anyway, let's move on to Casa Del Papa. Here we had a great time swimming in the rough sea, relaxing and reading in the sun, kicking a rugby ball around, and enjoying some time away from the ship. I also went kayaking on a large lagoon nearby and that was a really fun experience. So all in all it was a good day out making some new friends and before long we were all heading back to the ship.

However, the drive back was rather tiring as we got stuck in traffic for over two hours and this was not fun. But the quality people in the Land Rover made up for the stress of constant clutch control and shifting from neutral to first, first to second, and second back to neutral again as we came to a grinding halt! By the time we reached the ship by 18h30 I was pretty exhausted from sleep deprivation, too much sun, and driving. And so I found myself catching a really early night. Going to bed at 21h00 and sleeping for over ten hours straight is bliss!

Here are some more photos from our day out... Enjoy!

This is a close-up of the artwork on a portion of The Gate Of No Return.

This is another memorial nearby - but this one is commemorating Christianity coming into the country (as far as I can make out).

Our trusty Mercy Ships Land Rover.

Local fishermen checking their nets on the lagoon at Casa Del Papa.

Kayaking/Canoeing on the calm waters.

I could do this all day. It was beautiful.

The beach at Casa Del Papa.

First Week at Work...

My first week back at work has been really good. I am heading up the Reception department as Team Leader and have thoroughly enjoyed the role so far. I work Mondays to Fridays and work from 08h30 to 17h30 each day. My role as Team Leader is primarily to oversee the smooth functioning of Reception (by ensuring good communication and neatness behind the desk) and to lend support to my fellow Receptionists. I am also doing tasks for the Purser and Assistant Purser, including updating muster lists and dropping passports and visa applications at embassies in town and fetching them again later. It has been an incredibly busy last week as I settle into this role but I am enjoying the work and the opportunity to be of service here in Benin. I'll take some photos for this post (of my workplace and myself working) later this week.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

I'm Back!

After some sad farewells to my Mom and Dad at Cape Town International Airport, I boarded my domestic flight to Johannesburg last Wednesday and then bright and early the next day flew out to Cotonou, Benin, and the M/V Africa Mercy. My travels went well and all my baggage made it through! My friends Paul and Tim (both who I knew from 2008) met me at the airport and drove me through to the ship. We arrived at the ship at a little before 16h00 on Thursday. However, my timing wasn't great as we had to wait on the dock for a while due to the traditional Thursday afternoon fire drill.

Being back is strange. In many respects it feels as if I've never left. Many of my good friends from the 2008 Liberia Field Service are still here (and a group of them made a really nice big card that they put on my door to welcome me back - thanks guys!) and all of my Gateway friends are here too. But the major difference is of course the country. Benin is a far cry from Liberia. The port is busy (right now I counted over five ships at anchor waiting to come into dock) and there are many ships currently docked. There is even a port control building fitted with radar installation (like at Table Bay Harbour, Cape Town) and a vibrant, colourful fishing harbour within the port. One of the fishing boats was even flying the South African flag! A lighthouse a short distance away warns ships of the hazards of venturing too close to the shore. In the city, most of the big roads are tarred or paved and there are even traffic lights. There seems to be some prosperity here - such as modern hotels and resorts and many big (privately-owned) SUV vehicles. But there is certainly much poverty and desperation too.

I start work tomorrow in the position of Team Leader for Reception. I will be working normal day job hours and will be there to oversee the smooth functioning of the department and to support the Reception team. I'm really thankful that I am back here on the Mercy Ship and am looking forward to getting back to work!

Here are some more photos from my travels to Benin and a few photos of the port and the ship.

With Mom at Cape Town International Airport.

With Dad at Cape Town International Airport.

First sight of Benin as my Inter Air flight from Johannesburg is on final approach.

Cotonou from the air.

Paul and Tim who met me at the airport.

The M/V Africa Mercy docked in Cotonou, Benin.

The fishing village within the port.

Note the green boat at left flying a large SA flag!

Mercy Ships vehicles on the dock.