The Africa Mercy is the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship, and when it drops anchor in a West African port it signals the arrival of the selfless work of Mercy Ships to the region.
Mercy Ships date back to 1978, and the story of how the organization provides free medical aid and life-altering operations to some of the poorest regions of the world is a story unto itself. The staff of the ship are all volunteers – a group of doctors, nurses, dentists and auxiliary staff who donate years of their time to sail with the Africa Mercy to provide medical care to those most in need. They operate in 57 developing nations and have offices in 18 countries around the world. Since 1978 they have transformed the lives of almost 2.5 million people.
But here on Valentine’s Day it’s another, lesser known, aspect of the Mercy Ship story that tends to stir the imagination.
The Africa Mercy, it seems, is also a place to fall in love.
Since 1978 more than 300 couples have met and married as an offshoot of their time aboard the philanthropic “love boat” – 40 of them Canadian.
Saanich resident Alice Folly and her husband Teko are one of those couples, and Alice is quick to share their experience.
“I first went out in December of 2012 to work as a dental assistant aboard the Africa Mercy. I’d been working here in Victoria and the idea of helping others appealed to me. I also thought it would be interesting to travel and see other parts of the world. But the last thing on my mind was finding romance,” said Folly with a laugh.
But love can happen in the strangest of places, and when Teko came aboard on Togo to work as a translator with Folly’s dental team, the stage was set.
“Teko and I spent a lot of time together during about a six-month period. He was a translator who was fluent in French, English and his native language and he had a bachelor’s degree in English – and he was kind and funny,” said Folly.
But romance didn’t bloom immediately. It wasn’t until Teko left the ship in Togo in 2013 and Folly had finished her commitment and returned to Canada that they discovered how much they missed one another.
They both returned to the ship in 2014 and, on a brief vacation to Canada in 2015, they decided to get married.
“Our colleagues were a little surprised when we got back,” chuckled Folly. “It actually caused a bit of a problem because there weren’t any cabins for married couples available.”
The couple stayed aboard and continued to work until 2015, when, after a brief visit to Togo, they returned to Victoria to start a new life here.
Their daughter, Ebonise, was born in June 2016 and while the couple is happy with their lives in Saanich, Folly won’t rule out a return to work aboard Mercy Ships.
“There are families aboard, and there’s a school for the children, so who knows?” said Folly. “The work is so rewarding and it’s wonderful to be working with people who believe in helping others. I think we may definitely go back at some point.”
When and if the couple decides to return to Mercy Ships, they may have a better chance for family accommodation. A new ship is currently under construction and is expected to be ready for launch in 2018. The new, as yet unnamed, ship will be roughly twice the size of the African Mercy.
Jane McIntosh, the Victoria donor relations worker for Mercy Ships, said the Follys would be welcome to return to the operation.
“They are such a lovely couple, said McIntosh, who had sailed on the Africa Mercy with the Follys in 2012. “They shared a love of the work they were doing and it was so wonderful that they discovered that they shared a love for one another.”