A Decade of Giving Back
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One Maritime Volunteer’s Story

As a member of the international community living and working on board the Global Mercy, volunteer assistant bosun Ishaka Sesay is conscious that he has become an ambassador for his home country of Sierra Leone.

“That is why… people never see me with a frowning face, always with a big smile,” he explained. “That will take you a long way, toward whatever you do.”

Ishaka’s smile was never wider than when he personally docked the Global Mercy in the port of Freetown in August 2023 to launch the field service in Sierra Leone. It would be the sixth Mercy Ships field service in Sierra Leone — and for Ishaka, the moment also marked a homecoming.

“It was a big experience,” Ishaka shared — one that he literally dreamed about in the preceding nights. “Now, I’m serving my own people. There is no joy more than that.”

New Life in a New Country

Ishaka’s journey with Mercy Ships first began more than a decade ago. After hearing a friend rave about working on the Africa Mercy in Sierra Leone, Ishaka was ready to experience life on board the world’s largest civilian hospital ships for himself. He traveled to Benin in 2014, but shortly before the ship was scheduled to arrive in, Mercy Ships had to change course due to the heightening Ebola epidemic.

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“So, I was stuck,” Ishaka recounted. “We asked ourselves, ‘What’s next’?”

Instead, he found work in the neighboring country of Togo with another medical charity: Believe and See (later renamed Sight.org), founded by a Mercy Ships volunteer alumnus. Ishaka became certified for sterile processing and went from village to village as an eye surgery sterilizer from 2014 to 2018, helping to restore vision to patients across the country with limited access to surgical care.

During this time, Ishaka also broadened his skills by obtaining an agricultural diploma. Helping to operate a farm, he was soon able to equip others, finding a passion for teaching that he would continue to carry forward with him.

Fulfilling a Dream, Years Later

In 2018, after four years of working in the medical field, Ishaka was ready for something new. He traveled to Ghana to add a new skill to his belt, undergoing maritime safety training to become certified as a seafarer.

“In my mind, I said, in whatever department they have on the ship, I think I can be able to navigate very easily,” he explained. Finally, with his seafarer certification in hand, he fulfilled a dream that he’d harbored for years, boarding the Africa Mercy in Conakry, Guinea. There, his maritime skills could contribute to keeping the hospital ship functioning and bringing hope and healing through the free surgical care provided by volunteer medical crew on board.

The deck department proved to be a perfect fit for Ishaka. Bosun Lawrence Adjei from Ghana explained, “Ishaka is affable. He’s hardworking. He’s teachable, and it’s a joy working with him.”

Ishaka quickly ascended through five positions over the last six years, spanning six different countries with Mercy Ships. “He’s pretty quick to learn — and also implement what he learns,” Lawrence explained. With his sights set on an officer title, Ishaka continues to level up his skills, supported by the mantra: “Life is like a camera. Develop the negatives.”

Known as “Ishak” to friends, he is “Uncle Ishaka” to Bosun Lawrence’s children, who live on board with their father. “He’s a friend, and a brother besides working together,” Lawrence revealed. “The kids like to have him around.”

Watching his countryman and colleague mature has been a blessing for fellow Sierra Leonean mariner Abdulai Barrie, and even “a big blessing for the country” overall.

“We need to learn from Ishaka,” Abdulai said. “He’s always ready to work, and he is always ready to volunteer, so that is one of the reasons he’s up there, and he always respects others. How to talk to people — whether you are big or small, he gives you respect.”     

For Ishaka, this attitude of encouraging others comes naturally — it’s a skill he’s finetuned throughout his lifetime. Growing up during the 12-year-long Sierra Leone Civil War as the second of eight children, caring for family became second nature. “What can I give back to my siblings? I always think of that,” he shared. And for Ishaka, volunteering on board means this family has now grown: “Always remember that Mercy Ships is a family.”

And Ishaka isn’t the only Sierra Leonean on board committed to serving his fellow countrypeople. On the Global Mercy in Freetown, the deck department currently counts 10 Sierra Leoneans new to Mercy Ships among its crew.

“Open your mind,” Ishaka encourages them. “When you stay in your house, you only know the things about your house, but Mercy Ships has exposed me to the world. My thinking — my worldview is different.”

Want to grow in your skills, serve others, and experience a broader worldview than ever before? There’s space for you on board, whether you’re a mariner like Ishaka or a medical professional, receptionist, chef, plumber, or virtually any other profession. Begin a life-changing journey of bringing hope and healing following Jesus’ model and find your place on board today!