“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity, and a decent life.”

– Nelson Mandela

Saturday marks the 11th annual Nelson Mandela International Day, a time for people around the globe to “take action and inspire change” to help improve the world around them. This year’s theme focuses specifically on education, food, and nutrition.

For many people worldwide, including thousands in sub-Saharan Africa, a lack of quality nutrition can cause preventable yet painful conditions such as twisted limbs, deteriorating eyesight, and more.

Over our 40 year history, Mercy Ships has worked hard to provide surgical care and medical training to local medical professionals to treat these conditions, but our Food for Life program is designed to meet the need at its root. This program has been established as a way to help prevent many of these conditions by training local citizens on how best to utilize the tools and resources available to them.

While many of our programs have been put on pause due to the global pandemic, Eliphaz Essah, our agricultural program manager from Benin, has continued to share his knowledge with those in his community.

“Amongst the unknowns (in the world), I decided not to sit at home and do nothing, but to allow all the experiences of the last few years and the many things I have learned to shape my vision for this season and allow God to transform my circumstances,” Essah said.

This continuation of education and training impacts so many people who would otherwise suffer from oftentimes preventable conditions — those like 9-year-old Sema.

For Sema, the orthopedic condition known as “bowed legs” has shaped much of his young life. This condition often begins at a young age as a result of malnutrition. As Sema grew, his condition worsened, making daily tasks a challenge and breaking his grandmother’s heart.

“I didn’t even want to take him to the doctor to get looked at — I knew they would only tell me a price that was too big,” Sema’s grandmother, Aminata, said. “There was no way we could pay anything. It made me so sad. When you have children and grandchildren, you would do anything for them… but I couldn’t do a thing for him; I had to put my heart to God.”

Thankfully, God answered Aminata’s patient prayers in the form of a hospital ship filled with volunteer crew from around the world. Sema came onboard the Africa Mercy for an orthopedic surgery, which would straighten his legs. After his surgery, Sema spent several months relearning basic motor functions to strengthen and retrain his muscles before he was able to return home.

Due to the severity of his condition, his legs aren’t perfectly straight, but they hint that there’s a story to be told. With continued proper nutrition and his rehab exercises, there’s hope that Sema’s legs will continue to grow straighter as he grows up.

Sema’s grandmother believes his future looks brighter than ever, saying, “Now, if he goes to school, anything is possible.”

You can learn more about Nelson Mandela International Day here and more about our Food for Life Program here.