When David Kpakiwa thinks about the surgical need in his home country of Sierra Leone, he gets emotional.
It’s not just because he cares about his countrymen and women.
It’s because for him, this issue hits close to home.
“When I was a kid, my mom got sick and she needed surgery,” he said. “But in our community, they could not provide that.”
David’s mother would have to leave their home in the Kono District to find treatment, but the travel was too expensive. David was young, but he carried a lot of responsibility as a provider for his family. He began supporting his family at the age of 8, working long hours on a farm to bring home money to his mother.
“I spent a lot of time looking at my mom’s suffering,” he said.
Although she was finally able to get the help she needed, David never forgot the experience.
“The memories are there,” he said. “They’re fresh.”
David’s family is not unique among Sierra Leoneans. There are fewer than three surgeons for every 100,000 people in the population, but those surgeons are distributed unequally across the country. That means surgical care is inaccessible to the majority of people. Estimates of the unmet surgical need in Sierra Leone reach as high as 91%.
David’s mother was just one of those people who couldn’t access the care she desperately needed – leaving a lasting impact on those who loved her most. That’s why now, years later, as David prepares the way for the Global Mercy to arrive in Freetown, Sierra Leone, he takes his job personally.
Finding the Right Place
David Kpakiwa first encountered Mercy Ships when he applied to be a national crewmember on the Africa Mercy® in Guinea. His first assignment was working with Mercy Ministries, an off-ship program that partners with local organizations to serve in places like orphanages and prisons.
“I can tell you it’s the best thing that has ever happened to my life,” he said.
David began visiting orphanages, and he found he could relate to the children he was meeting.
“I’m not an orphan, but … at a very young age I had to start fending for my family,” he said. “You feel like you don’t have anyone. And then you see people coming to you, showing you love, pouring genuine love on you.”
As he continued working with the kids and other Mercy Ships patients, David knew that this was where he was meant to be.
“That’s what makes me happy: serving people,” he said.
David joined Mercy Ships as a full-time volunteer crewmember in 2020. He worked in housekeeping, then became a deck administrator.
While he was working on the Africa Mercy, David learned the new Global Mercy would be traveling to Sierra Leone to serve his home country. He asked for a transfer – and that’s when his journey home began.
“I honestly cannot express how much happier I am that I could actually serve my country,” he said. “I look back and say, ‘Oh, God has been faithful.’”
Preparing the Way
When Mercy Ships signs a protocol agreement with a host nation, the ship’s visit is just one small piece of the bigger plan. The agreement spans five years and includes preparation for the ship’s visit, and follow-through on the ground afterward.
David now works with the Country Engagement Team (CET), which oversees this long-term work in the host country.
His team traveled to Sierra Leone a few months ahead of the ship to prepare the logistics for the field service, building relationships with local healthcare systems and government, readying the port, and paving the way for the ship’s arrival. His team will also stay behind after the ship leaves, to ensure a smooth transition for local partners to continue the work.
“I see CET as the foundation to the work that Mercy Ships does with the ships,” David said. “If the CET doesn’t do a good job, then the entire ship is in trouble.”
As the operations liaison, David is the point person between the Global Mercy’s operations department, the government of Sierra Leone, and Mercy Ships’ other local partners.
“I do a lot of jobs for the communications team, the IS team, the transportation team, the finance team, and the supply team,” he said.
David works on everything from registering Mercy Ships vehicles, to finding housing for the off-ship crew, to building relationships with local banks on behalf of the finance department.
“It is very busy,” he said. “It is a lot of work, a lot of phone calls, a lot of meetings.”
David is coordinating countless pieces of a complex operation, and his work sometimes feels never-ending. But he knows it will all be worth it. In Sierra Leone, research shows only 30% of hospitals meet the standard of a “functioning surgical hospital.” Access to surgery is already more difficult outside major cities, and a World Bank report found poverty in rural Sierra Leone is getting worse.
David has been dreaming of the day he can bring hope and healing not just to his neighbors in West Africa – but to his own people.
“Looking at the ship coming in, and already knowing how much transformation that ship is coming in with, it’s really going to be emotional,” he said.
From Tears to Joy
David is full of anticipation for each person who will be impacted by the ship’s arrival. He’s excited for the Sierra Leonean national crew who will have the chance to participate in the mission. He’s excited for the government and the local agencies that have invited Mercy Ships in as a partner.
And most of all, he’s excited for the patients. Patients just like his mother.
“When my mom had surgery, (she) left the house, she was crying,” he remembered. “We were all crying. We were sad for her. When she came back, she was smiling. She was happy. That’s just a part of transformation.”
And now David is paving the way for more of his fellow Sierra Leoneans to experience that transformation, too.