When local jazz singer Maria Manna found out she’d be travelling to West Africa to perform, she packed all the things she thought she’d need: a stunning gown, high heels, jewelry and sheet music. But even with some of the comforts of home packed neatly in her suitcase, nothing could have prepared her for the mission she was about to embark on.
“I’m all about hair, makeup, heels, nails and pedicures … and I’m going to Africa,” she said, just days before departing. “You just can’t take that out of me.”
After 20 hours of travel, her bag would never make it to the port city of Conakry, Guinea, where she’d be spending the next five days onboard the MV Africa Mercy, the largest charity hospital ship in the world. All she had was the clothing on her back, and what little supplies were in her carry-on.
“I felt so poor and alone,” says Manna. “It was amazing the lesson God was teaching me.”
Luckily, the few “necessities” she needed — her face lotions, potions and makeup — had been packed in her carry-on, along with a pair of Ugg boots.
“God knows how important it is for me to have my face,” says Manna. “He wouldn’t leave me totally naked.”
In the 37°C heat, Manna had the choice of wearing the one outfit she had — capri pants, a T-shirt and blue and white striped wedge heels — or scrubs and Uggs.
“I tell ya, God has a great sense of humour,” she says. “I was stripped of all the things that make Maria Manna. She was in the luggage, and her soul went to Africa.”
But after what she found in Africa, she’ll never be the same.
“Africa was nothing I expected and more than I thought it would be,” says Manna. “There’s a world out there that you don’t know exists and it’s dying … There is a beauty and happiness in poverty and it lives in Africa. They want nothing more than what they need.”
“I saw their souls through their eyes and I realized that it’s not about me … I have enough.”
When it came time to perform for the ship’s crew and passengers, Manna had no choice but to wear scrubs. “I told my band that I had to wear scrubs and they said ‘We’ll all wear scrubs.’ I even wore a hairnet and I put it jauntily on the side like a tam … We called ourselves Maria Manna and the Scrubettes.”
Manna’s six-piece band was made up of Africa Mercy’s musically-inclined crew — the pianist was the ship’s captain’s wife. Manna scanned all her sheet music and sent it over in advance via Dropbox so the band could rehearse on their own time as they only had an hour to rehearse together before the show.
“I thought I was getting jazz musicians,” says Manna. “I had to cut that hip chic jazz and groovy talk really quickly. I had to let them know what a head was, what a tag was. You can’t just YouTube it on the ship.”
But the two-hour performance went off without a hitch. The band performed 11 jazz and 10 gospel tunes for the crowd of more than 300. The performance was also broadcast to screens in each of the ship’s wards for patients to see.
Manna is the spokesperson and event coordinator for the Canadian branch of Mercy Ships, based right here in Victoria. She took on the gig almost a year ago.
“I didn’t even know they existed,” says Manna. “When I heard the motto ‘Bringing hope and healing to the forgotten poor,’ I thought ‘Oh my God. This is my calling.’ I’ve been so fortunate in my life and He blessed me with talents and said to me ‘Now go help my people.’”
Manna was so inspired to begin her journey with Mercy Ships that she started early, working an entire month for free.
Manna is one of seven employees working for the local branch. Her mandate is to create awareness and raise funds for the operations.
Manna is hoping to find a donor to help fund the recording of an album, with proceeds of sales going to Mercy Ships.
Born in Edmonton, Manna is no stranger to the stage — even those in war-torn and impoverished countries. She was named Klondike Kate, the ambassador for the City of Edmonton in 1999-2000 and has performed for prime ministers, with Grammy winners and has travelled to Italy and Bosnia to perform for the Canadian Forces.
Manna also owns the Maria Manna Etiquette and Finishing School, which she opened after moving to Victoria in 2000. M
Manna is hosting a presentation about her vision trip with Mercy Ships Fri., April 12 at 7pm at Church of the Advent (510 Mount View). Free. mercyships.ca
About Mercy Ships
Mercy Ships is a global charity that provides health care and community development services to those who need it most, completely free of charge. All health care professionals on board pay their own way and volunteer their time.
Since its inception in 1978, Mercy Ships has performed more than two million services, including more than 18,000 operations (Cleft lip and palate reconstruction, cataract removal, orthopaedic and facial reconstructions, tumor removal and obstetric fistula repair), 110,000 dental treatments and 350 construction and agriculture projects (schools, clinics, orphanages and water wells) in villages around the world.
MV Africa Mercy
The MV Africa Mercy is the world’s largest non-governmental hospital ship. It began its mission in Liberia in 2007. It has been in port at Conakry, Guinea since August 2012 and, after a two-month refit in the Canary Islands, will depart on its next 10-month mission to the Republic of Congo in July.
The ship features accommodations for 484 crew members (including families) in 126 cabins, a day care centre, a school, a library, a laundromat, supermarket, restaurant, gym, shops and a Starbucks cafe. Almost 30 vehicles travel with the ship for land-based operations.
Medical capabilities include six operating theatres, X-ray, CT scans, intensive care unit, ophthalmic unit, laboratories and a 78-bed recovery ward.