Keith Brinkman has been been the Country Director for Mercy Ships assigned to Liberia since November 2020. He works and lives in Monrovia. This is a new position as Mercy Ships wants to be better-engaged with the host country for a longer period of time. Having a senior leader and team in the country will aid that.
Keith, where are you now?
In November 2019, I moved out of my cabin #4236 on the Africa Mercy after over 12 years and transitioned to the Mercy Ships International Support Centre in Texas until my move to Liberia. I live here now and have my Residency Permit, my Liberian Driving licence, an apartment, and a vehicle.
What goals do you want to achieve with your team?
Our aim is to re-engage with the government, embassies, associations, NGO-communities and all of our partners on the ground. Together we bring hope and healing to the amazing people of Liberia.
How much “African adventure” do you face on a daily basis?
It is definitely not a safari here in Monrovia, Liberia. Life here certainly has its fair share of surprises and challenges. Sometimes you wake up in the morning and think you have the plan for the day … and then things change. But that happens in many places around the world.
Mercy Ships is working together with governments, local healthcare professionals and other NGOs that are also engaged in the country. What is your personal experience with this partnership model?
Mercy Ships is most grateful for the partnership with the host government in the form of a signed protocol. Within the government, we are working primarily with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Finance, etc. Mercy Ships has working agreements with some of the larger organisations and which are present in the country, we always connect with them and look for ways of collaboration. Within a country, depending on its level of development, there are other non-governmental organisations with whom we partner – some officially with a “Memorandum of Agreement”. Many Liberians remember Mercy Ships from the past and are excited we are back. We wish to, and need to, partner with others to see success in our mission.
Everyone talks about “sustainable impact” as a way to measure the long-term success of a NGO’s commitment in one country. Which examples come to mind which show the lasting impact Mercy Ships has had in Liberia?
Good question – something we talked about in the past, but really never put much into action when we were last in Liberia – four visits between 2005 – 2008. Now it is 2021, and it is so difficult to measure impact from so long ago until now. I did serve on the Evaluation Team who returned to Liberia in 2010, and we learned there were more community-based projects we conducted that are best handled by those in the country long term – we know our strengths lie with surgery and surgical related training. Now a small team of our “International Programs” department is looking at our monitoring and impact. Right now, they are in the midst of their project and we look forward to hearing from them. As we prepare for projects here in Liberia, we look closely at what is needed so that we have a sustainable impact on this nation.
You have been working with Mercy Ships for many years. What are the “highlights” of your career within Mercy Ships?
I joined Mercy Ships in 1989 and served for five years at the International Office in Texas before moving to the Caribbean Mercy to serve as the Finance Director from 1994 to 2005 – opened our bank accounts and closed them in the end as the ship was retired. So, after 15 years in finance, I switched to “Programs” and “Executive Department” in Africa on the Anastasis and later the Africa Mercy. My highlights from the countries we visit are the people – whether they are patients, caregivers, training participants, fellow crew members, day crew (local workers), partners, and others. When I think of a country, I think of the people I know there. For some, I have the privilege of visiting them in their homes. I do stay in touch with many who have access to the internet, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Mercy Ships has developed a strategy that involves a lot more “off-ship-work”. How does it feel to work for us far away from our ship, her wonderful crew and all the comfort on board?
Yes, as an organisation we are looking more into our country engagement, of which one aspect would be a ship visit. How can we engage with the country, looking at health system strengthening, and how we can be a part of that – some of which would require the ship itself and some would not. I do miss going to the ward and visiting patients and caregivers in the evening. As a single person, I don’t have a wife and children waiting for me in the cabin, and so I enjoyed building relationships with our patients. There are advantages of living on board in a Mercy Ships community. I do miss that, as well as the reliable water, electricity and other services which are often more difficult on land. (Due to a power surge, my charger for my phone melted, and my personal computer won’t work now and there is no computer repair place around the corner!)
The Covid-Pandemic has affected us all. What is the situation in Liberia? How does it impact your current work there?
The COVID-19 numbers in Liberia, and also across the continent of Africa as a whole, are low. I check them daily. The impact on our work is related to travel restrictions. Travel in, out and around Liberia was challenging in the past but, with the restrictions and testing requirements on the departing country, transit countries/airport, and destination and the timing on when the sample is taken and getting the results in time, everything is made much more difficult. We have been able to continue to meet with people here in Liberia – always remembering handwashing, our masks and social-distancing when possible.
Keith, thank you so much for this interview. I wish you all the best for your work in Liberia.