They say the world is run by volunteers and that may well be the opinion of Snitterfield WI members after their January meeting. Jan Roberts, daughter of residents Jean and Tim Dronsfield, and a volunteer aboard the Caribbean Mercy, brought fascinating photographs and insightful anecdotes to tell us of the work of the Mercy Ships of West Africa.

In 1978 an American, John Stephens, and his wife, with the desire to take ‘Hope and Healing’ to the poorest and most vulnerable of the world’s population, bought a ‘retired’ ocean liner, the Anastasis. They sailed down the coast of West Africa to take medical aid to the villages and found great need.

The countries they visited are among the poorest in the world, with 100,000 people to one doctor and incredibly low standards of health, hygiene, sanitation and pure water. To address this, teams are sent out from the Mercy Ships to teach methods for digging wells, resulting in better health, particularly among the orphans whose parents have succumbed to HIV Aids. Orphanages have been built and helped by volunteers on the ships.

Teams are sent out to the villages to screen patients for life-changing surgery and given appointments. Thousands of patients receive free operations for eye diseases, dental work, plastic surgery and orthopaedic corrective surgery. Facilities are provided for each child to have an adult with them on board.

The organisation, based in Texas, is complicated but there is always a waiting-list of volunteers anxious to help; all sponsored, often by churches or their local communities. There is no discrimination or prejudice. The ships are fitted out to the highest standards, the recent Africa Mercy, with 450 volunteers, having five operating theatres, x-ray facility, pathology laboratory, an academy where children of volunteers can go to school, a library and shops; plus a full crew of cooks, cleaners and Gurkha guards – a necessary precaution. Computers enable volunteers to remain in touch with their families at home.

Forthcoming activities: welcoming the members and their guests, Angela announced a number of future events: a marmalade making day hosted by Ann, a poetry evening organised by Judith, a skittles evening in March and proposed village walks. Merrill brought us up to date on the need for donations to the Stratford food bank, with a useful venue for our gifts at the village shop. Carole reminded us of the ongoing appeal for volunteers at the Shakespeare Hospice. Altogether, a busy and interesting year to which we look forward.

Barbara Alcock