Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Final Countdown

The final 48 hour countdown to depart began this morning - I will be landing in Africa in four days.  It is almost surreal to me that this is finally happening, I am not sure if I will believe it until I am actually on the ground.  For the past 30 years I have thought about Africa almost every day.  I am more than ready to go, I can't concentrate on much else and am packed for the most part. 

I really have no idea what to expect but am excited about the adventure.  Having not spent much time out of the country (sans the Caribbean and Mexico) this is bound to be the most interesting adventure I have ever had.  Possibly also the most heartbreaking.  Janine Maxwell's blog post last weekend was about the murder of an eleven year old boy in their food program who's private parts were cut off and sold to a witch doctor.  The post the weekend before was about two newborn abandoned baby boys they received in the past few weeks.  They were both unfortunately left in pit latrines, one with head injuries from hitting the cement floor and the other protected from a head injury because he landed in human waste.  Am I emotionally prepared for this?

One million people in this tiny country. An almost 50% AIDS rate.  One third of the population are orphans.  75% percent of the population getting their daily sustenance from world food programs.  Babies being abandoned in fields and pit latrines and little boys murdered for their genitals.  These things and worse happening in all corners of Africa and other places around the globe.  The scale of human suffering is staggering, I can't even begin to wrap my head around it.  It is amazing to me that we live in a world with so many resources and so many people who have so much more than they possibly need, yet on the other side of the world people are being born and dying at an alarming rate, disease and sickness is rampant, there is a lack of food and clean water, very young children are raising their brothers and sisters, and there is so much widespread corruption and evil.

On the flip side, everything I have read and heard about Swaziland from books and people who have volunteered there, have said that the spirit of the people who live there is amazing.  One girl I talked to has been on trips with Heart for Africa seven times. She told me that she felt she got a hundred times back what she gave and she has worked hard to go back year after year.  She told me that the appreciation, joy and goodness of the people she met outweighed the sadness.  I am ready to find out.

For a long time I have felt like Africa is calling to me.  That may sound ridiculous, but I have heard this from others over and over.  They have told me that once you go to Africa, you will be trying to figure out a way to return to Africa as soon as you return home.  They have told me that Africa gets into your heart and your soul. This may sound overly pollyanna and romanticized - but I believe it.  I have no illusions as to what I am getting myself into.  I am not expecting to see Africa from a motion picture point of view.  Janine Maxwell's two books got into my heart and soul, it's not okay with me either.  I realize that my contribution is a drop in the bucket of what needs to happen to help these people - but look what an ordinary woman in the field of marketing has done over the past few years.  Thousands of people have been touched by her presence and the good she has brought to Swaziland.

Honestly, I am not sure if I am going more for the people of Swaziland or more for me.  Maybe my motives are selfish, it is probable that I need Africa more than Africa needs me.  I can only hope to return with a fresh perspective on life, a new attitude and a new appreciation for all of the wonderful people and things I have in my life.  I need a major attitude adjustment.  I need a change of perspective.   I need a kick in the pants.  I need a kick in my head.  I need a kick in my heart. 

I gave a presentation to Kalyss'a class last week about Heart for Africa - where I am going and what I will be doing.  It was fun.  I am really impressed with her teacher, Mr. Holbrook.  He engages the kids in new and creative ways.  The kids seem to have allot of respect for him, after spending some time in his classroom, I also have an elevated level of respect for him.  He asked the kids to come up with two dollars of their own money - he gave me a box yesterday of 30 boxes of crayons and 30 coloring books to take with me.  Some of the kids had brought baby clothes and educational DVDs also.  It was wonderful. I am so excited to share this with them.  I took a picture of each child - they are writing letters and will attach their photograph - and I will take the whole  lot of them to Swaziland to distribute.  I am also bringing beach balls, jump ropes, stickers, bubbles, chalk and picture books.  I had hoped to get involved in Kiana's science classroom as well, but her teacher had a knee surgery and has not been at school. 

My mother had been relatively silent about her worries of the danger of me taking this trip, up until yesterday.  Twenty plus years ago she had similar fears when I joined the Navy, she cried for three weeks, but it turns out that she was right to be worried on some level.  Today, I have more at stake then I did back then, three kids of my own to think about, but I NEED to do this.  I believe I might just come back a better mother having gone.  I appreciate and respect my mothers concern - and actually understand it much better than I did at nineteen. Yes, something could happen in Africa, but the fact is that something could just as easily happen right here at home. 

We only have one life to live - my thought is that you have to get out of your comfort zone in order to really live it.  I don't want to just preach that to my kids, I want to set that precedence and example for my kids.  I would much rather have experiences than 'stuff'.  I've always felt that way.  Experiences in Africa may not be for everyone.  It is for me though  - and there is no place in the entire world I'd rather go and see.

I'm not sure I really understand how the kids feel about me going.  Cody and Kiana seem somewhat indifferent about the whole thing - Kalyssa has struggled some.  I would love more than anything to take them along, I think it would change everything about how they view the world and how lucky they are in their own lives. But that's not in the cards or the budget right now.  Maybe someday.  So for now I'm hoping that sharing my experience, photographs and stories will be enough.

Africa here I come.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Project Canaan -The Land of Milk and Honey

Project Canaan loosely translates as "The Land of Milk and Honey". For those who know me this is quite fitting.  My blog has had this title for years.  A very dear friend of mine once told me during a very turbulent time in my life, "Amy, you need to go out and find your Land of Milk and Honey..."   Because of that conversation, I had a license plate at one time reading "MLKNHNY". I've still got one of them on my wall and he has the other.

Well Mr. McGreevy, I think I've finally found it.


About Project Canaan from Heart for Africa Website:

Project Canaan is being designed by business people to come alongside Africans and bring expertise, resources and heart together to find a holistic solution to a complex set of issues - issues that, if not addressed, will have a greater impact on our global economy and the global community of which we are a part.

Project Canaan is a multi-faceted initiative that includes large-scale farming, fisheries, poultry houses and a dairy farm. In 2006, the country of Swaziland consumed 15 million gallons of milk, but only produced 2 million gallons, importing 13 million gallons. This is just one example of the business opportunities that exist in Swaziland. Other such business opportunities are being identified and developed.

In July, 2010, we dedicated the land for the first children's home on the property, the El Roi Baby Home. We will provide a safe place for them to live and grow as well as be educated to help break the cycle of ignorance in their generation.

HIV/AIDS is the primary cause of the growing orphan population. It will be critical that the land be home to a state of the art HIV/AIDS clinic where a holistic approach to medical care will be taken.

Not only will the agri-business development address food shortage, but it will generate employment, stimulate the local economy, allow for export and provide a sustainable business model to support other Heart for Africa homes and projects.

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and we believe that is true. Training schools will provide advanced education for skilled labor with the goal of moving the impoverished into a working class. A medical center will also be a part of the development to teach home based care and basic medical training for community and rural usage.

It is not okay with us that 9 year old girls are selling sex for food just so they can feed their younger brothers and sisters.

It is not okay with us that 30,000 children die every day from hunger or malnutrition because they have no food or because there is no one there to feed them.

We ask you then, "Is it okay with you?"

Sunday, June 28, 2015

I am in love with Paris!

At the airport internet station - I am five hours early for my next flight, I figured I might as well write the highlights of my short stop in Paris.  It was a really good day - but I am very anxious to get to Africa.

When I left yesterday Kalyssa cried and said something I will never forget.  She said, "Mom do you promise you will come home from Africa?  I am worried that you will love those Africa babies more than me and want to stay there."  I can only hope I gave her enough reassurance that I couldn't love anyone more than my own babies - and that I had plenty of room in my heart to leave some love behind  in Africa for kids without moms or dads.

I have not slept in 28 hours.  Hoping I can play catch up on the flight to Johannesburg tonight.  It is 9 am at home - it is 6 pm here.  I have called the kids and all is well - except Kalyssa is mad because Cody and Tanner have gone hog wild on the groceries Grandma bought yesterday.  Grandma is having trouble with the washing machine - but it sounds like all in all things are fine.

The plane ride to France wasn't so great - pretty cramped.  My backpack was much too full for overhead bins and therefore under seat wasn't really option either but that's exactly where it ended up.  Watched several movies and television shows until my screen froze up.  I must say that Delta treats you right, showered us in sandwiches - was given two full hot meals and several sandwiches and other snacks in between.  I was seated next to a young Marine stationed in Hawaii on his way to Italy to see his sister who had just had a baby.  He didn't look much older than Cody and it freaked me out a little to think that in a year or two Cody might be on an airplane talking to a stranger about his upcoming deployment to the Middle East or North Africa. My seat mate was a neat guy, great positive attitude and he made me laugh - I guess the plane ride wasn't so bad. 

Landed in Paris this morning, sleepy and grumpy.  Sat on a bench for a while - contemplating what to do next.  It was almost midnight at home, Kiana answered my text, when I asked her why she was still up, she said 'because it's the weekend!'  Outside it was incredibly cold - I was not prepared for this and had to buy a hat and sweatshirt right out of the gate.

I had no plan, just 18 hours to see the city.  I took a makeshift sponge bath with baby wipes and changed my clothes.  Then I bought an energy drink and walked to the train station.

I finally figured out the subway/train system map and got off at Notre Dame/St Michel Fountain.  Stepping out of the subway it was stepping back in felt surreal like a tour at Universal Studios where it looks real but you know it is not.  Everything is so grandiose - the details are incredible.  And there really did seem to be people in love everywhere I looked.

(You have to remember that I really have not been out of the country so all of this is a new experience for me.)

Notre Dame is absolutely beautiful, amazing and magical - one of the most intricate and stunning cathedrals I have ever seen.  The sheer size of the hallways-it was huge!  It looked different at every angle possible from inside and out.  All I could think about was how much Grandma Dar would have loved it had she'd ever gotten here.  I spent a long time inside looking at the thousands of stained glass windows, intricate carvings and detailed paintings.  It brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat.  It made me miss Grandma Dar  as much as the day we lost her.  I lit some candles - for Grandma Dar, Grandma Trilly, Alicia and Kieran.  I bought an angel necklace pendant to replace the one Mom bought me when Alicia died, which I lost many years ago.

Spent the day walking around - buying a bite to eat from food vendors here and there.  The food here is incredible!  A little of this and a little of that.  Amazing.  I took a picture of the roasted pigeons, complete with wing feathers, just to show Kiana.

I saw the Palais de Justice, Hotel de Ville, La Bastille, and finally ended up at the Louvre.  What a spectacular site - no words to describe how beautiful the paintings are, so much to look at, could stare at the ceiling in one room for hours and still not see everything.  There were a hundred people in front of the Mona Lisa.  The Winged Victory of Samothrace was beautiful. Some of the sculptures, especially the ones of babies and angels, made my heart sing.  One of my favorite sections by far was the Egyptian artifacts.  Colossal Statue of Ramesses was stunning, as were the tombs covered in hieroglyphics.  

From there I took a rickshaw to the Eiffel Tower.  It was a little bumpy over he cobblestone streets and he was biking right out there in traffic, I thought we were going to get hit by a bus or car at least three times in as many blocks, but he weaved in and out of traffic every bit as well as a gas powered vehicle.  It was too foggy to see the top of the tower.  I didn't see much point in going to the top because it was likely to foggy to see the city anyway.  I took lots of pictures from the bottom.  Everywhere I went people were friendly and helpful - so fun to hear everyone speaking in French and a hundred other languages. Took the train back to the airport and had an absolutely wonderful dinner in an airport cafe.  

I've got the travel bug - I've got it bad.

So here I sit, trying not to fall asleep as I type.  Outside the window, a gigantic 380 Airbus being loaded and cleaned for its next trip to South Africa.  I've waited 30 years and will be on that flight.  I'm so excited I probably couldn't sleep if I wanted to anyway.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

In South Africa :)

I finally got some sleep - not good sleep - but sleep none the less.  The aircraft was huge and it took over an hour to board everyone. I was seated towards the front with a young mother and small baby to one side and a red haired woman from France who could have been my coworker, Samantha's twin!  She didn't speak any English, and I no French, so we didn't really say much to each other.  The baby was named Archy - he was a tiny little thing and the flight attendant set up a fabric cradle of sorts on the bulkhead in front of his mom.  He wasn't having that and ended up in her lap most of the flight.  He cried allot but I didn't hear much of anything. In fact, we had been in the air almost an hour before I woke to realize we had even left the ground.  They served a dinner of roasted duck and mashed potatoes - even French airline food is good.  In front of me were two men that looked like they were straight out of a safari commercial, each handsome with strong features, wearing khakis, sharp button down shirts and boots.  They were very serious, the younger one kept checking out the flight attendants butt every time she walked by, it made me laugh.  I wondered for a while where in Africa all these people were going...?

So in the behemoth Airbus 380 completely full of hundreds of people - at 39,000 feet we flew across the entire continent of Africa-from the very top to the very bottom- at 563 miles per hour.  There was a TV/movie screen in the seat in front of me with an area to track the flight.  You could switch a button to see a camera on the tail, nose and belly of the aircraft.  In the morning I turned it on and watched the white clouds go by as I ate my breakfast. It occurred to me that if we crashed I would be in Africa no matter what and I took some solace in that - I got to Africa one way or another.  Thinking about crashing got me missing my kids and I thought about how exciting it would have been to be able to share all of this with them. (Not thoughts of crashing, but this trip in general).  The TV screen also let you look at how many miles you currently were from any other given city.  I was 12,000 from Honolulu, the farthest city I could find.  I was already 6,000 from Paris and only a few hundred more to South Africa.  It made me smile to think that I was closer to Casablanca than home and I thought about Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman for a while.  It was a crisp  -68 degrees outside the aircraft and I was finally wide awake.  My stomach in knots with the realization that within hours I would be on the ground in Johannesburg. 

All of the culmination of years of research and planning - and here I was about to land in Africa.  I thought about my expectations and realized that I can't be disappointed because it didn't matter anyway I looked at it. Would I cry?  Could I hold it together so the people around me wouldn't think I was a total freak?  I was about to burst inside as I switched the camera to the belly view and could not help but gasp as we descended.  I could see colors! Small blue pools of water - greens and browns across the landscape - but I could also distinctly see the red clay African soil.  My heart was singing.  I could see the dry, scorched and barren landscape.  As we got lower I could see rivers, mountains and so much green. I could see villages and zig zaggy roads out the window next to me.   As we got closer to landing I could see sunshine glimmering off buildings.  I could see major highways, thousands upon thousands of houses as the population of South Africa exploded underneath the airplane.  It appeared to be as busy as any other international hub.  I wondered if first time visitors to the United States ever felt like I was feeling as we got ready to land in Africa.  As the pilot and flight attendants made their speeches, the camera turned off.  I was disappointed.  The land gear came down and everyone was speaking in French, I got bits and pieces. The camera came back on right before landing, this time the tail and I could see the runway.  I thought about the many times I have gone flying with Steven out of Deer Park and I got those  same butterflies in my stomach when ready to land.  It made me miss him too.

At last we were on the ground.  The airport was every bit as big and as busy as Seattle or Los Angeles.  I am keeping my watch on Spokane time - adding ten hours for local time.  That way I can always tell what time it is for the kids.  I sent out some texts that said, "The Eagle has landed.  Tail camera on video during descent and landing. AMAZING.  I AM HERE!!! I am in Africa...happy and crying."  Dammit I tried not to.  Kiana texted back right away - what the heck child, up at one AM two nights in a row!

It did not take long to disembark.  Suddenly I'm in a line of hundreds of people - passports.  The line moved quickly.  The airport modern, clean and having the most up to date technology. My first thought after hitting the bathroom was how funny it was to hear Usher music playing loudly in the bathroom.
I found myself giggling throughout the hour it took to get through passports a mans voice was over the loud speaker talking in English but completely indistinguishable.  He sounded EXACTLY like the Lemur King in the kids movie Madagascar. I pictured King Lemur standing on a box speaking into the loud speaker just to hear himself talk.  I wished Kiana and Kalyssa were there to hear it, it was hysterical.  There were no shortage of people willing to help with my baggage, and it came off the caurosel without a hitch.  A nice man helped me out the door to the nearby hotel where I am staying with the group tonight.

So here I sit, in this fancy, posh and very nice hotel waiting for he rest of my group to arrive at 6 pm.  I had lunch in the restaurant here, everything decorated with dark woods, browns khackis and burgundy.  It is sort of ironic to me to be here given the reason I am here.  I feel somewhat guilty looking at the sleek swimming pool, extravagant spaces and ammenities.  I've paid a few dollars for an hour on the internet - was going to call home but its 3 am and everyone (but Kiana) is probably asleep.    My lunch cost $62.00 but when I did the math I realized that it was actually a pretty good deal for a very delicious grilled chicken sald and a Sprite, only $7.75.

My internet time is up and I am going to get organized and a shower.  Finally a real bed tonight.  The real adventure begins tomorrow morning when I board that bus to Swaziland.  I've never been more ready for anything.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Beautiful, Magical, Dream-like, Heartbreaking Swaziland

I have not had Internet access for over a week.  I must say it has been kind of nice to be 'unplugged'.  No cell phone to worry about, no email to check, unconcerned about checking my bank balance.  So much has happened in the past seven days, I have no idea where to begin.  I have had the time of my life - it is everything I expected and a hundred times more.  It has been a heart warming and heart breaking experience at the same time.  I have seen things that I will never forget and I have met people that I am sure I will be friends with for the rest of my life.  So much to write, it is a little overwhelming to figure out where to start.  I think I will have to work my way backwards.  I have two hours of Internet time - it will take me a week to write about everything.  I guess I will start with an overview.

Swaziland is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  It is a rich, lush, green color and it is dazzling.  There are beautiful flora and fauna everywhere.  It is full of mountains, hills and great valleys.  The country's Natural Parks are full of elephants, rhino, hippo, lions, crocodile, wildebeest, impalas, baboons, other monkeys, warthogs, zebras, giraffes and cheetahs.  I have seen them, I have photographed them, I have been within arms reach of many of them.  The landscape is breathtaking.  Nature is everywhere.  Small houses and beehive huts dot the countryside.  Small gardens and large swaths of land are covered in crops.  It is the beginning of summer here in Swaziland and everything is in full bloom and colorful.  I feel like I have stepped back in time to a place where life moves at a leisurely pace.  There are two main cities here - complete with buildings, businesses, grocery stores, gas stations, a hospital, etc. - but the majority of the country looks like a scene out of Jurassic Park. It is beyond my wildest imagination - and it is fantastic. Goats walk leisurely down the highway - chewing slowly on tall grasses and other plants.  Cows cross the road in front of us stopping traffic to a standstill.  Small children are everywhere, many in school uniforms, walking to or from school.  African women are also everywhere, carrying heavy loads a top their heads.  Some cooking corn or chickens in a stick and mud structure over an open fire.  Men are walking down the road carrying live chickens.  Everywhere we drive there are structures made of sticks with people selling fruits, vegetables and handmade crafts.  There are baskets, soap stone carvings of African animals, masks, batik prints, blankets and beautiful paintings on canvas.  Everyone waves at us as we drive by.  Smiling children chase after our van yelling 'hello-how are you?!?!' in perfect English.  It is like something out of a dream - or maybe a National Geographic magazine.  Swaziland is full of life - people are busy - people are going about their lives and I am overcome with emotion and excitement that I have actually arrived.

Currently, I am sitting in the business center of the nicest hotel in Swaziland.  It is every bit as nice as an expensive hotel in Hawaii, Seattle or Los Angeles.  The inside reminds me a little of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. It is complete with a giant pool, inside and outdoor bars, many specialty shops, several restaurants with pretty table settings.  It has marble floors, big mirrors, an eighteen hole golf course, gourmet food and desserts. It boasts a casino worthy of MGM Grand, the Mirage or Luxor in Las Vegas. I am not staying at this hotel but the business center is here and my hotel is next door.  My hotel is very nice, also has a pool with outside full bar, a gourmet restaurant, big fluffy beds with five pillows, a gift shop and full shuttle service.  Actually, upon arrival,  it feels like a wonderful, relaxing vacation.  It is a huge resort.  This kind of service and attention is similar to that of our vacations to Hawaii and Las Vegas.  Both hotels are splendid and quite inexpensive places - the perfect place for an American, European or South African to take a vacation.  One night at my hotel is the equivalent of $39.50 US dollars.  One night at the 'better' hotel is about $150.00 US dollars.  What a deal right?  You can hardly get a Super 8 at home for that price.  Ladies in traditional dress brought us wine glasses of iced tea at our arrival and several young boys in uniform rushed up to gather our luggage.  Tour buses of Europeans and South Africans pull in behind us and more employees hurried out from the hotel to greet them.  The lawns are impeccably manicured and the pool is crystal clear. Every employee we pass greets us with a smile and a hello.  Oddly enough, country music is playing overhead, I did not expect to hear Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton in Swaziland of all places.  There is a grand restaurant with a buffet fit for a King. It has all the delights of home as well as traditional African cuisine. It has stir fry cooked to order, great platters of meats carved to your liking.  It has a spread of desserts like I have never seen - homemade ice creams, tarts of fruit and custard, pastries covered in chocolate, crepes and waffles made right in front of you.  Waiters and waitresses are everywhere, filling water and coffee cups when barely a sip was taken.  Most of the tables are full.  People are speaking French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and sSwati.  It is exciting - it is fun - I've almost forgotten why I have come.

It sounds like paradise....right?  Well not quite.  Paradise exists, if only at two hotels in all of Swaziland.

Less than a half a mile from here, the scene is quite different, it looks like ancient ruins.  It reminds me of a very well done movie set at Universal Studios.  This could not possibly be real?  Everywhere people are actually starving and people are dying of AIDS.  How can this be in a land as fertile and vibrant as this one? I've seen this with my own eyes.  This week I have been out to homesteads where the children out number the adults by as much as 10:1.  I have seen the poorest of the poor.  I've seen a 7 year old boy living by himself in a broken down hut with no food, no clean water, no electricity and no parents because they died two years ago from complications related to AIDS.  I've delivered used clothing and food to four teenagers living in the most rural area on Earth.  It took us three hours to get there, by bus, by tractor trailer and then on foot.  Parentless children who have been raped, taken advantage of in every way possible and who are living alone in the middle of nowhere.  I have met 18 babies under the age of two living on Project Canaan, all found abandoned in fields, pit latrines, left at police stations and on church doorsteps.  I have seen loneliness, sickness, desolation, crumbling buildings and bricks of mud melting back into the red soil after a heavy rain.  I have seen children with bloated bellies from starvation and malnutrition. I have held and comforted children covered in lesions and sweat which are indicators of AIDS.  I have seen tiny faces with flies buzzing about.  This Swaziland, the other Swaziland, so far away from my hotel with the comfortable bed and fluffy pillows, is why I came here.  I've taken oranges, carrots, potatoes, onions, beets, rice and maize to a church where 300 kids go to school - more than half orphans living with brothers and sisters and no parents.  I've seen homesteads with one dirty shoe here or a broken cup there, remnants of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and grandparents who have been long since taken by starvation or AIDS. 

This trip has been eye opening.  It has been heart breaking.  It has been amazing.  It has been fun.  It has been full of friendship, love and genuine good people.  It has been wild in every way possible - from the capture of a crocodile on Project Canaan on our second day, to viewing lions less than fifteen feet away from my vehicle.  From a poisonous dart frog on the back of that crocodile being a better danger to us than the crocodile, to a gigantic rain spider inside the outhouse door while someone was inside.  From a three hour zip line tour across a forest canopy full of baboons, to a safari ride with a bull elephant and a giraffe blocking the roadway.  From watching master craftsmen blow glass out of recycled bottles to eating at KFC (yes Kentucky Fried Chicken!) for lunch.  From hiking among rocks and boulders that are millions of years old, to watching an authentic Swazi tribe perform traditional Swazi dances complete with drums, spears and animal skins.  From watching a goat give birth on the side of a dirt road to a herd of zebra in their natural habitat.  From holding a baby rescued from the bottom of a pit latrine to watching a group of five grandmothers cook a meal for 300 children.

In the midst of a full blown crisis - the AIDS epidemic, starvation and a nation on the verge of economic collapse - there is hope.  There is joy.  There is laughter.  There is gratefulness.  There is tradition.  There is happiness.  I can't wait to write about my journeys.  I can't wait to get home and hold my kids.  I can't wait to tell the people whom I love and care about how much I love and care about them.  These two weeks have changed my life.  Changed my perspective.  Changed my heart and soul.  I have seen Africa and I will NEVER be the same.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You Have No Dish? Then You Just Don't Eat

From what I have heard, more than 70% of the population of Swaziland is dependent on some sort of international aid for their daily food supply.  Drought has caused the crops to not grow and vegetable growing is almost impossible.  95% of all food consumed in the country is imported.  When I visited the country last month, everything was lush and green.  This is typically not the case.  They have a few rainy months, but for the most part it is dry and hot.

Due to poor crop production and utter lack of income and resources, the only thing Swazi's really eat now is dried then cooked maize or "pap".  It is cooked in water to make something like grits.   It has almost no nutrients - it mostly just fills the belly.  For several days, we visited a church and school out in the rural community.  They cook one meal a day for the children in the afternoon.  It is cooked in a large cauldron type pot over a fire.  If they are lucky enough to have international aid they can mix this 'pap' with something called Manna Packs.  Manna Pack comes from the organization called Feed My Starving Children and it has the complete daily requirements of vitamins, nutrients and protein. One cup of cooked Manna Pack with pap is all a child needs for the day.  On this particular day, we were there to deliver Manna Packs and some fresh vegetables.

Pastor James

Heart for Africa's Strib Stribling

In this particular area, in the far Northwest corner of Swaziland, we had the pleasure to meet Pastor James and his wife Prichett.  In this school, there were about three hundred children from age 5 to 16.  James could not tell me the exact number of orphans or orphan headed households, but guessed that as much as 50-75% of the children had lost one, or both, parents.  When I asked if most of the parents had died from AIDS related illnesses, he sadly shook his head yes.  When I asked him if he had any idea how many of the children had HIV or AIDS, he said he did not know but it was probably a high number.

In the three consecutive days we visited this church and school, I counted a total of twenty four adults.  Friday was a school day so I did not expect to see many adults, but Saturday we came to measure the children's feet for a Toms shoe distribution.  Sunday we came for church service and to deliver the shoes.  The entire congregation came on Sunday - this was the day I counted 24 adults.  The children outnumbered the adults by a ratio of more than ten to one.  When I asked Prichett where was everyone else, she told me that this was everyone.

Pastor James, his wife Prichett, and Pastor Mike with Heart for Africa

So each of the three days, we planted a garden, played with the children, measured feet and distributed shoes.  On each of those days, we watched in the afternoon as five or six women prepared lunch for the children.  The first day, it was Manna Packs and pap.  The second day was the same, but some of the carrots and potatoes we brought were mixed in.  We gave the kids each on orange after their feet were measured, which was a very special treat.  The third day, Sunday, they had pap, carrots, potatoes and beets. 

Now it is understood that the smallest kids eat first and the biggest kids eat last. It is expected that the bigger kids help the little kids make their way to the food line. It is also understood that if the food pot runs out, the bigger kids will not eat that day.  When the children began to line up, we snuck away to our van to eat our brown bagged lunches prepared by the hotel.  Our daily lunch contained a whole sandwich with meat, cheese and lettuce. Also a juice box, bottled water, a piece of fruit and potato chips in strange flavors such as 'fruit chutney' and 'smoked beef'.  We ate in shifts, as there were about 12 of us and we didn't want to all disappear at the same time.

One of the days, I was sitting by the window, it partly open due to the heat.  I heard voices whispering outside it and looked out to see three or four little children on their tip toes trying to look into the window.  I tried to hide the fact that I was eating a chocolate Power Bar when one of the kids said, "Nice lady, I am hungry."  Another one piped up quietly, "Me too."  Their big brown eyes as big as saucers begging me for only a bite. Some of them having slightly misshapen heads due to malnutrition.  All of them breaking my heart into a million pieces.

Children running after our van upon arrival the first day.

The problem is, that if you give something like food to one, you have to give it to them all or you have big problems on your hands.  There is a huge amount of resentment, jealousy and envy if someone gets more than another.  So as much as I wanted to, I did not dare hand out bites of my lunch to the children looking in our van window.  Instead, I guiltily closed the tinted window on the van and felt like throwing up.  I was not so hungry at that point, hid the rest of my lunch under the seat and got out of the van.

A Swazi girl eating her lunch

By that time, the smaller children were lining up for lunch.  All of them had some sort of a dish, a cracked plastic bowl, an empty butter container, a plastic plate or cup.  The children are each responsible for their dish and must bring it to the line to eat.  I noticed that a little boy of about nine or ten was steering clear of the line even though other kids of his age were waiting for lunch.  I asked him what he was waiting for - he did not speak much English and did not seem to understand me.  I motioned sign language for 'eat'.  He said something quietly in sSwati.  I flagged down our Pastor Mike and asked him to ask the boy why he was not in line for lunch.  Mike asked him in English first. 

"No dish," the boy replied. 

"What?!" I asked. 

"No dish," he repeated. 

I looked at Mike for clarification.

Mike said, "What he is saying is that he has no dish, without a dish he doesn't eat." 

He had no dish, so he got no lunch.

Seriously?  How could this be?  This infuriated me. It was not fair. Surely he could borrow a dish from another child. Surely the Go-Go grandmothers preparing the meal would not allow this to happen. Someone would go get him a dish so he could eat his one meal for the day.  At the very least, one of the adults would require that one of the other children share their dish when they were finished....?

But this wasn't so.

Mike explained to me that none of the other children would give up their dish in fear that they might not get it back and therefore they would not have a dish the following day.  For most of these kids, this was the ONLY meal they would get today.  He further explained that this week was special because we were visiting, that most weeks the kids did not come to school on Saturday and therefore did not have a meal on weekends.  They did come to church on Sundays, but meals were not typically served then either.  So they eat one meal Friday, nothing Saturday and Sunday, and then get another meal at school on Monday.

Well by God, I wasn't going to stand for this.  It was Friday - that likely meant no meal for this boy until MONDAY.  I took him by the hand and marched my entitled and ignorant ass over to the lunch shack area.  I felt sick, the pot was completely empty. There were two older boys with their hands in the pot picking out every single last morsel.  I was on the verge of tears.  The boy with no dish stood next to me.  As I looked down at him, he shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Fair. I thought about this for a few minutes.  What does fair mean to a child from Swaziland with no parents? No dish, no lunch. Its just a fact of life here.  There is no sense of entitlement.  There were no tears or stomping of his feet or tantrum.  For whatever reason, he had no dish.  Maybe he lost it.  Maybe it was stolen by another child.  Maybe he never had one to begin with.  There is no FAIR for a child in this country where the AIDS rate is almost 50%.  There is no FAIR in a country where the average life expectancy is 29 years old.  No sense of entitlement or fairness in a country of grandmothers who are raising children because a large percentage of the middle generation is dead.

I thought of my own ten year old daughter Kalyssa. Standing in the lunch line at home. When the lunch account is low on money, the school sends a note home or I get an email. If in the off chance I forget to add money or send a lunch that day, she still gets a peanut butter sandwich and a milk. In all the years of my three kids in school, I believe there may have been ONE time in Elementary school that Cody came home and said he did not get lunch. If I remember right, I called the school and raised hell for them not giving him SOMETHING to eat.

Go-Go's getting ready to serve lunch
At the hotel only an hour or two from here, my breakfast consisted of more choices than I cared to make at six o'clock in the morning.  It consisted of a full omelet station staffed by at least two with peppers, onions, ham, mushrooms, cheese and a variety of other delights.  It had a beautiful and divine display of fresh fruits such as watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, mango, papaya, grapes, pineapple and slices of oranges with the peels removed.  Yogurts, granola, cereal and a variety of sweet breads were also available.  Fresh cooked home style potatoes, hash browns, thick bacon and ham took up one whole side of the buffet.  A toasting station with bagels, a variety of different kinds of breads, English muffins - all complete with butters, spreads, jams and jellies.

For lunch, we had our brown bags.  My backpack was also full of snacks from home.  Beef jerky, granola bars, Power Bars, candy.

For dinner, it was a spread of epic proportions.  The morning omelet station was now a Mongolian grill style stir fry station.  The buffet was full of roasted meats - prime rib, lamb, turkey and all of the fixings.  It had curries, stews and soups.  It had salads, many types of cheeses, fruits, crackers and breads.  There were vegetables cooked many different ways - and mystery meats - one turned out to be cow tongue complete with taste buds.  Ick.  The dessert bar had crepes and waffles made to order with big bowls of whipped cream and flavored syrups.  It had homemade ice cream and puffed pastries shaped like swans with long necks and bodies dipped in chocolate.  This was no Royal Fork or Country Buffet.  This was really good food - and lots and lots of it.

We had hundreds of choices at every meal for the entire ten days of the trip.  I think about the hundreds of choices I have at home.  I think about the grocery stores and convenience stores on every corner.  The fast food restaurants that are every third building on Division in Spokane.  I thought about the gourmet meals Steven makes us on Sunday and Monday nights.  I thought about the full cupboards in my kitchen and how my kids complain at the end of the month when we have more Kraft macaroni and cheese or Top Ramen than usual until payday.

I know that I cannot go through life feeling guilty about having more than enough food.  There are millions of children in Africa and all over the world without enough to eat.  There are international food programs all over the world to help combat hunger and feed children.  But this was eye opening for me.  It stirred up feelings in me that I did not understand and am still having a hard time coping with.

This day was the day after Thanksgiving.  This may have been the most thankful I have EVER been on Thanksgiving weekend.  Usually I'm out shopping for Christmas on Black Friday, spending unGodly amounts of money on toys, video games and other delights.  Usually I'm having lunch with friends or family on Black Friday to take a break from the mad dash of pushy shoppers looking for good deals.

I will never look at Black Friday or Thanksgiving in quite the same way...ever again.

This little guy did not even get one meal that day, even though food was available, because he had no dish.  He did not complain and he did not cry.  He just walked away and climbed a tree.

Wow.  What a powerful lesson, 12,000 miles from home.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Bringing Out the 'Good' China

The past few days have been difficult.

I am home and in one piece but I do not know quite how to process things now that I am home.  It feels great to be home - I was so happy to see the kids and they were very happy to have me home.

Home is the same, kids are the same, life is the same.  This is good.  This is comforting.  I have a new appreciation for the things I have and the people I love.  But I am also left feeling stuck because I am not the same.  I am, but I am not.  Before we left Africa, the leaders of the trip said this might happen.  They said that you might have a difficult time dealing with what you have seen and how you view things when you get home.

So now I'm here and I need to jump back into my life.  Go back to work, take kids to appointments, make dinners, do some Christmas shopping and go to volleyball games.  Jump back into the rat race, the daily grind and the life I've always known.  I know its only been a few days - I am still jet lagged - but I cannot seem to get my head out of Africa and back to Spokane.

Last night I was thinking about a place we visited in Swaziland.  I was looking around at all of the wonderful things I have in my home.  I was thinking about all of my possessions and how many I could really live without.  Things that bring me comfort and joy - but truth be told, all that really matters to me is relationships - not stuff.  I was thinking about the "the good China" and how I am just as content to eat off a paper plate, if in the right company.  There were two particular places in Swaziland where I actually thought about the concept of "the good China" in terms of possessions - places where two Swazi households pulled out the best of their best and offered what they had to a group of complete strangers if only because they were happy to have company and were glad that we came.

The first one was an elderly woman who may have been more than a hundred years old.  She told us through her translator that she knew the father of the current King of Swaziland when he was just a boy.  Our Swazi friends did some quick calculations and came to the conclusion that she was likely at least one hundred....maybe older.  Our van could not get down the dirt and rough roads, so led by the pastor of the nearby church, we set out on foot and walked for a good long while, carrying a bag of fresh oranges and thoughts of the community of children we had just spent the day with.  As we walked, we passed several homesteads, all in various states of disarray and extreme poverty.  No electricity, no clean water, mangy dogs with their rib cages showing who eyed us suspiciously.  Chickens pecking about, crumbling buildings, giant holes in the grass tops of beehive huts and a few people looking up in surprise to see a group of white people walking down their path - a path where very few, if any, white people have walked before.  When we finally arrived, we were overlooking the most beautiful valley I have ever seen.  Lush green mango trees dotted the hillside, a few sporadic clouds hung in the bright blue sky and alternating strips of brown and green crops were in the distance.  When we arrived, I could see a very old woman sitting on a grass mat with a pillow under a tree looking out into the distance.

The grandmother is called a Go-Go in Swaziland.  A great grandmother is a "Ko-Ko". We learned she had many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, a good number of them have died.  She had with her a caretaker who gave us the biggest smile I've ever seen.  She sat next to a cane and she looked very peaceful and wise.  As we approached her, it felt awkward to me - eight or ten of us converging on her home.  There were ants everywhere and some creepy large winged insects of bright blue and orange.  At the prompting of the old woman, the caretaker rushed inside and grabbed two reed mats, rolled them out and motioned for us to sit.  She then went inside again and again and brought out several broken and falling apart chairs for us to sit on. 

It occurred to me at that very moment that she was 'bringing out the good China'.  She did not want us to sit on the ground or have to stand, so she had her caretaker bring out the best she had to offer, the 'good' China, so to speak.

We were there to give her the oranges, to pray for her and to let her know we cared about her.  I wasn't sure what that meant exactly, I mean honestly, a bag of oranges and a prayer?  Surely we could do better than that....?!  Couldn't we?  So everyone settled in on the mats and on the chairs, and smiled politely. 

Now 'Pastor Mike' is a Swazi.  He is one of the kindest, gentlest and happy men I have ever met.  He is constantly smiling and sees the best in everyone.  Pastor Mike has not always been a pastor.  I do not know a lot about his past, except what he has shared in his sermons.  I admire his faith in humanity and I especially admire his faith in God.  When Pastor Mike prays and speaks of the bible, it is nothing short of amazing.  Fascinating. Incredible.  He speaks with a loud voice, full of conviction, true faith and words exactly appropriate to the situation at hand.  He spoke of end of life - the journey after life - and of the wisdom of age. At first, I was a little taken back - finding rather inappropriate speaking of end of life before this woman was dead yet.  But I realized, as he prayed in sSwati and then English, that this may have been quite comforting to her.  She was extremely happy we had come to visit her and felt very blessed to have complete strangers coming to pray for her.

I am not - and never have been - easily accepting of religion.  I view the world with more of a scientific perspective.  I admire those with true conviction and the comfort and hope that it brings.  There are many people in my life that seem to be genuinely concerned about my lack of faith in God.  This includes several of my extended family members and close friends and neighbors.  They have asked me to church, which I have declined.  They pray for me daily, which I appreciate.  One even gave me a beautiful Rosary to keep in my pocket while in Africa to keep me safe.  For the record, I did keep it in my pocket the entire time I was in Africa.  Regardless, I struggle with the concept, I struggle with a God that would allow babies to die long before their parents - taking from personal experience...and a whole long list of other worse things like starvation, disease, war, death, destruction, rape, murder, etc. etc. etc.  Now I know that true believers have reasons to justify all of these things - and from a religious perspective it makes sense and the comfort in understanding that there is a reason for the bad things and evil that may be.  I may be opening Pandora's box here - but I've never really bought into any of that.  I tend to feel more confident in scientific explanations and evolution, than in God.

But that's not very comforting or hopeful, now is it?

So listening to Mike pray with such force and conviction to this complete stranger - it was like hearing God speak through him.  It was incredibly interesting to watch and hear, as I sat in awe of Mike and the things he was saying - almost singing - to her. 

Heart for Africa is non-denominational.  They do not have a religious requirement to go on one of their trips.  But everyone in my group was there not only to help but held very strong beliefs in Jesus and in God.  I did not pretend to feel the same, in fact just the opposite, I was very honest about my relationship, or lack thereof, with God.  Throughout the week we all shared some very personal things about ourselves, our lives and our beliefs.  I felt a little like an outsider - like at any minute I might burst into flames - having been in the company of such true believers - no matter the exact religions.  None of them were judgemental about it, any more than I was judgemental about their beliefs.  They were more interested in helping me to understand it, and in the end, how my trip to Africa may have changed my views.

So anyway, Mike finished the sermon with great fanfare.  We presented our oranges, gave her each a Swazi handshake, and some words like "God bless you..." and "Peace be with you...."  I was surprised to find myself genuinely moved and inspired by the whole experience.  The old woman looked into my eyes and smiled when I asked if it would be okay to take her picture.  I never felt more genuinely welcome - anywhere.  She then had her caretaker get us some mangoes and a giant bunch of plantains to thank us - which turned out to be one of the best tasting things I have ever eaten.

So what do I take from this experience?  What exactly can I learn from the wise old woman sitting for decades under her favorite tree, nearby rocks worn with age and a hundred thousand footsteps where she has walked year after year after year...?

Maybe it wouldn't hurt to re-visit the topic of faith and religion in my own life.  Maybe I can learn a thing or two from these wonderful people whom I had the pleasure of spending 10 days with in Africa.  What else can I take from this - other than the power of faith and unshakable conviction?

Maybe I can learn something about the quality of relationships from this Ko-Ko in Swaziland.  Maybe I will slow down and take notice of those people right here in Spokane who are less fortunate than me.  Maybe I can remember to slow down, not to be in such a hurry and to delay gratification.  Maybe I can learn to stop and smell the roses - or the mangoes or the bananas.

I wish I had a glimpse of the love, joy, loss and pain inside this woman's head and heart.  I wish I had a tenth of the wisdom and insight she has to situations that are out of her control.  Maybe I can take away from this that on a daily basis I should bring out the 'good China' for friends, family as well as complete and utter strangers. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Meet Mpibuhle

This is Mpibuhle.  He is seven years old.  He lives in a very rural part of Swaziland in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Mpibuhle's parents died several years ago from complications of AIDS.  He lives with his twelve year old sister Seluleko.  He has been an orphan since he was four.  Supposedly, Mpibuhle also has two more older siblings, but we did not see them on this visit.

To get to Mpibuhle's homestead, we drove on dirt roads for more than an hour, then climbed in the back of a trailer pulled by tractor and drove another hour or so.  Every homestead we passed was crumbling buildings, mangy dogs with their ribs showing and a few chickens here and there.  Some homesteads had a few crops or a small garden.  Some had water tanks attached to gutters to catch the rain.  Mpibuhle's homestead had none of these things.

Mpibuhle was not home when we arrived.  The homestead was in shambles.  It looked to me that a bomb had gone off and the debris was scattered everywhere.  Broken chicken wire covered some of the glassless windows.  The beehive hut towards the back was missing the majority of its straw roof.  There was a big area of burnt wood and other objects in the middle of the homestead.  There were some rusty pots and a broken mug.  There was something that looked like an old ice box with an empty bottle of Mellow Yellow inside.  It looked like a really well done movie set for a Hollywood blockbuster.  I could not believe that small children lived alone here. 

The group set to work tilling up an area to plant a garden.  There were many helping so I set off to look around and take some photos.  I felt as if I were trespassing.  I was kind of expecting someone to come out of one of the buildings and yell at me for being there.  I was wondering if I looked inside any of them if I would find a baby or a small child or even a rotting corpse.

At first I wandered around snapping my camera outside the buildings, then I got a little braver and decided to look inside. I remember thinking to myself - 'you are in Africa looking at a place where little children live alone, you are not at Universal Studios Hollywood back lot.'  Then thinking it was kind of weird to be thinking that.  Bugs were everywhere, ticks, fleas and flies.  The red African soil was the floor.  There were no windows or doors just open spaces. There was a lone shoe here and another over there.  There was a clothes line strung up in the middle of the main room.  Every where smelled strongly of urine.  There was a bench in the main area and a school paper on the dirt floor.  It showed a score of 20/80 in red ink for a final exam.  Inside one of the broken cement blocks was a shoe shine brush, a can of shoe shine polish and a hair brush.  It was clear which items were the most important to them.

It was eerily silent except for the muffled voices of the group planting the garden.  I felt like crying - and I had not even seen the children that lived there yet.  There was a small room inside that held some grasses and spools of thread.  It appeared to be an area to make mats but it looked more like a manger to me.  I thought about the story of Bethlehem and birth of Jesus.  I thought about a Christmas manger scene and the three wise men that came to present Mary and Jesus with gifts.  I thought about Mary holding her baby and the bed of straw for his cradle. I thought about the love, happiness and the peacefulness of the scene.  It made me incredibly sad to think about how this home had not had a mother, a father or anyone to love and protect these children in years and years.

A neighbor walked over to talk to our Swazi guy Dennis and he explained that the children were at school.  He said they should be home in an hour or so.  We did not have much time, it would be getting dark before long and we needed to leave in the daylight.  The neighbor appeared to be extremely interested in what we were doing.  We explained we brought food and clothes for these children and that we were planting a garden.  None of us wanted to say it, but we all were thinking the same thing, we did not want to leave the items with the neighbor for fear that the children would never get what we brought.

As we packed up our gardening tools, a few boys were now walking down the path towards us.  The neighbor informed us that the smaller boy was one of the children that lived here.  As he approached us, he looked a little scared and confused.  I said hello and extended my hand.  Dennis spoke to him in sSwati and presumably explained why all these white people were at his home.  We followed him inside and a huge smile spread across his face as Dennis helped him to put on his new pair of Toms shoes. 

Mpibuhle looked at the other items we had brought him, including some clothes, ink pens, stickers and a beach ball globe of the world.  We pointed to the garden we had planted and showed him the maize, rice and other food items.  By now, his sister had arrived home from school and we went through the same process with her.  Mpibuhle slipped away into the back room.  When he emerged, he had changed out of his uniform into his 'play' clothes.  It was hard to read the expression on his face.  He had neatly folded his school uniform and set it aside.  A tiny, filthy kitten shyly peeked around the corner from where the boy had come from.  Mpibuhle picked it up and hugged it like a teddy bear.  It squirmed out of his arms and went to sit on one of the steps outside.

I motioned to my camera as if to ask him if I could take his picture.  He did not seem to understand, so I took it anyway and then showed him.  He got a huge grin on his face and posed for another. It was getting dark by this time and we had to go.  I thought about my own kids - 16, 12 and 10.  I missed them and seeing all of this made me miss them all so much more.  I thought about their safety, their security and their emotional well being.  I thought about Mpibuhle as he looked up at me and smiled. At that moment I never wanted anything more than to take him back to the hotel, clean him up, feed him a huge meal and take him home. 

Everyone in our group was kind of standing around awkwardly as Dennis finished up with the kids.  We were all physically and emotionally exhausted.  We said our goodbyes and after a short prayer, we were loading up and getting ready to ride the tractor trailer on the bumpy and uncomfortable ride back to the van.

The picture below is the last thing I saw as we drove away.

I began to cry thinking of the small, vulnerable and precious little boy sitting on the rickety bench.  Filthy dirty, scars on his face and legs, open sores on his lips, the whites of his eyes slightly yellow and a runny nose.

Who protected him from danger?  What did he do when he got scared?  What would he have for dinner?  Would he have dinner at all?  Where did he go when it rained?  Who kissed his tears away when he skinned his knee or fell down and got hurt?  Who comforted him with there was a thunder and lightening storm?  Where did he sleep and who tucked him in at night?

If I were to come back in a year, would this child or his sister even still be alive?

There are at least two hundred and fifty thousand children in Swaziland in similar situations.  Some better, some worse.  Two hundred and fifty thousand in a population of less than a million people. A staggering 25% of the population - orphans and orphan headed households.  And to think about millions and millions more in other parts of Africa and across the world.

It was extremely difficult to wrap my head around those statistics until I came to Africa.

I've thought about Mpibuhle every day since.