Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Heart for Africa?

Let me be honest. If you want to do some international humanitarian aid, there are LOTS of ways to do it.  Many trips are cheaper and the travel time is considerably less.  To get to Swaziland, I left my house at noon (EST) on Saturday. 44 hours later, I arrived at our hotel in Swaziland - about 8 am on Monday (EST - it was around 2 pm local time). We had time for orientation and then went to bed. The next morning we were finally ready to get up and work.  You spend a considerable amount of time just traveling when you go to serve in Swaziland. Traveling home is faster - only about 33 hours. And it's a pretty expensive trip. Travel to Johannesburg is not cheap, and Swaziland doesn't really have many safe options for a big group to stay, so we actually stay in a fancier hotel than I stay in when I travel in the US!

So why are we so committed to Heart for Africa? Why Swaziland?  Oh, I'm so glad you asked! :)

We have been involved with Heart for Africa since 2008 when my husband first traveled with them. He also just rotated off of their Board of Directors this past fall. I'm hoping when church-plant stuff slows down a bit, he'll be able to serve on their board again one day.  Rob has been on five Heart for Africa trips and I just returned from my second. In the years we've been involved, we've really gotten to see how Heart for Africa operates. We've gotten to know Janine and Ian Maxwell, who moved to Swaziland about a year ago to be able to serve there full-time. And I am thrilled that I've gotten to know Jimmy and Chrisy Wilferth. Jimmy is now the President of Heart for Africa US since the Maxwells moved to Swaziland. You'll just have to take my word for it, but these folks are fabulous.

There are two main reasons why we will continue to serve with Heart for Africa:

1. They are doing it right. 

This is not an organization full of Westerners who are coming into a third-world country to "fix" things. Heart for Africa partners with local churches who are already working hard to improve conditions in their country. Heart for Africa staff and teams listen to them, partner with them, and assist with the things they they have identified as helpful.  It's about empowering Swazis, encouraging them.  The Project Canaan Farm exists to provide food and employment to local Swazis and for the orphanages with which HfA partners. Let me tell you, as a social worker, all this is REALLY really important to me. It isn't a bunch of Christians who are trying to bring Western Christianity into a country.  Don't get me wrong, it is very much a Christian organization. Everything Heart for Africa does is to bring glory to God, it's to be the hands and feet of Jesus in Swaziland.  I see Jesus in everything they do.  I have to admit, sometimes I hear how some organizations are trying to serve God around the world and it makes me cringe. Heart for Africa works within Swazi culture, not trying to change it. Loving the Swazi people as they are, the way Jesus does for us.

And they're really listening. To God and to the Swazi people. In Swaziland, there are no orphanages that will take children under three. So Heart for Africa has opened a Baby Home. It's been open less than a year and they already have about 35 babies. They've built a Toddler Home and many of the babies will transition there in September. Those children need education so now there is a brand-new Preschool and there are plans to have a Primary School and a High School as the kids grow up. The Swazi government knows about Heart for Africa and social workers now call Janine first when they learn of a situation involving a baby.

Sisekelo PreSchool
Friends who donated Pre-School
musical instruments - here they are!!

They're helping the community. Some mothers who have chosen to place their babies with Heart for Africa have older children still with them. Heart for Africa is (a little frantically) building a special home for some of those mothers so they can have a safe place to live with their children when they truly had nowhere else to go. As a mother and as an adoptive mama, this is really dear to my heart. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to empower mothers to be able to keep their children. What an incredible gift that is to a family and to a community!

Housing going up!
HfA is currently paying rent for two women & their children
until they can move in here!

Heart for Africa provides opportunities for job training and employment. They have a carpentry center, Kufundza Learning Center, where men can come and learn the skill. They are getting accredited so that participants can have official Swazi certificates of training when they complete the program.  They have just started a jewelry project, Khutsala Artisans, where women can come and learn to make jewelry and Heart for Africa will sell it so that the women can earn an income.  On the farm, there are job opportunities as well.

Khutsala Artisans Jewelry

Kufundza Learning Center - Carpentry Apprenticeship 

2. The Swazis are worth it.

If I lived there, I would hope and pray that someone would be willing to come even though it's hard and even though it's far. And they do pray that. It is so humbling to hear someone tell you that you are the answer to their prayer.  When I was in Swaziland in 2010, we were visiting homesteads in our community and when we told a man how far we had come, he stood up and hugged us! He said he'd been praying to God that someone would come and that we were the answer to that prayer. We brought him so much joy and all we did was walk up to his homestead and offer to pray with him. This is hard to explain, but relationships are really important to the Swazi people, just going and being there to encourage them does so much.

Swazis are relational. I've been told this many times. Until this trip, I thought that meant that although we did have tasks to accomplish each day (planting seedlings, watering gardens, distributing TOMS, food, and clothing), the most important thing was spending time with the people we came to visit.  And that is true, the time we spent with the children of Ebholi Primary School and with the families on the homesteads was so meaningful to them.  But this year, I experienced this in a whole new way. I visited Ebholi for the first time this year, but my husband has been there twice. They knew who I was within five minutes of my arrival there. The kids saw my name tag with my last name and said "You are Rob's wife! He has told us about you!"  And then they asked me about my kids! I brought a photo album with pictures from the previous year's trip and they remembered everyone by name.  They recognized Rob's guitar case.  Just being there means so so much to them. You don't need to bring them anything; the fact that you have come is the greatest gift. This is incredible.

This is Rob in 2010 at Ebholi School... three years before I ever got to go!
He was also there in 2012, but I don't know where he saved his pictures from that trip!
I recognize so many of those sweet faces!

This year, I got to serve as Team Leader for my team. Honestly, I was hesitant about it, but I am so glad I did. And one of the best moments for me was getting to complete the Heart for Africa survey with Ms. Similane, the deputy-principal at Ebholi Primary School. When I asked her what Heart for Africa does well, I was overjoyed and humbled by her answer. She said Heart for Africa is really good at helping them provide for the kids' basic needs. Then she said, "it's the encouragement. Knowing that they are here for us emotionally, that they are supporting us and that they stand beside us." What!?!?  That is amazing!  In this country where people are starving, where children and adults are dying of HIV/AIDS, the #2 thing that was so important to Ms. Similane was knowing she's not alone, knowing that Heart for Africa stands with her as she struggles to help the children in her care. That, my friends, is truly amazing.

I still can't figure out why I get the honor of serving in Swaziland. I can't begin to explain the joy it brings, I can't explain how my heartbreak brings me closer to God. I can only show you and hope you'll come with me to Swaziland one day. God is working there and getting to be a part of what he's doing is an honor. I am so grateful.


We used a classroom for our shoe distribution day
One of the days we were out in the community was set aside as our TOMS giving day. We were really excited, knowing this had been a great day for our site in the past.  TOMS gives shoes every 6 months, if possible, so the kids at our site had already experienced two TOMS distribution days.

I have to say, I'm pretty impressed with TOMS. I liked the idea before, but when I learned that they come back every 6 months (because kids' feet grow fast) and that they match the TOMS to the culture/terrain of the area, I was really delighted.  For Swaziland, they have a great rubber sole with good gripping and their TOMS are black, because that is what the kids there have to wear with their school uniforms. And I was glad to see they really are a much sturdier shoe than what you get when you buy a pair in America.

Our little set-up during a quick lull that morning

Ms. Similane had TOMS day down to an art form. She'd send the kids in in groups of 5-10, our first two "sizers" would size their feet, write the number on the child's hand, then send him/her back to the three in the back who were "shoeing."  They'd place the shoes on the child's feet to make sure they fit (and if they didn't would call to the runner for a different size).

Sizing feet!
Writing the shoe size on his hand

Once we had two good fitting TOMS on a kiddo's feet, we'd draw a heart around the shoe size so we'd know that child received a pair of TOMS. At the door, we'd check them off on the chart we send back to TOMS, and give that child an orange. It was really a smooth process.

Asking each child his/her age was sometimes harder than you'd think!
Look in his hands - those are his old TOMS! New ones on his feet! :)
Waiting for new shoes!

Flat Reece was there with us. He was very helpful. :)
If you don't know this story, ask me, it's hilarious!
At the end of the morning, we had given out 251 pairs of TOMS shoes. There were only four children we had to send away without any shoes. TOMS policy is that the kids have to walk out in their new shoes (because good fit is important) so you can't hand them a pair of shoes and let them walk away.  But for the four kids we didn't have the right size for, we had knitted caps they could choose from.

We saw a few miracles happen this day too. We ran out of the bigger sizes really quickly, and at one point, I told Ms. Similane that I didn't think we would have shoes for a group of 6 boys who were next in line to come in but that we wanted to size them so that the next team would be sure to have bigger sizes. She told the boys and they said they understood. They came in and, I still don't know how this happened, we were able to fit every single one of them with a pair of shoes! And these were boys who live at the school - they have truly no other way in their lives right now to get a new pair of shoes.  God is so good, y'all.

My team for the week. We really clicked.
Every single one of these folks is an amazing blessing!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Three out of Three Hundred and Sixty-Five

Three days a year.

That's how often the children who live at Ebholi Methodist Primary School get visitors.

That means that is how often they have days full of fun, when adults shower them with love and attention all day long.

Three days.

These kiddos live about a five hour walk from school. You read that right. Five hours each way.  And their community is in shambles. Homelessness is very uncommon in Swaziland, even with the giant poverty rates. Most people at least have a homestead in which to stay. But in the community where the children of Ebholi live, very few have proper homesteads.  Most of the kids have lost both parents, so they stay with aunts or older siblings and don't have real shelter when they are at home.
The front gate to Ebholi Primary School

The kiddos during our church service on Sunday
A few years ago, one of their teachers realized their situation and made arrangements for the kids to stay at Ebholi on Mondays through Fridays.  Right now, there are 41 kids who stay through the week.  Heart for Africa with the help of Feed My Starving Children, provides manna packs and maize bags once or twice a month so that the children can eat. They also have a garden that was started by Heart for Africa a few years ago (my husband was on the team that originally planted the garden!). We added over two hundred seedlings, plus some moringa trees and mango trees to the garden this week.

If there is enough food for weekends, the kids get to stay through the weekend. But that is rare.  Usually, they walk five hours home on Friday afternoon, don't eat much (or at all) all weekend, then walk the five hours back Sunday night or Monday morning.

We spent three amazing days with these children. They love to have fun! They have no toys, no playground, only their school uniforms and 1-2 pairs of play clothes.  When we showed up with several soccer balls, bubbles, stickers, and drawing paper with crayons and markers, you should have seen them! They practically exploded with joy.

41 kids produced over an inch worth of pictures for us in the three days we were there! They love to draw!
One of the girls' rooms. Eleven girls sleep here. No toys, no closets.
They each have a bed and hang their uniform on a nail on the wall.

The older kids working on their artwork.
I am beyond heartbroken over these children. I have three kids. We play every day. They have access to markers, crayons, paper, and ridiculous amounts of toys 24 hours a day. And beyond that, they have so many adults that love them, that pay attention to them. They have countless adults in their lives who build them up. And then they get to do fun enrichment activities like swim team and soccer, dance class and art class, where adults love on them some more.

My Ebholi kiddos get to go to school and they have some great teachers. They have one "Auntie" from their community who comes with them to school to cook for them and returns to the community on the weekends. They have their amazing deputy principal, Ms. Similane, who lives at the school and does her best to care for them.  But that's it.  No playground, no toys, no parents to love on them every day.  No one person who stops everything to look them in the eyes and listen, to hug and hold them when they're hurting. When the school day ends, there are no activities. They play soccer if they have a ball. Otherwise, they mill around. Sometimes they'll spell out each others' names with small rocks. For three hundred and sixty two days a year.

His friend's name is "Thabo"
One of the girls was trying out the jump rope we brought and she fell hard, face-first on the ground. I had another kiddo on my lap so I couldn't jump right up and grab her. What I witnessed in the 5-6 seconds it took for me to get to her broke my heart. She just stood there, bent at the waist. She didn't even cry until after I had picked her up. This is a child who is used to comforting herself. She was taking a minute to pull herself together because usually, there is no comfort for her when she's hurting.  If there is one useful skill I have in Swaziland, it's mothering. I scooped her right up (she's tall - definitely too old for holding), and just held her. We sat together on the ground for a long time as she snuggled in.

Our last day there was so different from the first two. Usually, the kids just basked in our love and attention.  They held our hands, danced with us, played soccer and lots of singing/dancing games. We drew pictures together and I got to teach them how to make origami birds and boxes!  Days chock-full of joy. But an hour or two before it was time for us to leave on that last day, a cloud came over the kiddos' faces. One boy got overwhelmed and just sat down on the stoop, placed his head down on his arms, and began to cry. He's 13. When he goes home, he stays with his older sister and brother. His parents are dead.  Another of our older girls (age 12) just shut down, my heart wrenched to watch her disconnect from us, because she knew we wouldn't be back the next day.  The littles went into over-drive, trying to get as many hugs as possible, as if to store them up until the next year.
They told me they wanted a picture of "the men"! :)

Playing the guitar case!
My sweet dancing partner! She would run and find me and Bri every time we played any music!

Ms. Similane - the deputy principal
She is a true angel.

Dance party with Swazi moves

Origami Bird "Inyone"

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A pair of shoes

I just returned home yesterday from Swaziland, a beautiful country that has some serious struggles. They have one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, their unemployment level is around 70%, and most of my generation has died to HIV-related diseases, leaving behind around 200,000 orphaned children with no adults to care for them.  And there is no way to truly describe the joy and heartbreak it is to get to go and love the people of Swaziland.

I spent some of my time on/near Project Canaan, a farm that Heart for Africa owns and operates to generate food and jobs for the community (and also where the Baby, Toddler Home and Preschool are located). One day, we went out in teams to visit homesteads that have been identified as being among the most in need in the area, many of them being the homesteads of workers on the farm. Our goal for our visit was to help plant a garden (to create a sustainable food source), play with the children, bring them some clothing items, and fit  the children with TOMS shoes.

One of the homesteads belonged to S, a man who works at Project Canaan.  He and his three children, his sister and her four children, his mother, and his two younger brothers live there.  All together that's five adults and seven children. Twelve people on a homestead with only one income - S's small farming salary. Before Project Canaan, there was no income for the family. This is an agrarian society - everyone knows how to plant and grow food... the problem is gaining access to seedlings. This family did not have enough money to start a garden.
S proudly showing off his three kiddos.

So we came, bringing our garden tools, over 200 seedlings for onions, cabbage, beets, spinach, and a moringa tree (read about these amazing trees here).  We worked together with S and his brothers (ages 19 and 20) to plant their garden.

But that wasn't even the best part of the day.

There is no access to clean running water in most places in Swaziland. As we started tilling up the garden, the kids ran down to the "river" to get water so we could plant. So of course, I went with them! :)

As the kiddos filled their containers, I noticed S's niece's shoes:

Look closer:
It's blurry, but look at her right foot - those are her toes coming out of her shoes!
This sweet child walks around in her only shoes - old crocs that are completely torn open on one foot. The other shoe isn't in great shape either. One half of her foot has no protection from the ground. I ran into several thickets that day with some seriously sharp thorns. I hate to think of what she's been through not having proper footwear.

We gardened together, played together and had a very sweet couple of hours at their homestead. Before we left, we gave each family member two articles of clothing and the kids each received their very first pair of TOMS shoes. This was amazing.

Standing next to her old shoes (her younger sister's shoes are in her hand)

close-up of her old shoes.
At the end of the day, the Gogo (grandmother) was so excited and proud to have a garden on their homestead. She looked at this picture over and over after I took it: (by the way, most Swazis grow very serious when you take their pictures, then when you show them the picture, you get the most incredible smiles!)

If you are still reading, you're in for a small treat. We had a tiny miracle happen on this day. I had been part of the team the previous day that got all the boxes of shoes ready for the homestead visits. We had the kids' shoe sizes and we put the shoes in boxes labelled with the homestead owner's name.  We didn't provide any extra shoes, just the ones that were on the sheet provided (the kids' shoe sizes had already been obtained earlier)

For some reason, our boxes for the two homestead we visited had extra shoes.  And at S's homestead, every single shoe size was off by a bit. Had we come out with only the shoe sizes on our list, we would have left without being able to give any of the TOMS. But we had enough shoes. And all of the children we saw that day got shoes that fit. I checked when we returned to our hotel that night - we were the only team that "accidentally" went out with extra shoes.

God is working in Swaziland indeed.