Thursday, October 17, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 12, Nsoko - the hardest day

I feel like I've been putting off writing this post for quite awhile. To be honest, I'm afraid that I won't be able to find the right words to describe what the trip to the Nsoko Carepoints was like. That I won't do justice to the kids there or to the staff that is working tirelessly to make things better for them. I guess I can't do anything but give it my best shot.

We spent the majority of our time in Swaziland in and around Manzini. For our last day visiting carepoints we drove down to Nsoko. We had been told by different people that the Nsoko area was quite a bit different than what we had already seen; that the need there was great and that the area was suffering more - from poverty and from death. Jumbo had explained to us earlier in the week that this area was where the AIDS epidemic was fierce - one man he knows has gone to performing funerals full time: almost daily. This is the area where there is a shortage of caskets. I tried to mentally prepare myself with this information but I don't think that anything can really get you ready to experience all that we saw.

First off, on the drive down I noticed that as we got past Big Bend everything just seemed to get more and more desolate. The mountains and greenery that surround the Manzini area were slowly fading into a few hills and a lot of brown. 

Kim and I were excited to meet up with Erica, who oversees the carepoints in Nsoko. Erica traveled to Bheveni on the trip before I went for the first time and then flew to Africa with us in 2011 before heading to Nsoko to check out the area that she would soon call home. We were happy to have her as our guide around the carepoints that we were visiting.

The first carepoint that we went to was Mabantaneni. There was a group of people there helping to build the first real carepoint building and it was sorely needed. There were a couple of hut-like structures that served as storage and shelter and a kitchen area that had seen better days. The new building would be a blessing not only to the kids, but to the community that could use it for other needs.

When we arrived the kids were getting ready to eat their morning meal. They got their food and retreated to the only shade nearby - on the side of the kitchen. We sat with the kids while they ate but they were more into the food than they were us as visitors. :)  There were cows and chickens roaming around on the land and I was surprised at how close they would come to humans. The kids seemed totally unfazed - even when a cow was close and let out a loud "Moo!" that made me jump. 

We passed out oranges to the women and children - fruit is a huge treat for them! The kids were very excited about the oranges and dug right in.

I could definitely see the need for sponsorship here. The kids were very pleasant but I think that the connection with a sponsor would be a huge boost to them. They have a building now but there is so much more that could happen here to make it even better. A playground would be a great project to get done so the kids have somewhere safe to hang out and play.

The second carepoint that we stopped at was Madabukeni. This carepoint is out in the middle of the countryside with not much of anything nearby. I found myself feeling lonely just standing there taking it all in. The kids here were lining up for a meal when we arrived so we talked a little about the area while waiting for the food to be dished up. We learned that this carepoint was one that was in need of a water well but they were having a hard time locating water beneath the ground. The "nearby" school, which was a couple of miles off in the distance, was pointed out and I thought of the young kids that had to make that long walk every day - and those are the lucky ones because they get to attend school at all.

As we went over to visit with the kids while they were eating I noticed a baby that was fussing. I went over to pick her up and she started to scream - that's when I learned that she was terrified of white people. That was definitely a first for me - I've never made anyone cry just because of the color of my skin! I retreated quickly and made my way over to a group of young kids. I sat down next to them and they answered a few questions but didn't engage much - which was a huge difference to what I had experienced at the carepoints earlier in the week. The language barrier may have had something to do with it - I'm not sure. This carepoint seemed to have a sense of sadness hanging over it and I just wanted to scoop these kids up and hold them like a mother would.

We set off across the street for a home visit. We were told a little of the family's background as we walked: a mother lived there with her youngest child, a 10 year old HIV positive son, and her young grandson that she cares for. One of her older sons lives on the homestead but does not help support the family. The 10 year old goes to the carepoint and was walking with us. As I heard the details of his situation I offered my hand out to him and he grabbed on with a smile. 

The mother welcomed us by laying out the usual mats. As our D-Team member started translating what the mother was saying I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. I have been on several home visits, each one with a story that could break your heart and a family that is beyond grateful for the small gifts that we bring. This was the first time that I couldn't stop the emotions from coming out. She quietly talked of her family and her situation as she stared off to the side, not looking at any of us in the eye. She talked about how she did everything that she could but there were many days where the wasn't any food to feed her kids. She said that she was starting to wonder if there really was a God because of what her family was going through, and I know part of that was that her son has AIDS but they don't have access to the clinic where he could be getting the drugs that could help him. I was sitting toward the back of the group with tears running down my cheeks. I honestly can't clearly remember the rest of that visit because I was so overwhelmed in that moment... starving kids, a 10 YEAR OLD dying. My Greta is 9.... it could be her... the only difference between my kids and that boy is geography. As a parent I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to watch your children suffer. As a human I can't stomach it.

We left Madabukeni and traveled to the last stop of the day: Joyela Carepoint. We greeted the bomake and got a few big hugs in return. We were here later in the day so there were some of the school aged kids as well as the preschoolers. The kids here interacted with us a lot - singing and playing soccer - and they laughed at us when we showed them some of our dance moves. 

Our visit here was a little shorter because we were going on another home visit. As we were driving out to the homestead we heard a little about the family we were about to visit. Two young women, each with a child, all four of them HIV positive. I wasn't sure if I could make it through another visit like the last one - and because our group was so large - both Kim and I opted to stay in the car. While waiting in the car Kim and I talked with Jumbo about the Nsoko area, about what we had seen during out trip there and Kim came to the conclusion that the ministry money that she had left over would be best put to use here. You can read about how Erica used part of that money at the second homestead here

I think that the biggest lesson I learned from the Nsoko carepoints is what a difference partnership and sponsorship make at a carepoint. Obviously part of that is the money that comes in and the different projects that a coordinator can accomplish but I honestly believe that a big part is the relationship between a sponsor and a child. It seems like such a little thing when we write or email to the kids we sponsor - I used to wonder if it really mattered that I wrote to them at all. Then I visited the kids at Bheveni and realized that many of them know their sponsor by name and have memorized every detail that they can. To my kids over there, I am just a friend that loves them but that friendship helps to create hope. The kids in the Nsoko region could use some serious love, help and most definitely some hope.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 11, Mangwaneni and Sandra Lee

We spent the morning at Mangwaneni Carepoint. Some of you may remember that our 2011 team worked at Mangwaneni on the last trip - so both Kim and I were excited to see how things were coming along there. We were there in the morning so we were in the two preschool classes but didn't get a chance to see the school aged kiddos. 

I was pleasantly surprised with the way the kids behaved. The last time we were there the kids were a little aggressive with grabbing at us and trying to get into our pockets to see what we had. These preschoolers were awesome! They were as patient as you can expect little ones to be, even while waiting in line for oranges and banana biscuits. What was also really cool was to see that the teachers there were the same ones that had been there the last time we visited. It's so important for these kids to have stability in some form... and those teachers give it, along with lots of love.

We went inside to do a coloring craft and Bible story with the smaller preschool kids.  Kriek told the story of creation and we taught the kids a new song. They had a good time trying to learn the motions (and laughing at us as we tried to do them correctly!) Then we pulled out the coloring sheets and new crayons - lots of smiling faces when they saw all of the boxes of fresh crayons!

Next we headed over to the other room to do a Bible story and craft with the older preschoolers. Kriek taught about the word of God being stronger than a sword so of course we colored swords with the kids. They loved every second... and even after Kriek told them several times that they weren't for smacking each other they would sneak a little jab in here of there. :)

Jodi pulled out her bag of balloons and handed out animals and swords - I will never get over how excited ANY kids get about these!

We had to say goodbye to these kids far too quickly. It was such a fun morning and I would have liked to spend more time here but I was also eager to get to our next stop: The Sandra Lee Center.

I've talked a little about how rare orphanages are in Swaziland - Sandra Lee is one of the few that they have. It's an orphanage of sorts, but so much more! They have land and several buildings on site. Some of the buildings are houses for the orphans that live at Sandra Lee. Each house has a group of kids and a house mother that live there. I love that it has an "it takes a village" feel with all of the kids playing together and helping each other but each house eats meals with just their family unit and has chores to get done - just as they would if they were living in a traditional home. As the kids took us by the hand and led us through the houses they were so proud to show us their rooms that they cleaned and their beds that they had made.

I can't even stress how awesome this place is! They take in kids that are orphaned or dumped and give them a home and a life. These kids are literally rising out of the ashes into a life where they will most likely have a better chance at success than the average Swazi. I am absolutely in awe of Mike and his wife who started this place many years ago and have made it thrive. Sandra Lee gets it's funding privately and not through the government - so if you feel like you'd like to donate, please do... every single dollar counts!!

Our friends, the Brocks, moved from AIM (where they were on our last trip) to Sandra Lee and are doing amazing things there. Dennis and his wife Zwakele are two of my favorite people and it was so good to see them (and their beautiful daughter, Thandeka) again!

This was a wonderful and uplifting day. Sandra Lee was such an awesome experience - and it really shows how much can be done for the orphans. This is definitely a place that I can see myself advocating for!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 10

On Tuesday we went to an unsponsored carepoint - Bhalekane. This was a HUGE one - something close to 400 kids go there! It is unique in that it is the only HopeChest carepoint in Swaziland with a school on the grounds. That is a bonus for the kids that attend because they don't have to travel to get to the carepoint. At Bheveni, as well as most carepoints, the kids who attend school will walk from home to school, from school to the carepoint, and then from the carepoint back home. The kids generally will go to the carepoint that is closest to their home but that isn't the case for their school. Once a child has the money to pay for school they not only have to find one that is accepting students but also one that has the correct grade level for them. It may be close to their home or it could be miles away... and they travel on foot. If a child ends up going to a school that isn't on the route between home and a carepoint they may not have the option to go out of their way to stop and eat. Often times they must get home to get chores done before dark. So the fact that the school is on the grounds of Bhalekane ensures that the students will get a hot meal before they head home. 

When we arrived at Bhalekane we spent time hanging out with the kids. The school aged kids had been released early because they had exams and were finished for the day so there was a flurry of activity. The younger kids were playing on the playground and many of the older kids were playing different games: there were a couple of different soccer games going on and one group of girls were playing something with a long piece of yarn or twine that was wrapped around their legs as they stood in a large square. They took turns going over the string in different ways and then would raise the level of the string to make it more difficult. This was another reminder that kids will be kids no matter the location. They find something, such as a piece of string, and will turn it into a game.

After a bit, the preschool teachers rounded up their kids and brought them inside to show us some of the things they were working on in school. They recited colors, shapes, and numbers, much like the preschoolers at Mkhombokati had. Then they gathered into a large circle and sang a few songs and played a Simon Says type of game. They let us join in and it was so much fun to watch them giggle and play. 

The next part was my favorite... one of the preschool teachers told me that the kids wanted to preform a drama for us. She told me that it was about a mother who had a sick baby that she was bringing to the doctor. I thought that the topic was a little strange for a preschool play but as soon as the kids started acting it out I forgot everything and was drawn into them. They were speaking in Siswati so I couldn't understand what they were saying but it didn't matter. They were so cute - and I was impressed with the amount of time they must have put into practicing because the kids didn't skip a beat with their lines and they were projecting their voices well. It only lasted a few minutes and then each actor was presented and took a bow. They were grinning from ear to ear and were so proud of themselves!

One of the best parts of the day was when Kim and I wandered over to a group of kids outside and after a little conversation we started singing. Kim took the opportunity to grab her portable MP3 player (or as we call it, the Jam Box) and we cranked up some tunes. The kids loved it! Kim and I started singing loudly and dancing with the best moves that we had. We got a few "you're crazy" stares from the little kids but the older kids were laughing and clapping. I'd like to think that they were laughing WITH us but I'm guessing that they were laughing AT us - but it didn't matter. It was so much fun to go crazy with the music and not care if we looked like fools! 

At the end of the day we got to go on a home visit. It was the home of 2 of the carepoint children who lived with their grandmother. Both of their parents had died. The grandmother (or gogo) brought out mats for us to sit on and then slowly lowered herself to the ground. She explained that she had a lot of pain in her knees and it was hard not to notice that her health wasn't good. Despite her pain and the struggles that her family had she was all smiles as we visited with them. We presented her with the same gifts that we brought on the home visits at Bheveni - beans and maize - and several times during our conversation she would raise her hands in the air and say "Hallelujah!!" She told us that we were always welcome in her home and that she could see Jesus in all of us. I could feel her joy - it was contagious! 

On the drive back to our Guest House I couldn't help but think about that wonderful woman. Throughout her hardships - the physical pain, raising her grandchildren after their parents died, having to work herself practically into the ground just to stay afloat and still not having anything to eat - she had overflowing joy and was praising God when most of us would be bitter. Simply amazing. I am absolutely humbled and incredibly grateful that I was chosen to be a part of her story.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 9

The last week of my trip was the most emotional, especially toward the end. It's the part that was the hardest to digest and it will be the hardest for me to articulate.

I should take a minute to explain the difference between the first part of the trip and the second. And actually before that I should probably briefly explain a little about Children's HopeChest and AIM and what their goals are in Swaziland.

HopeChest is the organization that finds sponsors and raises money for orphans and vulnerable children. They have different carepoints set up in many different countries around the world. AIM (Adventures In Missions) is the organization that sends it's missionaries out to these countries to live and oversee these carepoints. HopeChest works to match a community of people here to a community of people in need overseas; the idea being the one I've mentioned before - a group of people coming along side another as a support system. The communities overseas are centered around a carepoint but the communities over here can come in many different ways. Some are churches, some are neighborhoods, some are companies. Some are people living in the same area and some, like our Bheveni community, are an online group from across the US. The people of the community sponsor kids from their carepoint and work together to raise funds for the kids as needed - sometimes school related or medical, sometimes something as large as money to dig a well for safe water. Some of them are also the people that step up and make the trip over to the carepoint to visit - what I consider the best part!

Basically, each carepoint needs someone from over here to become their "coordinator" - the person who starts gathering community members and sponsors for the kids. Someone willing to volunteer their time and efforts to help find support. For Bheveni, that person is my good friend Danielle. Once a coordinator is found the carepoint is considered "sponsored" even though all of the kids there might not be individually sponsored yet.

The first 10 days of my trip were focused on Bheveni Carepoint. My family sponsors 2 kids there. I have watched the kids there grow physically, behaviorally and spiritually. Having someone like Danielle over here in the US take on the role of gathering people to meet the needs of these kids is huge - and having her and her husband Mike lead trips over to Swaziland to visit the carepoint is an important part of the connection that we have with them. The time at Bheveni was full of joy because even though many of the families are struggling, we can see the tangible ways in which HopeChest's and AIM's efforts have come in to play. 

The last week of my trip was with a Vision Trip team. HopeChest sets up trips with people that are considering taking on the role of coordinator at a carepoint that is not sponsored. We went to a couple of carepoints that were either fully or partially sponsored and then spent the rest of our time at carepoints that needed to be sponsored. The stark difference between the two was staggering. That was where I wasn't prepared.

So, back to our first real day with the Vision team. The first carepoint that we visited was Mkhombokati. This carepoint is sponsored already, but since Kim and I were the only two with the vision team that had ever been to Swaziland, it was important for the others to see what a sponsored carepoint was like. That way they could see the difference it makes.

The carepoint was awesome. The buildings were bright, the kids were beautiful, the garden was huge! The garden was so impressive - they had a drip irrigation system set up that was working great. They also had a greenhouse set up there - it was a new thing that they were trying so they could attempt to get tomatoes to grow.

The preschool teacher brought us inside to show us what she had been working on with the kids. The kids answered questions about shapes and colors (in English!) and told us their names and ages. The most impressive part was when they all counted to 50. After working in preschool and kindergarten here I know that that is not something that kids their age can just spout off naturally! We also spent some time coloring with the kids and making them balloon animals and hats. One of our team members was a balloon wizard and she whipped those things out at a crazy pace!

The coolest part of visiting this carepoint was when Jumbo (Jumbo and Kriek were the husband & wife team that were our "hosts" for the week) showed us the tree where this carepoint started. Before any garden, before any buildings, the tree was where the bomake cooked and the kids met. It was so neat to see how far this carepoint had come from when they started.

As the kids sat down to eat their morning porridge, we said our goodbyes and headed out to another carepoint - Ludlahti. The Ludlahti carepoint is just a little beyond where Bheveni is located and it was hard for Kim and I to be that close and not get to stop by and see them. Ludlahti does have a coordinator but they were looking for another group of people to partner with the group who sponsors there. The coordinator and a team had just been there at the same time we were at Bheveni so when we pulled up, the kids were excited to have more visitors!

We spent a lot of our time here helping Kriek get some booklets ready to send back to the kids' sponsors. The kids were writing about themselves and drawing pictures while we helped them put their handprints on paper and took new photos of them. I was helping check off names of the kids getting their pictures taken and was making them smile and giggle for the picture.

We also got to sit down and hear some more about Swaziland from Jumbo. When one of the team members asked about the orphan situation and why there are VERY few orphanages there he explained how Swazi culture differs from the US. In Swaziland, family is a huge deal. Not just immediate family but extended as well. If a child's parents die it would be expected that any of the relatives (close or not) would take that child in whether they could afford to or not. Sometimes family members will split time with the child just to make it less of a financial hardship. So in Swaziland, a child wouldn't be considered an orphan at all unless they had absolutely no relatives found. Another reason that they don't use orphanages is because of the whole homestead situation. I've written before about how a family will own property and have several structures on the land that can house different families within one family. That land is passed down through the family from generation to generation - and that land is a Godsend for people because they aren't having to buy it. So even if a child or children are orphaned and have no family at all, it's considered better for them to stay where they are because they at least have the land to live off of. If they were to be put in an orphanage, they would lose the rights to their land and once they were old enough to be out of the system, they would have nothing to their name.

Another topic Jumbo touched on was the AIDS epidemic in Swaziland. There is a 44% infection rate right now. FORTY FOUR. That's almost every other person in the country. That percentage rate is considered low too - because many people don't get tested. There are clinics set up to test but many people don't want anyone to know that they are going to get tested so they'll only go under the cover of nightfall. I also learned that the government will give the AIDS meds to any person that tests positive but many of those people don't have access to transportation to get themselves to the clinics once a month to pick up the meds. Each individual has to pick up the medication for themselves and that becomes a burden for so many. The medication needs to be taken consistently or the virus will begin to resist it and that becomes another problem - a person might get a month's supply and be consistent but then they can't get back to the clinic. They'll miss the doses for a bit and then start back up but the virus will resist. Jumbo said that there are some areas that are hit harder than others with AIDS and he told us that the Nsoko area, which we would be visiting at the end of the week, was one of those areas. He told us of the casket shortage that they have there because they are burying so many people. 

It was certainly a day of many emotions. The joy during the time we spent with the kids versus the sadness of listening to some of the grave statistics. But I knew then as I do now that one of the reasons that I was there listening to those statistics was so I could be a part of something that changes them.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 8 - Goodbye, Hello

The days after we left Bheveni went by in a blur. The first morning we woke up, had breakfast at the Guest House and then headed out to do some shopping.

We went to the local grocery store, The Pick & Pay, to pick up some candy and snacks to bring back as souvenirs. One thing I learned about my kids after my first trip to Africa is that they were more interested in the different types of candy that I brought back than they were in anything else. :) Next we headed to Swazi Candles, which has beautiful handmade candles and soaps. There was a mini-market there as well as a few other shops next door and we made sure to check out all of them before we sat down to eat lunch at the small restaurant there. After lunch we drove to the Ezulwini Market - this is the same market that we went to last time here and it was just as stressful this time. I HATE haggling and that's exactly how you shop here. As you walk past the line of shops each vendor tries to lure you into theirs. I have a hard time saying no to them and then I feel like a creep trying to get their prices down. Even though this place is stressful for me I love the stuff that you can get here so it's definitely worth the pressure. Our last stop was Swazi Glass - that place is beyond cool. You can watch them blow glass and they have a ton of glass items that you can purchase. They also have an area that looks like a big sandbox but is made up of thousands of pieces of broken glass that have been polished so there are no sharp edges - you can walk in there barefoot or sit down and play! There are a bunch of little shops surrounding the glass factory and we spent some time going in and out of those too. My favorite part of this stop was the crazy peacock that wanders around - in and out of the shops and down in the parking lot - like it was a totally normal thing!

After shopping, we started the drive to South Africa. We crossed the border without any problems and then we were on our way to the lodge near the game drive. By the time we arrived it was dark so we ate dinner and then headed to our little bungalows to get some sleep - we were leaving the lodge between 5 and 6 am to head to Kruger Park for the safari!

The lodge, outside and inside & Brittany, Millie and I in the safari jeep (with Regina photobombing!)

We were up before sunrise, all bundled up and ready to go. We had a little bit of a drive between the lodge and Kruger and we did it in an open top jeep on the highway - very chilly at the end of an African winter!

We were at Kruger all day. That place is huge - as in 7,500 square's almost as big as New Jersey! Here are a few of the animals we saw:

Once again we had an up close encounter with some elephants. This time, as we were driving, we came upon a herd of elephants trying to cross the road. I think they would've ignored us but they had a calf with them and they were very protective. They were upset with a different vehicle that was a little too close to them and they looked as though they were going to charge. We were sort of looking for a little action but the elephants decided to leave well enough alone and continued across the road.

For sure my favorite quote of the day came from Regina. We were talking about the safari and the animals and she seemed unimpressed. She looked at me and said, "Let me tell you something about black people. You won't find us driving around in a car all day looking for animals. We just don't do that." I still bust out laughing when I think of her saying that and the look that she had on her face.

After the safari we went back to the lodge for our last night together before most of the group was heading home. We sat around the campfire and debriefed about the whole experience we had in Africa and also talked about what re-entry into our lives back home could be like.

Up early again for the 5 hour drive to the Johannesburg airport. It was a quieter ride than most - I suppose most of us were tired from the journey, but I also think that moods were scattered. Tired, dreading the long flight, excited to be reunited with families, sad to be leaving Africa, sad to be leaving each other after experiencing the trip together.

At the airport Kim and I said our goodbyes to the B-team. It was harder than I thought it would be. Lots of hugs, lots of tears. For me, it was hard to say goodbye to many people that I had grown close to and I knew I wouldn't be seeing for a long time. It was also hard because watching them leave made me think of my family and the fact that I wasn't going to see them for more than a week. I was ridiculously homesick. Thank God Kim was there with me - someone I have known for a couple of years, someone who had experienced and was experiencing the same feelings that I was. I love that girl!

Later that evening we went back to the airport to pick up the Vision Trip folks. This was a smaller team: one person from HopeChest, one gal from Missouri, a family of 7 from Arizona, and Kim & I. We went to eat and to get to know each other a bit - I was a little nervous to be meeting all of these people while feeling tired and emotional... but as soon as we sat down we all started talking and things really flowed - almost like we had known each other for a long time. We ate and then headed to the hotel to get some sleep - we had the 5 hour drive back to Swaziland the next morning!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 7, last day at Bheveni

The last day at Bheveni. Even though everyone was missing home in one way or another it was hard to admit it was the last day. When you're there in the moment and you've spent several days making connections and building relationships it's painfully hard to say goodbye.

We spent the day as we had for the past few - visiting with the bomake, playing, teaching and singing with the kids. We also put the finishing touches on the murals and the playground. All of us - our B-team, the D-team, the bomake and the kids - took turns having our hands painted and then putting our hand prints on the mural. The kids squealed as their hands were painted and the ladies from Bheveni laughed as they took their turn.

This was also the day that we presented the bomake with their meal of choice, the same as last year: KFC. They eyed it like it was gold, and I laughed a little because I have to tell you - the chicken dust that the locals make is, in my opinion, way better than any KFC I've ever had. But they love it so that's what we get for them. It's so fun to watch them enjoy every last morsel!

We were honored to find out that the bomake had cooked one of their few chickens for us to eat. It was a huge gesture on their part. It is things like this that constantly amaze me - the graciousness and giving nature that these women have. They work constantly, every day. They don't get to eat meat on a regular basis - as I've said before many people that are living in poverty eat meat once or twice a YEAR - yet they cooked up one of their few chickens for us.

One of my favorite parts of the day was having the kids come up and ask me about my shirt. I had made a t-shirt with a picture of my kids on it to wear to the carepoint. I can't even tell you how many kids pointed and asked me all about my kids. The little ones would crawl onto my lap and point to each of my kids and ask their names. They would repeat each name as I said it and would giggle as they tried to remember which name belonged to which kid. One of the little ones who doesn't speak English did this game with me several times and when I said at the end, "these are my children" he copied those words too. So sweet.

As the day drew to a close we gathered inside the carepoint. The kids sang for us and it was unbelievable. I wish that I was able to convey with words what it was like - I had goosebumps and I had tears in my eyes. The voices were beautiful. 

We had journals to hand out to each of the kids and also the candy that I had packed and ready to go. We distributed that and then went to the playground for a final picture with everyone. Once the photo was taken the kids started singing for us one last time and it was then that the reality set in for me. This was it... for at least another year. The tears started to flow.

I was able to spend a few minutes saying goodbye to Sphelele - I kept a smile on my face even though I could feel the tears coming again. As I've mentioned, she doesn't speak much English so we couldn't say a lot. She gave me a big hug and a really big smile as she and her siblings headed out to the road.

Luckily, I was a little distracted because I had to get ready for a home visit to Gcebile's house. She is the preschool teacher at the carepoint and has two children that attend the carepoint. I don't have the right words to describe her - she is simply amazing. During this past year we worked to raise funds to help build her a new home - hers had been destroyed in a storm and her family had nowhere else to go. The Bheveni online community came together beautifully and raised enough to rebuild. She was so proud to show us the new home and was delighted with a gift we gave her - canvases with tiles representing the "blocks" people donated toward her house.

It was an emotional day. Saying goodbye is never easy. I think the fact that I knew I'd be in Swaziland for another week made it a little easier, but I knew that I wouldn't be back to Bheveni until our next trip.

One highlight from this last day was a special moment for my friend DeNise. She sponsors a young girl at Bheveni but the girl attends a school that is a distance away. That means that her girl is not able to make it to the carepoint every day because school is too far of a walk for her. DeNise really wanted to see her during our stay and she hadn't made an appearance - and it was the last day. Well, a different child had told this young girl that DeNise was at the carepoint and the girl made a special trip to Bheveni just to see DeNise. I saw her walking up to DeNise, who had her back turned, and was able to get my camera out in time to capture this moment.

Another highlight - and this might be one of the very best of the trip - was watching two of the teenage girls from the carepoint bond with two of our team members, Missy and Brittany:

A little back story: Brittany and Missy are the daughters of Britt Bush, who was on the 2011 trip to Swaziland. Bheveni captured his heart so much so that his wife Pam and 2 of his girls wanted to make the journey this time. It took me all of 30 seconds to fall in love with the Bush women and to be thankful that they had joined our team. Their family sponsors these two amazing young women from the carepoint and have been sending letters every so often to them.

It was fun to watch as the Bheveni girls got to meet the Bush girls - I'm sure they were thrilled to have some people a little closer to their age visit. These four got to spend time together and I heard them chatting and giggling together several times. Missy and Brittany were amazed to hear that these two girls remembered all of the things that they had wrote to them - like what they want to study in school and other personal info. We all trust that HopeChest distributes the letters and emails that we send but it was just so neat to know that these two teenagers cared about what was happening with their "special friends" in America!

I was brought to tears once again when Brittany and Missy shared two letters that the girls wrote for them. The letters were awesome - telling the whole Bush family how much they mean to them. It was so heartfelt - I'll share one of the pages here:

I was just floored when I read through the letters. I mean, I know that the kids from Bheveni appreciate the sponsorship. At the carepoint they get a meal and a safe place to go and discipleship and help with school fees. I guess that I just hadn't realized the bond that these kids have with their sponsors. Both of the kids that my family sponsors are pretty young so they are excited to see me but it's a little more one sided with kids that small. They can't always convey their feelings (and relationships are different for their ages too.) But to see these two teenage girls and the love and gratitude that they have for their sponsors - and to see firsthand the joy they got from meeting them in person... it was so awesome! I know that both Missy and Brittany were really touched when these girls told them that they are their best friends. Imagine that - people from half a world away that you are only in contact with a few times a year - the fact that they love you, value you, encourage you would put them in the "best friend" slot. Humbling, to say the least. I think it brings the importance of sponsorship into a whole new light... obviously the financial aspect is important but the personal side means so much more to these kids, especially the older ones. For them to know that someone out there cares enough to sponsor them is huge. For them to get a letter or an email from that person is huge. It reaffirms what I've mentioned before - that what our Swazi friends need is not a quick fix up, but someone to live life with them, support and encourage them, even if it's from thousands of miles away.

All of that to say - if you have ever thought of sponsoring a child please look into it again. I'm partial to Swaziland and to HopeChest but there are also many different organizations out there that help people all over the world. Read up on the organization so you know what they're about but do look into it. I have seen the outcome of what HopeChest is doing and it's working miracles for these kids.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Give Me Your Eyes

I'm having one of what I call my "post-Africa" days. They come out of nowhere and can be gone just as quick.

I'm reading online and see a headline with some news about the royal baby and I think, "Why does anyone EVEN CARE?" How can I possibly care about something so trivial when just a few weeks ago I looked into the eyes of a 10 year old who is practically starving AND dying of AIDS?

I'm looking around my house, trying to decide where to start with the decluttering project and I'm angry. Angry that we have all of this stuff, most of it stuff that we don't use or need, and that there are people everywhere - EVERYWHERE - that are living without. Without a safe place to live or 99% of the stuff we've accumulated. I feel like throwing all of our junk away.

The kids come home from school and are "starving." They open the refrigerator and the cupboards and declare that there is nothing to eat. Really they're packed full of food, some of which will spoil and get thrown away before we get a chance to eat it. I'm angry that we take this food for granted and waste so much when there are people literally starving. I want to spend a week serving just one meal a day of plain rice and beans to my kids and then see if they open the fridge and still see nothing to eat.

Then I come out of the anger fog feeling overly dramatic. Like throwing away our stuff or denying certain foods will make anyone's life better. There isn't some magic balance out there where if we go without it means someone else has more.

But I think of the kids in Africa that I've spent time with. Sometimes it's just so hard to reconcile what we have with what they don't.

I struggle with this every day. It's hard to find that balance between living well and living in excess. One day I want to throw all of our stuff away and the next I'm oogling yarn in a catalog like I'll die without one more skein.

I remember, before I even stepped foot on African soil, humming along to a song on the radio and issuing it as a prayer:

Give me Your eyes for just one second
Give me Your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me Your love for humanity
Give me Your arms for the broken-hearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach
Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten

Give me Your eyes so I can see

I think it's safe to say that my eyes have been opened. Opened to a continent, a country, a community of people that are in need. Once I saw it with my own eyes and held it's hand I can't turn away or put it on the back burner.

My eyes have been opened. And it's a good thing. Life isn't fair - and that's a good thing, too. I certainly don't deserve all of the blessings that have come my way. 

I'm going to continue to search for the balance. You won't find me selling off all of our possessions any time soon... but you will find me spending my time advocating for the children I love that are half a world away.

Swaziland 2013 - part 6, "Did we just get punk'd?"

So far I've written up through Sunday - only a few days left at Bheveni. It's amazing how fast the time went while we were there. 

Monday and Tuesday were good days, mostly spending quality time with the kids and bomake. Playing, laughing, singing - and putting some elbow grease into the garden that they have started there. 

One of the coolest things about HopeChest and AIM (Adventures In Missions) is that they are not simply about "rescuing" people - they are about coming along side them and helping them; teaching them skills that they can use for a better quality of life. The garden project is one way they are doing this. The garden at Bheveni isn't large enough to solely feed everyone but it is a great way to teach the people how and what to grow. The bomake work very hard to keep it continually producing food. The kids are in and out too, weeding, watering and picking vegetables. 

We happened to be at Bheveni during a time of harvest and replanting. Our group was able to help harvest and then work with the women to get the soil ready for replanting. It was a really neat experience to be side by side with those amazing women!

One of my favorite stories from the trip happened with Regina and I in the garden. It's no secret that the bomake work hard every single day. They weren't shy about putting us to work while we were at the carepoint either so I wasn't surprised when one of them asked Regina and I to water the garden. She handed us a large watering can and we took turns filling it up, carrying it over to the garden and walking row by row by row watering. I'm not sure how many trips we made but it had to have been more than a dozen. When we got the seal of approval from the ladies we finished up and gave each other a pat on the back for a job well done. The next day, Regina came up to me and said "Margo, I think the bomake pulled one over on us. Look over there at the garden!" When I looked over I saw the women standing together near the garden, one of them holding a garden hose and sprinkler! They had that stuff all along but had us water the garden the hard way... the same way that they make the kids do it! Regina and I got a good laugh out of that one - and we're still making jokes about what else those ladies have up their sleeves.

During our last few days we also did some VBS type of activities. We took turns each day - with both the preschool kids in the morning and the older kids in the afternoon - and taught Bible stories and crafts/activities. It was so much fun because all of the kids would get into the activities - even the teenagers! Our theme for the week was the fruits of the spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23

We told many stories from the Bible that showcased the different fruits of the spirit. With the younger kids we did crafts with coloring and glue and stickers - a crowd favorite. It's a toss up with what the favorite was for the older kids - the noise makers that we handed out so they could reenact the fall of Jericho or watching Kim and Missy dance and rap in the fruit costumes we brought along. 

It was such a great way to spend two full days - just being with everyone at Bheveni and living life with them. It sounds cliche but during these few days it seemed like the normal barriers - cultural, language, whatever - were gone and we were all just, well, people. Friends hanging out. Extended family. 

The hardest part with short term missions is that it seems as soon as you start to feel really comfortable together it's about time to say goodbye. 

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 5, knitting and a home visit

I'm going to change it up for one post and write about a couple of experiences that I had while at Bheveni rather than a day by day account. 

The first is the knitting project. It started last spring as a crazy idea that I had... what if I could bring supplies to Bheveni and teach some of the older kids how to knit? I went back and forth because I wasn't sure how it would be received. On one hand, learning to knit would be a fun activity that I could do while hanging out with the kids and it could potentially be a skill that they could use to make things for themselves or make some money to help support their families. On the other hand, it seemed sort of trivial. With everything that these kids have to do to merely eke by would anyone even care or have time to do it?

The knitting project just kept coming back to my mind so I decided that was all the prompting that I needed. I talked with Danielle to make sure it was o.k. and she was immediately on board. 

I knew that I had some extra yarn and needles in my stash and it got me to thinking - instead of trying to raise funds to purchase supplies maybe I could reach out to my fellow knitters to see if they had extras too. I put my idea out on facebook and I couldn't believe the response! I had several people contact me to say they wanted to donate and over the next couple of months I had more supplies than I could have dreamed would come in. In all, there were almost 60 sets of needles and about 200 skeins of yarn! That, plus what my trip-mate Theresa collected, made it possible for us to put together 70 knitting kits once we got to Swaziland! I also wanted to include a scissors in each kit and was trying to figure out how to do that in the most cost effective way. Through some awesome folks at the Maple Lake Elementary School and many of the kindergarten families there I was able to collect enough gently used kid's scissors to include one in each bag!

We decided to hand out the supplies and offer knitting lessons during the Fun Day. That way we'd have plenty of time to show anyone who was interested how to knit. I was talking to Octavia, one of the D-Team members, about all of this and she was thrilled. I had no idea - but she told me that both boys and girls are taught how to knit in school at a certain grade level but they don't give them supplies. Both she and Amy (one of our "hosts" that is a full time missionary in Swaziland - and who I LOVE) said they've seen kids try to knit with stiff grass or the metal spokes from a broken umbrella... basically anything they can find. Octavia put a smile on my face when she told me that the knitting project was definitely a God-idea - I was just so happy that it would be something worthwhile and enjoyable for the kids!

Since we now knew that we wouldn't need to actually teach any of the kids to knit we saved the knitting supplies for the end of the day. As the Fun Day came to a close the D-Team rounded up the kids that were in the knitting age range and we started passing the kits out. It was so much fun to see their excitement! As they were handed a kit their eyes lit up. I watched as each of the kids, mostly teen boys and girls, inspect their gift like it was treasure. We had enough kits to go around and were also able to give each on the bomake and D-Team members one!

The absolute best part of the whole thing was that over the next few days we saw kids knitting EVERYWHERE at the carepoint. It seemed like every time I turned around I would see someone knitting. Under the playground in the shade, on the playground, beside the building, even as they were walking. A day and 1/2 after handing the kits out I was thrilled when one of the bomake proudly showed me knitted purse that she had made from what we gave her. Several of the kids found me to show me scarves and hats that they had made. One girl was even wearing a skirt that she had knitted! And I actually saw a few of the kids undo finished projects just so they could knit something else. I can't even accurately describe how fantastic it felt to see my Bheveni family enjoy themselves so much and know that I had something to do with it. I give thanks to God for putting this together and for letting me be a small part of it.

So - if you are one of the super-cool people that donated yarn, needles, scissors, baggies, or money to this project - THANK YOU! Know that your contribution made a real, tangible difference in someone's life. It seems trivial, considering the real problems many of these kids face, but every person needs joy and that's exactly what you all gave.

.  .  .  .  .

The other experience I wanted to share about was the home visit that I went on. On both the 2011 trip and this year's I was able to go visit different homesteads of Bheveni kids. The D-Team know the kids and their family situations and choose a few of the families that they know are in the most need of some assistance. We purchase a few food items - dry beans and maize, for example - and a few other things and bring them as a gift.

Let me back up for a second. Since Swazi culture is so different than ours I'll explain a few things first. Almost every Swazi family has a plot of land that is theirs and is called their homestead. There are usually several different structures on each homestead - one building or hut that is used only for cooking, one or more for people to live or sleep in, one possibly for storage, etc. Families pass the homestead down from generation to generation so it is not uncommon for extended family to all be living on the same land. Sometimes they are in different huts and sometimes they are all in one. Sometimes they live and act as one family unit and sometimes they don't. 

A home visit is basically just as it sounds. For our large group we took turns - usually groups of 3 or 4 - and would go with one of the D-Team members to the homestead. When we arrive at the home, we are greeted by an adult outside - which could be a grandparent, parent, aunt, etc. Most of the time the visit takes place outside. We would be offered a place to sit - a chair, stool or log for the men and a rolled out mat for women and children. As women and children we remove our shoes before sitting. The D-Team member is there to help us follow the cultural "rules" as best we can but also to translate - most of the adults that we've visited know very little or no English. Then we basically chat for a few minutes - things like where we're from, why we came to Swaziland, and sometimes they will talk about their family. We ask them if they would like to pray and if they have any prayer requests and then we give them the gifts we've brought. At the end of the visit we usually ask if we can have a photo taken with them and every time I've seen they are thrilled to be in a picture.

So I went on a home visit and it was different than the couple that I had been on before. First, the person greeting us was the father - and there was no mother to be seen. Culturally, it's very rare to find the man as a caregiver. Plus, with the AIDS rate so high and with unemployment even higher it is unusual to find a dad at home - many of the men travel to find work. 

Anyway, the father was friendly and invited us inside the home - which was another first for me. I was surprised at the small living area because they had a little, old tv sitting on a little table - and it looked like there was no way it would ever work. I had actually never seen a homestead with power before. The man explained that he only had power because he was a welder and he needed it so he could try to work. He talked with us for awhile, told us about his family and when we gave him the gifts he was extremely grateful. When we handed out a few small bags of candy to him and the kids his eyes lit up. I guess candy is another universal language. :)

As we walked back outside we asked if we could pose for a photo and he loved the idea. After we took the picture he asked if we would wait for a minute and then disappeared inside. When he returned, he had changed and was wearing part of a traditional Swazi outfit. He was so excited to show us his wardrobe change and to have another photo taken. He even showed us part of the traditional Swazi dance that the men do. He walked us toward the gate to leave but stopped to show us one of the pieces he was welding. He had collected different pieces of metal and was making a gate that he was then going to try to sell. He then asked if we would take a photo of him with his work. I was really tickled by his response to the idea of getting his picture taken and also by the real pride that he had in his culture and in his work.

These are just two of the cool experiences that I had while in Swaziland and I wanted to share. I'm not really sure if there are people out there that are reading here (besides my mom) but I'm hoping that if you do, you are getting a glimpse of why I love being a part of Bheveni!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 4

On Sunday morning we woke up, had breakfast, and got ready for church. We were visiting the same church that we went to on our trip in 2011. Enaleni Church isn't too far from Bheveni Carepoint so we were hoping to see a few familiar faces.

I should pause here for a second to make a confession. My anxiety was higher than normal as we headed to church. This is exactly the type of situation that sends me into a tailspin and completely out of my comfort zone. Even though we had visited here before I was worried that I would do something that would be considered rude or disrespectful in Swazi culture. I mean, I know how to smile and be quiet (believe it or not!) and it's not like I hadn't been immersed in a different culture for several days already, but there's just something about visiting a foreign church that makes me want to not screw up. Honestly, churches in general make me uncomfortable. I didn't grow up going to church so it's all a little foreign to me. The church that my family goes to now, The Quarry, is a very laid back setting. The people there know me, know that I'll most likely embarrass myself somehow, and they love me anyway.

Well, I didn't need to worry. We hadn't taken 10 steps after getting out of our vehicle and there were the pastor and his wife ready to greet us. They escorted us in and helped to seat us. Swazi church (at least this one) is set up a little different than I'm used to. There are 3 main sections of seats and one smaller section off to the side. The smaller section was where the kids sat - and I was amazed, once again, by how well behaved all of the kids... even the littles... were throughout the service. One main section is for the men and 2 sections are for the women. I'm not sure if there's a real segregation by age in the women's sections but one seemed to have the younger ladies and one had older women. Much to my dismay, I seemed to fit the "older lady" category. :) Our escorts made sure to sprinkle us throughout the sections so that we were each surrounded by the natives. I was thankful for this because the ladies that sat on either side of me were able to coach me through and even translate when I needed it.

The service started with a song and I was overwhelmed by the beautiful voices. They were singing in Siswati so I had no idea what was being said but I closed my eyes and got goosebumps just taking it all in. It was beautiful and in that moment I could feel the presence of God.

I'm not going to detail the entire service but it was an awesome experience. There was a translator there, I'm guessing because they knew we were going to visit, but his accent was so thick that I struggled to understand what was being said much of the time. It was the singing that I enjoyed most of all. There were several times when a few of the women would just stand up and start singing and everyone would follow suit. A few of the times they would leave their seats and form a line and dance in the aisles and on the stage and then go back to their seats. The highlight for me was when the youth group went up front and sang a couple of songs - their voices were incredible. I have a video of them (the pastor's wife told us ahead of time to please take pictures and video if we wanted to) but the sound quality doesn't do them justice. I'll add it anyway:

The one thing that stuck out to me most of all was during their church announcements.  One man came up and was talking about an upcoming mission trip that they would be taking to Mozambique. They were collecting money and supplies to take with them and I found myself in awe. Our group was there in their community because there was a huge need. But here they were, ready to give some of the very little that they have because they wanted to show the love of Jesus to others. For once in my life I was rendered speechless.

After the service was over we stayed for just a bit. We were introduced to the cutest little girl who sang part of the song Jesus Messiah for us - adorable. The pastor showed us around the grounds of the church and we chatted for awhile. Then it was time to head to Bheveni.

Our group with the pastor, his wife, and a few members of the church

We were going to the carepoint on a Sunday afternoon to start painting the playground and to start the mural on the side of the building. We figured that since Sunday is the one day of the week that kids don't come to the carepoint it would work out - we wouldn't miss out on as much time with the kids if we got most of the work out of the way.

We couldn't have been at the carepoint for more than 30 minutes when one of the local teenage girls brought a younger girl who was really sick to us. They had seen activity at Bheveni and came for help. One of our "hosts" and two of our team members were able to drive them into the city hospital to get the younger girl the help she needed. 

The rest of us split into two groups - one for painting the playground and one for starting the mural. We only had a few hours to get a lot of work done but I have to say - we kicked butt! 

My favorite part of the painting experience was when we were painting the mural on the wall. A few of the local kids had seen us working and stopped by to watch us. I was sketching out the boy on the wall, getting ready to paint him in and I noticed that one of the boys had grabbed a stick and was copying what I was drawing in the dirt just below where I was working.

The finished products!!

The front of the building was painted as a bonus! Haiden, Audrey and Millie worked hard to get this done.

The playground - this was started on Sunday and then worked on a couple other days as well.

The mural - the kids and the giraffe were painted on Sunday and then we added the handprints (the kids', bomake, D-team and ours) and the lettering on our last day.