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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part 3, Fun Day!!

Give Away Day was so much fun... another day our team looking forward to was Bheveni Fun Day! We did this on my last visit to Swaziland and it was the highlight of my Bheveni experience. The joy that was present that day in the faces of the kids and Bomake was contagious. 

We decided to make this Fun Day very similar to the last one. It was all about having fun, laughing, being together!

There was the bouncy house:

Face painting and temporary tattoos:

nail painting... where my favorite story of the day was when a young boy came up to Regina and asked her for "the clear polish with the white on the ends." We were rolling because out in the rural part of Africa, here was this little guy who knew what a French Manicure was! She was, like, "Hey - have you been reading Vogue?"

and of course the meal of Chicken Dust! Chicken Dust is locally cooked chicken (they cook it on the side of the road!) and it's served with a small salad and some pap (the mashed potato- looking food you'll see in pictures. It's made by boiling maize.) The kids and Bomake absolutely LOVE this meal. Many of them will only get meat twice during the year... TWICE... on our Fun Day and at the Christmas celebration at the carepoint.

Possibly one of the most touching moments of my trip happened while the kids were sitting down to their meal of Chicken Dust. One little boy - who couldn't have been older than three or four - was carrying his food and he started to head out onto the road. We were concerned for him - he was small to be walking alone, especially with food. One of the D-Team asked him where he was going and he answered that he was "Going home to give some food to his mom." Someone that young immediately thinking of someone other than himself in that situation... just amazing. 

We also watched as the kids and D-team showed us how to jump rope with style. They are AMAZING!

Regina, Kim and I decided to go a little crazy and go down the kids' slide - they thought it was pretty funny because all 3 of us fell on our butts! One of my favorite photos from this trip is the one of the lower right corner below... Regina coming down the slide with the little girl in line holding her head thinking "Oh Lawd! They're gonna break our slide!"

The day was winding down and we were blessed to be able to hand out a fresh cabbage to each child to take home with them. It might not seem like much but each child had wide eyes that lit up when they were carrying their cabbage out of the carepoint gates.

An absolutely amazing day!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Swaziland 2013 - part two, Give Away Day!

I know that I have mentioned that our visit to Bheveni was not just about the "stuff" that we could bring to them but Oh. My. Word. we were excited about Friday - it was the day that we were going to pass out most of the gifts that we brought along!

We arrived at the carepoint in the morning when the younger kids were getting ready to eat their morning porridge and most of the older kids were in school. We all spread out and spent time with the kids - singing, laughing, playing games. Michael, the youngest on our team as a teenager, was a hit with everyone because he loves to play soccer (or futbol as they say in Swaziland.) Soccer is HUGE there and all of the kids love to play. We also spent time with the bomake - helping with the cooking and serving. A couple of the gals on our team even learned how to make rope-type twine from fibers from a local plant.

In the afternoon we set up different stations to distribute the gifts we had for the kids. We had new school shoes and socks to hand out. Trying to get all of those shoes sorted into sizes took some time and energy! :)

We also had a drawstring backpack for each child - inside the backpack was a Create Hope t-shirt, new underwear, a small bag of candy, and hygiene items appropriate for the different ages and genders.

The absolute best part of the gift giving came next: the sponsor gifts. Danielle had spent many, MANY hours working on getting and organizing letters and gifts from each child's sponsor. We turned the letters into "Love Cards" that were colorfully decorated - and each child received a personalized card along with the gift that their sponsor had sent. 

This part took the longest but it was worth every minute. As each child came through the line they would sit down with one of us and a translator. We pulled the Love Card out and read from it. We explained to each child that this card and gift was from their special friend. I was blown away by the responses from the kids...the younger kids sat with wide grins as we read them stories about their special friends and asked them questions that the sponsors had asked about them... "What is your favorite color? Who is your best friend?" The older kids were even more fun in this station - many of them knew who their special friend/sponsor was from the letters and emails that had been sent to them. I heard several of the older kids ask about their sponsors by name. We would read the Love Cards to them, sometimes through a translator but not always. Most of the older kids know English fairly well because it is taught in school. The kids loved hearing about their sponsors and their families. The sponsors shared about their jobs, their hobbies, favorite scripture verses. It was really a connection for the kids - and of course they loved the individual gifts that were sent - but the Love Cards, those were like treasures to each and every child.

If you have ever wondered about sponsorship, whether through Children's Hopechest or another venue, wondered if it's a load of bull or if it really does make a difference let me tell you this: I have seen the difference with my own two eyes. I see that the money goes into these communities, into the lives of these kids. I have seen the look on these kids' faces when you mention their special friend - they understand that someone out there in the world has chosen them. It is a thing of beauty.

After the kids went through each station we had them line up to get new individual photos taken. It makes me laugh when we do this - both two years ago and this time we went through the same routine. The kids would be chatting with friends in line, casual and laughing, but as soon as we had them ready to take their photo they would put on a straight or stern face. I'm not sure why this happens - it's the young ones as well as the older ones. I'd make goofy faces and dance around until they would laugh. We started doing the classic "Say cheese!" and the kids thought it was hilarious. Even after they were through the line I would randomly hear kids walking around repeating "Say cheese!" 

My favorite part of the day was when I got to connect with one of the kids that we sponsor. I first met Sphelele on my last trip to Bheveni. She was small and sweet and walked up to me and held my hand - I was in love. As soon as I got home from Africa the last time I checked online and found that Sphelele was not sponsored yet and our family immediately chose her.

Me with Sphelele, 2011

When I saw Sphelele this time I couldn't believe how much she had grown. She was pretty young when we met the last time so I'm not sure if she really remembered me but she was full of hugs and smiles just the same.

Me with Sphelele, 2013

I sat down with her and she immediately sat on my lap. I asked her how she was doing and she replied with "My name is Sphelele. I am a girl. I am 5 years old." She melted my heart with her sweet voice - even though I realized that she didn't understand what I was asking. Gcebile, the preschool teacher, is working to teach the young kids some English before they start school. She has taught them the basics, like what Sphelele said to me, and they also know a few songs and other basic sentences in English. They are still working to understand English and I know that all of the Swazis have mentioned that we Americans talk too fast - that it's hard to understand what we're saying. :)

My communication with Sphelele and the other little ones was limited (unless some of the older kids were around to translate) but I have to say that it wasn't as much of a problem as you might think. When Sphelele sat with me I just held her and rocked her and we would sing together. I loved every minute and she seemed to be enjoying it as well.

I was also able to show Sphelele a small scrapbook that I had made for her - pictures of she and I from my last trip and also pictures of Dustin and the kids. We sat together and went page by page through the scrapbook and I watched her wide eyes light up with the pictures of us and then get even brighter when we got to the pictures of Miles, Linus and Greta. She LOVED those!

Spending time with Sphelele was even more special to me because during our 2011 trip I learned about her living situation. Her homestead is one that is unfortunately not too uncommon in Swaziland. She is one of 10 children living in a home with no parents. Both of her parents have died and her older siblings have taken on the role of caregivers. She does have an aunt and uncle that live on the same homestead (or property) but they are not interested in taking care of these children so they are pretty much left to fend for themselves. Theirs is most definitely a situation where the carepoint system has been a life saving opportunity. The youngest kids have a safe place to be while the older kids are in school. The older kids are able to go to school because they get help with funding their education through HopeChest. All of the kids benefit from guidance, discipleship, and at least one warm meal a day.  

When I held her in my lap and sang songs with her I knew that even when I couldn't physically be there with her, the little money that my family does spend through sponsorship helps care for her and her siblings. And I love that she will now have that small scrapbook as a reminder that we love her and think of her every single day.

Swaziland 2013 - part one

The planning for my trip this year pretty much started almost 2 years ago - the day I got home from Swaziland the first time. I knew with the very first smile, the first hug, that it was not if but when I would return.

The B-Team (B for Bheveni... pretty clever, right?) really doesn't get serious planning done until the last 6 months or so before we leave. Danielle and Mike, our fearless leaders, do the hard part with the planning - the dates, logistics, the contacts with Children's HopeChest, setting up the conference calls. The rest of us get to wait for the details. Once the technical stuff is set we get to jump in and start planning the fun stuff: what we're going to do with the kids. We also discuss what sort of things we can bring to bless the carepoint and the kids. This can sometimes be tricky for us; our first inclination is to try to collect anything and everything that we can. Who wouldn't want to drop an entire Super Target right smack in the middle of a field and let them loose? But we have to limit what we bring - not only because we have limited baggage space, but more importantly because our visit is not about stuff. Hygiene supplies and underwear are very helpful but they only last so long. Smiles, hugs, laughter - those memories are permanent.

With that being said, I have to say that I had the most awesome time collecting supplies. Each member of our team signed up to bring different items that we planned on handing out. It's a collect-what-you-can-and-buy-the-rest sort of deal. I put the word out with the items that I wanted to collect and every single item was donated. EVERY SINGLE ITEM. My facebook friends rocked my world - I had stuff shipped to me from different states! I had a trunk load of candy dropped off at my house! I had people contacting me asking what else I needed. And when I came up with the idea of collecting yarn and knitting needles to bring with I had people donating bags and bags of supplies!

I also felt like this time around I had so much support from friends and family just in general. Not that I didn't get support during my first trip but this time I really felt the love. Maybe it's because people realized that it wasn't just a one time thing for me, maybe (hopefully) people felt connected to my journey and to Swaziland, maybe it was to make me shut my trap because I can't stop talking about how much I love Swaziland - I can't really say. I had a lot of people send me encouraging words, people generously blessed us financially, and there were people praying for me, my family, and the entire trip. At the risk of sounding ridiculously corny, I felt like I had my own little "village" cheering me on throughout the whole process of preparing for, and while I was on the trip.

I'll skip the details of the travel time (a day and a half? two days?) and get to the good stuff: Bheveni Carepoint. We left Johannesburg, South Africa in the morning and drove the 5-6 hours to get across the Swazi border and to where we were staying. We basically dropped our luggage off at the Guest House (that's where we stay - it's like a hotel only much smaller) and headed to Bheveni so we could see the kids for a couple of hours. Our team this year had 17 people and of the 17, only 6 had been to Bheveni - but everyone was equally excited. As we approached the carepoint my heart sped up. I couldn't wait to see everyone again! My mind was racing... would I recognize the kids? It had been almost 2 years since I had seen them. Would they remember me? Surely not. Will the Bomake (Bo-MA-gay - the women that keep the carepoint running) be the same? Will any of them remember us?  

We had discussed on the drive to the carepoint that we were not even going to take our cameras out during this first visit - mostly because we wanted to get (re)acquainted with our friends here and not have it turn into a circus. Also, we Americans can sometimes forget with all of our technology to actually live the moment instead of just recording it.

I tell you, as I stepped out of our bus and got the first real look at the beautiful blue building and all of the children running around it, I got goose bumps and tears in my eyes. I remember thinking 'I'm home.' 

It didn't take long before we were surrounded with children - giggling, whispering, hands reaching out for hands. We made our way over to the "kitchen" area so we could greet the Bomake and I was surprised and in awe that most of them remembered me. My highlight from the day was when Gcebile, (Nay-BE-lay) the preschool teacher who I bonded with during the last trip, walked up to me and said "Margo!" as she embraced me. That she remembered my name after all of this time - it was awesome.

We spent the afternoon playing and talking and holding and hugging kids of all ages - it was heaven. We got to see the Bomake in action and even help a little - cooking and serving the kids. We got our first look at the garden that has become the pride and joy of the carepoint. 

Even though it was only a few hours at the carepoint and it was just a taste of the joy that we would feel throughout the week.... it was an incredible day.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The post in which I try to put my thoughts together but just end up rambling like a nut job

I've been meaning to write about my trip here but I've been putting it off - mostly because I'm not sure how to put into words everything that I've been feeling. This trip had affected me differently than my last. 

2 years ago when I came home from Swaziland, I jumped right back into my "normal" life. The people I met and the places I went certainly made an impact on me and I wanted to share all about it. During the past week or so since I've been home I have had many people ask about my recent trip. I haven't been able to respond with more than a "It was great!" because I've been struggling to find the right words... and to be honest, I'm not sure that I even know exactly how I'm feeling. Don't get me wrong - it was a great trip. Even better than the last if that's possible. I've just had such a wide range of emotions this time around. I'm not sure if it's because I was gone for a longer amount of time or if it's because I witnessed several different carepoints - some of which were in an absolutely desperate state - but my "re-entry" into day to day life back home has been tougher.

I guess I should start in a different direction, but stick with me.

What is your passion? What gets you excited? What is the thing that gets you started and the people around you give you the "Great.... here she goes again" look? Is it the outdoors? Music? Teaching? I found my passion - Swaziland - the very first time I saw the pictures from Danielle's first trip to Bheveni Carepoint. Something inside me clicked and I KNEW that I had know more. More about the country of Swaziland (which, let's be honest, I had never even HEARD of before), more about the people; about the kids, about what she and her husband Mike were doing there. The more I read, the more I listened to Danielle talk about Swaziland, I KNEW that I was supposed to go there. 

Most people that know me at all were floored that I would even consider visiting Africa. It's fair to say that I am not an outdoors type of person. I hate to sweat. I hate bugs. I hate toilets that don't flush. I am a creature of habit and comfort. But none of that fazed me as I prepared to leave my family and travel across the globe to a tiny country that was completely foreign to me. God had put it on my heart that I should go and I followed suit. Now, I have many non-Christian friends that will scoff and give the eye roll when I say that God led me there but there is absolutely no other way to put it. I had complete peace throughout the planning of the trip - even when it seemed impossible to find the funds, impossible to deal with childcare, impossible to deal with my own insecurities and anxiety. 

So, Swaziland - or should I say the people of Swaziland -  that is my passion. I've spent the last couple of years learning more about the tiny country - about the people there, the culture, the beauty and the hardships. I have cultivated relationships with native Swazis as well as Westerners that now call Swaziland home.

Fast forward to a week ago when I got off the plane in Minneapolis after being gone almost 3 weeks. I ran into the arms of Dustin and the kids and I cried tears of joy but also tears of sadness. Sadness because I had left people that I have come to think of as extended family behind. An online friend of mine posted a quote yesterday that now makes perfect sense to me: “You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” ~ Miriam Adeney.

As I've tried to process everything that I've experienced in the past month I have had people ask me about why I go to Swaziland. Why I spend money to travel instead of sending the funds to those in need and also why I go across the world when there are people in need here in the US. I'll try my best to explain it here. 

At least twice while I was in Africa I heard it said that "Swaziland's currency isn't money - it's currency is in relationships." That could be said of many places but I've found it very true while visiting there. The culture in Africa, at least what I've experienced, is not like our fast-paced, get it done now culture. Things there are much more relaxed time-wise. You slow down and get to know people. That's how business is done. People don't want your help - or your business - until you have a relationship.

Here's an analogy that I've used to explain why people travel in missions work rather than just send cash. Say you have a garden. Your neighbor has an area that he wants to turn into a garden but he needs your help. You could just give him $100 and tell him to buy the supplies that he needs and hope for the best. Or you could take a Saturday, get some of the supplies, and go over to his house and work along side him to get the garden planted. Working together and sharing ideas will make his garden better than what it would be if it were a solo project. More importantly, you will have a shared experience and a relationship to build on.

You see, the people of Swaziland don't need me to fix them. They don't need Westerners to swoop in and solve their problems. What they do need is what all people need; someone to come and stand beside them and give them a hand. They need a support system. One afternoon while I was at the Bheveni Carepoint I was talking with two teenage girls. Daylight was starting to fade which meant that it was time for them to head out so they could walk home before it got dark. I had said good-bye a few times, trying to get them to start their walk home, and I was starting to get nervous that they might be out later than they should be. One of the girls pointed to my shirt (that had a picture of my 3 kids on it) and quietly asked "Those are your children?" I answered yes and she sat for a few moments before asking "Where are they now?" I told her that they were back home in the US. She looked dumbfounded and asked "But you are here? You left them to see us?" In that moment she understood something that actions can prove more than words and more than money: that I value her. That I care enough to travel to see her and her community. That is what it is all about. Creating hope. 

So why Swaziland and not here in the US? There are people in need everywhere. Literally everywhere. I don't know why - but the people, the children especially, in Swaziland have grabbed my heart. Everyone has the capacity to reach out... some will do it in their back yard and some will do it across the globe. I choose to be an advocate for orphans and vulnerable kids in Swaziland because I believe that is where God wants me. That's why He has given me the passion for these kids.

So, in a round about way, this is how and why my journey began. If anyone out there actually reads here, please bear with me. Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to do my best to put my thoughts and feelings about my latest trip down here. Just like me, it's a work in progress.