Chicken Poop on My Shirt, Two Days Off & One Snake…… – Chris Cheek

As I begin my 11th month living in Africa at Project Canaan, I find this journey every day unveils lessons about life. Each day I watch the ordinary become the extraordinary, the experiences become moments of awe, the challenges that seem overwhelming become a sign of HOPE in the voices of 103 little ones as they sing, giggle and play.

In the midst of these wonderful insights come the words of the “real,” the every day stuff.  Things like….”ahhhh, how did I get chicken poop on my skirt?  “Chicken poop on my skirt” actually came out of my mouth this week. Yes, it did. Not only did it come out of my mouth, my only action in realizing it was to walk over to the water hose, cut the water on, stick my skirt in the water, scrub it out by hand and then back to the yard to play – wet skirt & all. A year ago I was analyzing labor productivity, maximizing profit margins & ensuring our company was meeting fourth quarter goals. Now I’m wondering how I got chicken poop on my skirt. The everyday real, chicken poop and all.

This week I took two days off to rest. My schedule each week is 6 days of 12 hour shifts – living & playing, laughing & singing, hugging & “mmmmm ahhhhs.”  The toddler schedule begins at 7 AM, although most are awake a little before 6.  From their rooms comes morning alarm of chatter & singing of a new day beginning. To find the quiet, my day begins with me waking up at 5 AM. A time that I cherish as the night slips away.  The time before the aunties are up, children are sleeping and the one rooster that chooses to stand outside my bedroom window to crow. Ok, so it is my almost all quiet time. Each Friday is my day off to rest & reenergize. After 10 months I found that I needed an extra day off to catch my breath & rest my physically tired body.

Janine was strongly encouraging me to retreat to the lodge or our guest house where I could solitude & peace without the voices of 38 little ones outside my bedroom door. My head was thinking two days of quiet, two days of just me time, but my heart was saying stay home with the rhythms of the day.  Somehow the craziness of living in a home with 38 two year olds has become my monastery.  A place of quiet in the loudness, a place of prayer in the chaos (yes there is chaos living with this many two year olds), a place of comfort & safety within the “walls” of hope that surround Project Canaan.  I came here with a vision that this mission would be my monastic experience, a time of transformation.   In the beginning I kept trying to force my days to fit my image of serving and prayer…my image of being a faithful servant. It was only when I surrendered my will to be one of openness to the natural rhythms of the day that transformation began to happen…..allowing living in a home of 38 two year olds to become my monastery – my place of solitude and prayer, the place where I find comfort & rest. All in the quiet of living with 38 two year olds.

“GoGo,  GoGo – snake, snake, there is a snake!!!”  These were the words of a very frightened auntie as she raced into the sitting room from outside one night early in the week.  We are well into snake season. We have many of the most deadly snakes on the planet here in Swaziland and here on Project Canaan. (As a side note, one of the headlines in the paper this week read, “Crocodile Season is Here.”  We have way too many seasons: Snake Season, Crocodile Season, Scorpion Season, Dry Season & Rainy Season – we are still praying for the arrival of the rains. With hopeful anticipation we await for the rains that come with the rainy season – all of the other seasons I could do without.)

So me – with my great snake killing expertise, flip flops on and a heart of courage (like the cowardly lion of the Wizard of Oz) – I decided to go out and see the great & mighty snake.  As I stepped out the door the auntie told me it was at the end of the toddler home. I had two paths to choose from; down the walkway under the porch or through the grass. They both held elements of danger. The walk way has our huge toy boxes, play house, wagons and riding toys, all great hiding places, or through the grass where a snake could hide in safety of darkness just waiting for some foolish person in flip flops to come along and step on it. I weighed my options and chose the grass. My thought was if I were a snake I would be looking for dinner & the most likely place to find frogs or lizards would be behind the toy box. What was I doing….thinking like a snake???

As I got to the end of the building I started to tip toe and lean forward to try & peer around the corner to see if I could catch a glimpse of the snake.  Behind me were two aunties following at a distance. As I leaned forward I heard a sound of movement from the back of the building.  I looked in that direction and from the back corner came our security guard carrying a mop, the weapon of choice in fighting the deadly snakes of Africa.  Out in the yard were three scared Swazi’s, an American GoGo and a mop, well equipped for the first snake hunt of the season at the toddler home.

The auntie that had seen it said that it had gone into the drain base next to the building. It is a square outdoor drain for the water from the boys bathroom sink. It has a PVC pipe from the building down to the grated drain. The only place a snake could be – on the drain grate or up in the PVC pipe.

The guard slowly & quietly eased his way to the drain, raised the powerful mop above his head & with a quick swift motion slammed the mop down on the drain. The PVC pipe broke from the wall, the guard was jumping from one foot to the other and out of the drain flew up a two to three foot cobra, that at the time seemed to me to be at least six feet long. The snake was slithering back and forth as the guard was hitting it with the mop head, the two aunties were jumping up & down yelling something in siSwati. Since everyone else was jumping I decided to follow their lead.  We all looked like a group of adults playing hopscotch.

Lesson learned: mops are not the best weapon to use against snakes. The snake escaped with the security guard throwing stones at it as it slipped over the edge of the hill down into the bush. I no longer check my email after dark because the spot where I get a data signal requires me to walk through the grassy area where the snake had departed to his escape route. And if you want a good laugh you should see me when I go out the end door of the toddler home now. I slowly open the door peeking my head out looking around to make sure there are no snakes. At least once a day I will step out and there will be a frog that jumps that I didn’t see and I will jump like the security guard did that night.

Another week has passed the lessons continue, we still have mumps, people starving, livestock dying, spontaneous fires and no rain in sight. The children are turning summersaults in the yard, riding in wagons, playing on hot summer afternoons, turning & singing “Ring Around the Roses” and sounds of joy & laughter fill the air. There are overwhelming challenges & stories of hopelessness throughout the Kingdom of Swaziland – but on a mountain side in the bush of a rural land there is hope and it is called Canaan, Project Canaan.   We have snakes, 103 children and chicken poop on our skirts, the stuff of the real, the stuff of every day life and the journey continues….

GoGo

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The Perfect Storm – Chris Cheek, Long-term Volunteer

Saturday morning came and with it “The Perfect Storm!”  I woke up on Saturday morning and almost fell out of my bed as I picked up my phone to check the time. I had slept an hour past my normal, automatic wake up time and it was 6 AM. As I quickly came out of that early morning sleep I realized there was a slow gentle rain tapping on the tin roof…ahhh! So that’s why I slept in. Nothing like sleeping under a tin roof while it’s raining.

Instead of rushing to the kitchen for my morning coffee, I just stayed in bed and enjoyed the peaceful rhythm of the sounds. I began to think about some of the changes that are happening here as spring has rolled in. The trees are blooming with rich, beautiful flowers of purple, pink, red and yellow. The mountains are turning from the brown hue of winter to multi-colors of springtime green. Each day more and more colors burst out around the countryside. It is a beautiful time of year.

Just as I was seeing it all in my mind and feeling such incredible peace – a thought popped in my head and panic quickly consumed me. I live in a home of 37 two year-olds and it appeared we have rain that had settled in for the day. That means, no outside playtime. Ohhhh, no! We will be inside all day with 37 active and rambunctious two year-olds.

I caught my breath and thought about a plan. We can put music DVDs in and sing & dance, watch a movie, play games, read books and run up & down the hallway that I think is about 50 yards long playing “on your mark, get set, ready, go.”

Plan was in place, breakfast over and potty time completed. The first DVD was in and we were singing our hearts out. This Little Light of Mine was echoing up and down the plastered blue cement block hallway and then it happened. All the forces aligned. 37 two year-olds, rain and “no power!!!!!”

I had forgot to factor into my great master plan – if it is raining, of course, in Swaziland the power will go out. Yes, The Perfect Storm has new meaning in my life.

It actually turned out to be an awesome day despite the rain and “no power” as all the kids say. The aunties were soon singing African songs and we were all dancing. We played games, sang every children’s song you can imagine, ran races up & down the hall, we counted & practiced siSwati. The power only stayed off for about three hours but we were having so much fun we just kept playing like there was “no power.”

When the day was over 37 little ones crawled into bed, got tucked in, said prayers and quickly drifted off to sleep.  I took a shower and followed them – I had danced all day, laughed & played with both toddlers & aunties, I was one tired GoGo.

Just as I had begun my day, my day came to a close listening to the rain…ohhh, how nice it was to fall asleep to the patter of raindrops on a tin roof.

The journey continues…..

GoGo

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Go! By Long-Term Volunteer Chris Cheek

This week I must begin with a Toddler Home update. Moses has moved from the baby home over to the Toddler Home. I’m laughing as I write this because after his second day in the house with 38 two year olds he is probably thinking he should have never parted the Red Sea & left Egypt. Moses puts us with 39 little ones in our home. Trust me when I tell you it is a huge transition to leave the baby home to move into the toddler home. Imagine 39 two year olds at mealtime, taking showers, being potty trained, learning to share – all the normal things a two year old goes through just multiplied by 39.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve watched the older twos start to develop into such a fun stage. These growth/development spurts seem to happen in cycles and it is a blast to see their little personalities go from a toddler stage to a little kid. We will soon have our older ones move up to Emseni, the house for the older kids. It is kind of bittersweet, it’s fun to see them finally reach a stage where you can have a fun conversation with them, but with it comes the time for them to move.

Tuesday night I was in the sitting room on the huge “U” shaped couch. We were watching Jungle Book and Michael had come up & cuddled next to me under my arm. Michael is an identical twin to Matthew. Matthew is much more rambunctious & never cuddles, but I can always count on Michael to find me before bedtime to get that extra hug time. We had been watching the movie for about 15 minutes when up came Matthew he looked at me and gave me a huge smile – to my amazement he didn’t have a chipped front tooth (that is how we tell them apart; Matthew has a chipped tooth & Michael doesn’t.) I could not believe it had been Matthew cuddling with me not Michael.  Then it dawned on me, what will we do when they lose their baby teeth, will we ever know which one is which?  (Just as a side note; out of 98 children we have 7 sets of twins and 4 sets are identical. I can’t imagine what the teenage years will be like.)

This week has been nonstop – the word of the week is go!!!!!  Ok, so the word of every week could be go when living with 98 children. But let me see if I can give you a quick recap.

– two trips to the Mobile Medical Clinic for Hosea to have follow up visits after his circumcision

– one trip for Shirley’s physical therapy appointment (dodged three herds of cows on the highway, one herd of goats and   two donkeys – not bad for one trip to town)

– one trip to take clean clothes to the hospital where Grace had brain surgery (check out Janine’s blog for more details: janinemaxwell.blogspot.com)

– attempted to order 15 bean bag chairs for the baby home, but 10 emails later still have not completed the order

– attempted to have a plaque made for a memorial bench, 8 phone calls later & it still isn’t completed

– potluck dinner for Robert at Janine & Ian’s

– four transfer truck deliveries (two trucks with construction materials, one with container of Feed My Starving Children Manna Packs for our feeding partnership, and one with supplies for the dairy)

– gave one tour of Project Canaan

– two or three birthdays, not sure lost count

– meeting with a supply vendor to look at laundry equipment

– to the chicken farm to pick up eggs

– construction meeting

– back to the hospital to pick up Grace (discharged on Friday evening – who discharges in the evening?)

– worked on balancing a bucket on my head, not very successfully, still have work to do to master that skill

– aunties dressed me in traditional clothes & danced in the kitchen; I’m sure by now that wonderful video is being spread all over Swaziland

– community visit with Anthony

– chased monkeys

– send off party with the kids for Robert ( he is going to bike, alone, across South Africa to raise awareness & funds for us – Durban to Cape Town)

I think that captures most of the week – oh, almost forgot, played in the yard & hugged babies.  What a great week!!!!!

I must confess that I sold out this week. About three weeks ago we had strong winds to blow through our area causing damage to our water filtering system.  All of the filters had to be replaced. In all of the Kingdom of Swaziland there were no filters. So we have had to boil our drinking water. I was so committed to being a strong woman – boiling my water. What a great story that would be to tell people! Well it lasted only a couple of weeks. This week I went out and bought a 5 liter bottle of water.  So much for my great story of hardship – having to boil water on our gas stove. Can you imagine if I had to walk 30 minutes to the river to get water, then carry it back on my head, build a fire & boil it outside just to have a glass of water to drink.  Ish…so much for me being a strong woman.

Well another week has closed & a new one is beginning.  I’m so very grateful for the experiences & the joy of living with 98 children.

The journey continues……

GoGo

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Rat Adventures – Chris Cheek, Long-Term Volunteer

Where, oh where, do I begin this week….there has not been a down moment all week. Everyday could have been an update all in itself. Now my challenge is to see if I can keep this as an update, not a book. Don’t panic, I have narrowed it down to two adventures & a couple of moments with the kids.

Let me jump right into Tuesday morning. Every Tuesday morning at 8:30 am we have a construction meeting at Ian & Janine’s.  Now I’m sure you are asking why is Chris attending construction meetings?  I miss building hotels so I sit in on our construction meetings here at Project Canaan. You know how process driven I am & toddlers are not process driven so it is an hour of me going to a comfort zone that I love.

For me it is about a 15-minute walk straight uphill. For someone younger, it would take about half of that time. I hate to be late for anything so I typically try and be out the door a little after 8. I build in a few extra minutes in case I have to rest before I reach the summit.

As you leave the children’s campus there are a couple of hills before you reach the “y” to turn up the big one. As I was walking toward the Y I could smell the burning of bush as the workers were finishing up some of the last acreage of firebreaks. The smell reminds me of Octobers at home when I was a kid & on Friday nights we would build a bonfire & roast hot dogs & marshmallows. I was enjoying the moment as I was topping the last hill before the dread hill climb when I heard yelling.  As the firebreak came into view I saw all the Swazi workers and the security guard from the children’s campus running away from the fire.

Quickly I could feel my heart rate rushing & not from the walk. A quick thought passed through my mind – maybe the fire was out of control.  I’ve watched them control the fires only using a branch from a tree & have wondered how the workers don’t lose control.

With a quick glance my fear of out of control fire was put to rest. Nothing appeared out of control. Now keep in mind this is all happening in a matter of seconds. The guys are yelling, running and now jumping the edge of a bush line into a maize field. The bush is so high I couldn’t see them but the yellng continues. I’m trying to decide should I turn back & head for the safety of the toddler home. Maybe they stirred up a nest of black mambas – the Swazi’s are just as frightened of them as I am – that would certainly give them cause to yell & run.

Just as the panic is about to completely control me, out of the bush area next to the field comes the largest rat I have ever seen. It was huge & it was running for its life.  Because right after he came out of the bush came our security guard and five Swazi workers – all yelling and throwing stones at this gigantic monster of a rat.  It dashes across the road in front of me & into the bush  on that side of the road. The guys were now yelling “Gogo, Gogo – did you see all that meat?”  I started laughing so hard at the site of these grown men chasing a rat through a field, throwing stones trying to knock it out so they could kill it & eat it. All I could say to them was, “yes I saw the meat but guess you are not going to eat it cause he was faster than you.”  So there we were a security guard, five workers & a Gogo standing in the road in Swaziland, Africa laughing about the big one that got away.  As I walked the rest of the way I did carry two large stones just in case he doubled back & followed me up the hill.

I’m going to jump to Saturday – our day of distributing TOMS Shoes to the children of our workers. Although the bulk of the distribution was done on Saturday, the preparation began on Friday morning. I’ve done the shoe distribution at our partner churches here in Swaziland but this was my first experience with one for our team.  We have 291 employees and just under 1,000 pairs of shoes were distributed on Saturday.

The majority of our workers come from two communities one on the east side & one on the west side of Project Canaan. Keep in mind this is all rural country & dirty roads. Most living with no running water, electricity and if we did not provide transportation would have to walk hours to get to work each day. In a country of 70% unemployment every day is a blessing for our employees because it means theirkids will eat & be able to attend school.  The days that we do distribution of shoes, clothes or food are days for the whole family to celebrate.  Saturday was dedicated to shoes.

We are about half way through the school year – new shoes means the kids stay in school.  For children to attend school they must wear shoes. Shoes….I know for us this is a given. Something we don’t even think about – my child has a growth spurt we go buy shoes, a pair wears out – most likely in the closet there are four or five more pairs to choose from.  Here a family is grateful to get one meal a day – shoes are not a priority for survival.  Hopefully the lead teacher will look the other way when a kid walks thirty minutes to school with no shoes.

Early Saturday morning I was up early & walked down to our distribution center.  Our transportation truck arrived at the main gate just barely in view of where I was standing. As I looked closely I could see the images of all ages of children briskly walking up the hill. Their steps seemed to have a spring of anticipation as they bounced and laughed toward the center.

Soon after they arrived like any time Swazi’s are together the music was playing and all were dancing.  I quickly maneuvered my way into the middle of the group & was dancing & celebrating the joy & excitement of getting new shoes. (Many of the farm workers only know me from seeing me drive past the fields on the 4-wheeler waving as I pass – so there seemed to a bit of surprise from the workers as I joined them.)

After dancing, prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings of jobs & shoes, instructions & the measuring of feet, the shoe distribution began.  For three straight hours child after child passed me with a smile that could light the darkest night. They gave me their shoe size & age then came the great moment of the day they got their shoes.

As each child passed me all I could think about was the power in the gift of this one pair of shoes.  The difference this pair of shoes could make – the world that could open before them because of a pair of shoes. A world of education – a world of hope – a world of not walking thirty minutes to school in bare feet to be sent home. A world that Heart for Africa is making better in the work & love happening at Project Canaan.  I’m getting so much more than I could ever give – I got to see almost 1,000 kids get shoes.

Best news of the week – Baby River is home at Project Canaan. Here is Janine’s summary of his first 3.5 months of living in this world. He was dumped in the river in a plastic bag at birth, eaten by crabs, 7 surgeries, 3 colostomies and a miracle for the whole world to see. I’m have no idea what gifts this child is bringing to the world but I know it is something powerful – his journey continues.

To close, here are a few moments from the kids: Beth loves shoes and every day when she goes outside the first thing she says to me is, “Gogo – my shoes, my shoes!”  Well, let me correct that.  She calls me Bobo Cheep. She hasn’t gotten the G or the K down yet.

At least once a day I will hear our Project Princess Deborah say, as she puts her hands in her pockets and looks sternly at me, “Gogo – come!”

Every day is a joy. At the end of the day I slowly crawl into bed, give thanks & laugh at all the joy & wonderment that comes with living with 94 children 4 and under.

The journey continues….

Gogo

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