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….


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Mumps, Pajama Bottoms & Compton’s Encyclopedia – Chris Cheek, Long Term Volunteer

We are up to nine of the 38 toddlers & one auntie with the mumps.  As I write this it is one of the sentences that will fall into the category of “things I never thought I would say.”  With a three week incubation period I think with the worst case scenario we would be looking at almost 12 weeks of quarantine from the baby home. The reason this is so crucial is that our youngest have very compromised/weakened immune systems. Where as when my boys were little I was ok if they got mumps, measles, chicken pox because in most cases it would run it course and be over without major complications. With our babies they are at such high risk we must take all precautions. So for the next few weeks, no rocking the little babies for me. We just need to go three weeks and no new case and I will be back in the rocking business.  Sure do miss rocking the little ones.

We have a great system in place at the toddler home for the ones with active mumps. We have 6 bunk beds in the bedrooms. Now that is a scary thought alone, twelve two year olds in the same bedroom. Keep in mind we have four bedrooms so we could have 48 two year olds living in this home….Eishhhh!  So we have moved the nine to one room. They have their own special play space, they eat & take their showers separately from the others in our great plan to contain it to as few as possible.  We also had a plan to keep the mumps at Emseni (the three & four year old home) and now we have 9 with the mumps at the toddler home. As Janine so often says, “a plan is just that – a plan.”

Monday, Wednesday & Friday are the three days that the bread truck delivers the bread. As I wrote some months ago, the bread truck driver also sells the paper.  He typically arrives a little before 7am. I’ve had to be very intentional about being dressed those mornings because I’m having pajama bottom issues. I have lost 40 pounds since I arrived in Swaziland. Of course all of my clothes are sized according to my arrival weight.  Now here is were my PJ bottom problem arises. They are comfortable to sleep in because they are big & sloppy. But when I stand up they fall down around my ankles.  This in itself is not a huge problem as long as I stay in my room.  This past Wednesday at 6:30 I was reading when I realized the bread truck was here & unloading. I looked out my window & knew if I waited until I got dressed I would miss getting my paper & I love reading my paper. But with that came the risk of my pjs falling down. The challenges I face…but I took a huge chance, grabbed my money & the waist band of my pjs and off I went down the hallway.  Mission accomplished. I got my paper & kept my pjs up while laughing at myself running down the hallway toward the kitchen holding my pants & what it would look like if they had slipped out of my hand, falling to my ankles causing me to trip & hit the floor.  I can only imagine what a sight it would have been.

My Google – we have a 1973 edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia. That was the year before I graduated from high school. I am having so much fun reading through the volumes. My first shock was how dated the pictures look. Then last night I was looking at the section on photography, darkroom techniques, phonographs, recording on tapes and I realized, I can do all of this on my phone.  It really doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago, but when I do the math, it was almost 43 years ago when this edition was published.  The lesson I’m learning from this is, as frustrated as I was when I first moved here with the lack of internet, had I had Google, I most likely would have never pulled these volumes off the book shelf.  I would have completely missed the memories of what the world was like in 1973.

Each day I find myself becoming more & more comfortable with a different pace of life, insights into what is truly important and the awe & wonderment of the world we live in.  There are real struggles here at a level we can’t imagine in our day-to-day life in America. I see it & experience it every day.  In these overwhelming circumstances; droughts, HIV/AIDS, TB, hunger, 70% unemployment, abandoned babies, I keep receiving amazing gifts of insight, freedom from things & living life simply.  If I left Swaziland today I would leave with the gift of gratitude; gratitude for children with the mumps, pjs that are too big & Compton’s Encyclopedia.  Gratitude for living out in the bush, on a farm with 100+ children in a community of 280 Swazi’s that every day enter the gates of Project Canaan, a place of hope, a place where I hug babies & play in the yard.

The journey continues…..


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Adventures with Anthony – Chris Cheek, Long-term Volunteer

By Friday afternoon of each week I typically have mapped out in my mind what I want to write about in my Sunday Update.  This week was no different until Saturday morning arrived. I was up at 5, like my normal morning, coffee by 5:30 and my day was under way.  I had a few things I wanted to complete on my “to do” list but mostly the day was going to be one of play & laughter.

Then about 10 am arrived & Anthony stopped by the toddler home to say hello & to see if I wanted to ride into town with him…and I never turn down an adventure with Anthony.

Turns out it was more than just a trip into town with Anthony. Every Saturday he takes four of our three year-old kids into town, along with an auntie. This week it was Joshua, Jeremiah, Hope and Sarah’s week. For the four of them this was their first trip to town for something other than a doctor’s visit. What an adventure this was going to be…and we were starting with lunch at KFC.

The plan was to be loading the car at 11 and we would be on the road right after…but like I said it was the plan. Just before we started to buckle the kids in Anthony’s phone rings.  Someone was injured on the farm & they needed him to come quickly. Our nurse was gone for the weekend & so was our paramedic. We have our nurse practitioner but she was about 20 minutes away. Anthony is in nursing school & could assess the injury & then we could decide what we needed to do next. So kids buckled in with Gabi (auntie) in the back seat & Anthony driving & me riding up front.

As we are turning the car around Anthony says, “The petrol is very low. Sure hope we can make it to Tri-Cash” (the petrol station). I look over & the warning light is on, the marker is on the “E” and we’ve not left the farm.

We drive over to the dairy because that’s where Anthony received the call from, to get there & find out we needed to go down to the field where the cows were feeding. Turns out some workers were building a feeding station for the cows & one had cut his arm. It was a decent cut but not bad enough to need stitches so Anthony sent him to get it washed out & bandaged.

In getting everyone settled in the car we had forgotten to get plastic bags. Sarah gets car sick, so you always need to be prepared. Next stop was at the farm building to get garbage bags. All the time I’m looking at the big red warning light … petrol is low!!!!  All I could imagine was being out in the middle of the bush with four excited three year-olds, one being car sick & us running out of petrol. Not a fun image.

Once we had the garbage bags we were off on the Saturday adventure.  On the dirt road we decided we would count cars – only saw one, but did see two cows & we crossed the river.

In my mind I had mapped out checkpoints: the dirt road off the farm, the dirt road by the orange groves, the first tarred road, the main road & then Tri-Cash.  As we reach each one I mentally checked it off.   We had made it that far & not given out of petrol until we arrived at Tri-Cash. Not only had we made it to the station, but Sarah had not gotten sick.

Fuel in the car, everyone buckled in again – we had to unbuckle so they could stand up & see the fuel being put in the car. We were off.

We saw busses, red cars, white cars, blue cars, chickens & cows. We saw trucks. We saw a large fish (picture will be on FB today along with the pictures of our journey.)  We saw oranges for sale. All the things a three year old would find exciting & fun.

We were so close to town, one more turn & about 10 minutes ….. Sarah got sick. Ah! We were so close to making it. We pulled over, got her out of the car, cleaned her up & changed her clothes, cleaned the car, all seat belts back on and off we were again, KFC bound!!!

First stop once in KFC was the bathroom. Then we all lined up in the queue to order our food. All four kids were not saying a word, eyes wide open, watching everything happening behind the counter.  We then went over to our table where everyone learned how to drink out of a straw, had catsup for their chips (French Fries) and finger licking good chicken.

The kids talked to the grandfather beside us, even shared a fry or two with him. He tried to sell us his DVD of him singing Gospel songs but we managed to get out without the purchase of a DVD.

Once everyone was finished I went up to order ice cream, where I had a slight communication problem. I stepped up to the register & said I would like to get four ice creams please. I was told, “We are not selling ice cream because it is wet.” And I responded, “It’s ok, we have napkins.” She said, “No, we are not selling it, it is wet.” I said, “I know it is ice cream.” Then I realized she was telling me it was not frozen, the machine was not working. It was liquid.

We made a quick bathroom stop & then went for a walk, the kids taking in everything. There were cars & buses, people walking by, horns blowing, fruit stands, shops and shops with clothes & shoes.

Once we completed our walk around town, next stop…The Riverstone Mall. We rode the escalator, up & down and up & down, followed by the lift (elevator) made another bathroom stop and played with the electronic doors. The fun of watching 4 children telling the doors to open & close, it was magical.

After exploring all the fun things in the mall our next stop, the grocery store where everyone got to push a cart. The kids would load their carts & Anthony, Gabi and I would put all the items back on the shelf.  We checked out at the register & every kid gave the lady money. They discovered the candy bars at the checkout counter. Almost had to buy two candy bars, but being the expert mom that I am was able to get the candy bars before they got them opened.  Each child had something to carry out of the store.

One last command to the doors to open & our mall adventure was over.  We paid for our parking, loaded the car & seat belts buckled. Only a few blocks away the heads started to nod and eyes got heavy. They all drifted off to sleep, first Sarah, then Hope, followed by Jeremiah, but Joshua – he was still going strong. Looking out he window not missing a thing, “Look at the car GoGo. See the chicken, a cow, oh a red car” then a calm quiet came over the car & as I looked in the back seat the 4th one finally gave in & was sound asleep.

In the quiet I started to think back to when my boys were that age and I don’t remember the wonder & excitement that I saw today. Maybe it is because memories have over time faded or maybe it is because those were things that they experienced so regularly that there was never that child awe of an electronic door, an escalator or filling a grocery cart. Maybe it was because as a young mom I just missed it in the simple things of the every day life. Whatever the reason I got a second chance on Saturday to see four little ones experience their first trip to town, a trip seen through the eyes of a three year old.

Oh, and we didn’t make it home without Sarah getting sick one more time. We made it all the way back to Project Canaan & were just getting ready to drive up the last hill to home, when out of her sleep she sat up & got sick.

The journey continues…..

(Pictures will be up on FB from our adventures in town.)


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Living on a Journey of the Spirit – Chris Cheek, Long-term Volunteer

Water sprinklers, swimming pools, temperatures of 102 – 104 degrees, monkeys playing on the slide, giggles & laughter, carrot cake and “mmm… ahh” the stuff of my week.

Hot…Hot…Hot…the lesson: once the temperature reaches 92 in the shade during the early morning, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are as the day moves on, 102 – 104 it is hot, heat index 114 – it is hot, the breeze blowing hot air – it is hot. The only relief is found when an old GoGo & 38 two year olds run through the water sprinklers. It is only October, about eight weeks from the heat of December… understanding of long, hot summer. Am I prepared? I think not.

In the early morning hours between 5 & 5:30 am as I watch the  sun rising, I begin my day with laughter because morning after morning I also watch the monkeys begin their day playing on the playground. Climbing up the steps to the slide, jumping across the ramp & two and three at a time sliding down the orange circular slide. Reaching the bottom they run back across the sand, up the steps & down again. Over & over, they play together as the new day is dawning. For three mornings I tried to capture it in pictures or video but as soon as you get close they run for the trees. After the third morning I finally surrendered to the fact that there are just some things you can’t capture in pictures. They must remain a fun memory in the pictures of your mind and spirit.

Morning walks around the farm before the hot heat of the day settles in because there are rocks to be found, flowers to pick, animals & creatures to see. “GoGo, look, look!” The voices of little ones that are discovering the world – a time of simplicity, a time of pure innocence & joy. Goats, cows, monkeys, chickens, lizards, butterflies & frogs – all in the day of two year olds living on a farm in the bush of Swaziland.

Giggles and shrills of laughter – pools filled, sprinklers spraying & bathing suits on – first out of the bathroom Malachi then Joseph, LoLo and Lucy. Soon thirty-four more splashing & laughing in the hot, summer afternoons. Frozen homemade popsicles & sips of water out of the long green water hose – the memories of the days of childhood before Cold Stone Creamery, Ben & Jerry’s & frozen yogurt by the pound. Ok, so I like a lot of toppings, so by the pound.

A knock on my door during nap time, a small container handed to me with a gift, an unexpected surprise – a piece of the most delicious, moist carrot cake covered with white, creamy icing. Each bite savored as if it were the last.

“Hamba Lala, Hamba Lala, Hamba Lala” – hands clapping with the rhythm of the rhyme, voices singing and 76 tiny feet marching down the hallway to bed – “Go to Sleep, Go to Sleep, Hamba Lala, Hamba Lala.”

Little ones crawling into bed saying, “GoGo, I want my mmm ahhh, my mmm ahhh.” Everyone knows a “mmm ahhh” that sound that comes with the good night kiss, followed with “I love you.”  The end of my day giving “mmm ahhhs.”

The stuff of my week, playing in the yard & hugging babies, one filled with a new found freedom, a chance to live not tied down by unimportant things. It doesn’t matter if I wear a purple shirt with a red plaid skirt, no make up, or if I’m on time. It is a chance to experience every day in awe of life – living on a journey of the Spirit – all being revealed to me through 102 abandoned babies & 51 strong Swazi women & men.

The Journey Continues…..


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