Late January is summer in the Kingdom of Swaziland – and seriously hot. It’s also when poisonous black mamba snakes are out and about. Deadly, slithering creatures normally would deter me, but this trip halfway around the world was to meet 49 babies at a place called Project Canaan. On this 2,500-acre nonprofit farm, these babies – most abandoned at birth – are thriving under the watchful supervision of Janine Maxwell, co-founder of Heart for Africa and driving force behind its mission to save, nurture, educate, feed and house the otherwise discarded. She and husband Ian, Heart for Africa’s CEO, live on Project Canaan.
Just after our arrival, Janine asked, “Wanta join me tomorrow?”
After many “uncommon” outings with her in Africa over eight years, I always say yes, realizing that despite trepidation, I’ll be better for the experience (black mambas notwithstanding).
This particular morning, Janine was her usual multi-tasking self, negotiating the impossible roads of Swaziland in HFA’s worn four-wheel drive Land Rover. First, we delivered a pregnant 17-year-old Swazi girl to her final medical appointment before the due date in two weeks. After much anguish, the girl had decided not to abort her baby, a product of rape by a policeman, and instead place it at Project Canaan’s El Roi baby house. (Read the shocking details of a Swazi maternity hospital at www.janinemaxwell.blogspot.com.)
I was merely a tag-along, sworn to observe, not be my normal chatterbox. Also along was an El Roi caregiver and a little toddler who was, I swear, the spitting image of a baby Oprah Winfrey. Only two weeks prior, a Swazi social welfare worker had asked Janine if “Oprah” could live at El Roi, and she was already getting on famously there, a little talk show star in the making. However, her aged grandfather, as legal guardian, demanded a meeting to discuss his grandchild.
“Oprah’s” social welfare worker joined us, and off we headed into the remote countryside of mud huts and rugged roads in search of her grandfather’s homestead. As we drove, it was sinking in that Oprah might not come home with us. Little girls don’t fare well in Swazi culture, which affords them no right to refuse family males – regarding sex or otherwise. Girls are powerless and often abused. Under Swazi law, the grandfather has rights to Oprah, whose teenage mother died in childbirth. A younger sister, 15, couldn’t continue caring for the baby.
On the road, we blessedly encountered the village runner, the chief’s liaison, who knew the family. He led us down a narrow, rocky foot path to a rundown cluster of two mud huts overgrown with brambles, where mongrel dogs and some skinny chickens roamed. (Black mambas crossed my mind.) Eventually, grandpa emerged and we all sat in a circle. Oprah toddled over and crawled into his lap.
Serious dialogue ensued in SiSwati. The runner weighed in, too. As Oprah stared intently at each talker, I pictured the real Oprah. Grandpa tearfully said he loved the child, who reminded him of his dead daughter. It was sad, but not enough to imagine Oprah left there for him to raise.
Suddenly, Grandpa announced he had to consult with his brother, who lived nearby. Trudging a sweltering quarter mile, we found ourselves in another circle with the brother and his wives. After everyone said their piece, Janine spoke eloquently. She was very respectful yet blunt. At Project Canaan, the baby would be nourished mentally, physically and spiritually. She would go to school for free and be loved. Oprah potentially could become one of Swaziland’s future leaders. The decision was theirs.
It turns out two other children from this family are placed in another Swazi care home. How many more would there be?
Relief overwhelmed us as we escorted cheery baby Oprah home. Then, around 1 p.m., Janine answered her ringing cell phone. The pregnant teen we’d dropped off for her appointment had gone into early labor. “Do you want me there?” Janine asked. “OK, I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
And off we went.
I lent support as Janine coached the scared teen through her first labor, then delivery. It was awkward and draining, but as we drove over the mountain that night in darkness, in my arms was a 45-minute-old healthy baby boy, Project Canaan’s baby No. 50, now called Jerry, after my husband Jerry Coffee. (Janine emails that 51 and 52 have since arrived.)
And why, you may ask, didn’t we adopt one of the babies?
Because it’s not legal to adopt Swaziland babies, in part because of concerns about potential abuses by human traffickers.
For more on Project Canaan, go to heartforafrica.org.
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This week Solomon died. He died from complications as a result of Stage 4 AIDS, which included liver and kidney failure, bi-lateral pneumonia, lactic acidation and a myriad of other things that I can’t begin to understand. He was on a ventilator, had blood coming out of his nose and mouth from his lungs which were bleeding internally and he was cold due to poor blood circulation. He did not die a painless death, but he is now pain free.
Last Tuesday a little baby died who was to come and live at the El Roi Baby Home (see last week’s blog). I had the sad experience of watching a Grandmother scrounge around a carpenters shop looking for scrap pieces of wood for him to make a very inexpensive coffin. Last week was like a Shakespearean foreshadowing that we read about in literature class. I would never have known that only a week later I would be saying goodbye to one of our own babies and looking for a coffin for him. Last week we were able to provide $35 to the Grandmother to buy a decent coffin. This week Mark Klee literally cut the back off a beautiful bookshelf that he had just hand-made for his wife Jamie and used it to make the most beautiful coffin that one could hope for. Why? Because it was just the right size, and he could always make Jamie a new bookshelf. This was more important.
Solomon was almost 17-months old and weighed 18 pounds. He only recently got his first teeth. He never crawled, never walked and was just starting to sit on his own. He was severely malnourished and AIDS was ravishing his tiny body. But he had the smile of an angel. Solomon was living at the El Roi Baby Home under our care because he was sickly and his mother was unable to care for him and begged the hospital for assistance. Our hope and goal was that once he was stable and strong that he would be able to go back and live with his mother and brother, so Tibuyile moved to the Sicalo Lesisha Kibbutz at the beginning of this month and has been working as a Khutsala Artisan. This is a very unique situation and the only one of its kind at El Roi. Typically we only accept abandoned babies, but we were trying to keep Solomon from being abandoned, while helping to stabilize the family.
Death and funerals are complicated here. It seems that no one cares when a child is sick and dying, but everyone has an opinion as to what should happen once the child is dead. (I could pull out a giant soap-box here, but out of respect for Solomon and his beautiful mother Tibuyile, I will reserve that rant for another day). It was Tibuyile’s wish to have Solomon buried on Project Canaan, after many tears, conversations, prayers, meetings with the Chief, police and Social Welfare it was agreed that we could honor her request. She was not welcomed at her home to bury the child and Solomon’s father’s family wanted nothing to do with him. So we welcomed the opportunity to give him a resting place where his mother could visit.
Denis and his team cleared an area in the trees right next to the chapel and it is now called “Emathune aSolomon” or in English “Solomon’s Cemetery”. We knew that the day would come that we would have a funeral on the farm, but hoped that it would be many years from now. Now we have a place, and I plan to be buried in Solomon’s Cemetery when that day comes. Some of our long-term volunteers gave funds for beautiful pink bougainvillea’s vines that were planted on Saturday and we found some whimsical butterflies to bring warmth to the trees.
Tibuyile’s pastor came from town and resided over the ceremony. The small body was picked up from town at 5AM and brought out to the chapel. We were told that they would open the coffin for all to see the baby, but for some reason they didn’t do that today. I will say that they don’t embalm bodies here, and he passed away early Thursday morning. We did have to pay an extra $15 to have his little body washed.
After the praying and singing was finished the pastor lead us all to the burial ground. The tiny coffin was placed down in to a deep hole and laid on a grass mat made by a woman from the Project Canaan community. Two men jumped down in to the hole and the coffin was passed down in to them. After placing a grass mat over the top, and putting some of Solomon’s clothing in with him, they started to shovel the dirt in on top. They held a shovel full of dirt for Tibyule so that she could throw a handful on top of the coffin and then the men took turns shoveling the dirt to fill the grave. After a few feet of dirt someone would jump back in and pack it down by foot. In the end stones were laid on top and Solomon was laid to rest.
Death is such a big part of life, but for some reason death seems raw and “in your face” here. Tibuyile buried another child, about the same age as Solomon, only a couple of years ago. Similar illness, similar death, but back then she didn’t have a job or supporting family so her baby was held up in the morgue for 30 days while she begged and scraped for enough money to pay for the death certificate, the washing, the coffin and the public graveyard because there was conflict in the family and they didn’t want the baby buried at her home. This time was different. The pain of losing a child still rips at the heart of a mother and the memory of the child will never leave her mind, but today, she stood with her new family, her new friends and I believe she saw Jesus in a very new way.
I am now heading to the airport to fly to Taiwan. I will see Chloe on Monday and Skype Spencer with high-speed internet. I can’t wait to see my children and hold at least one of them. I am thankful for their health and their lives. It is hard to live with a foot in two different worlds (1st world and 3rd world), but I pray daily that He will continue to guide me and strengthen me so that I can continue to serve Him, even on the darkest of days.
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Live from Swaziland … Dance Solomon dance!Share on Facebook
It was Easter morning in 2003 that I first witnessed the rescue of a child who lived on the streets of Lusaka, Zambia. It was an earth-shattering, life-changing event that changed the entire trajectory of my life. I saw hope in the face of six year old boy named Kantwa, as he said goodbye to the filth, the terror and the hopelessness of life as a “street kid”. It may have been in that moment that I first truly understood the power of the resurrected Jesus, and it was Easter morning.
It is now the week before Easter 2012 and I am overwhelmed as I reflect on all at all that has happened in the past nine years. I have experienced intense pain at the death of children I love in Africa and I have cried a thousand tears and wondered if they would ever end. But I have also see miracles with my own eyes, seen buildings built, funding appear from the most unexpected places and felt the hand of God on my life in a palpable way.
But today I am writing to tell you of a new story of hope and it comes with the news that the El Roi Baby Home on Project Canaan, in the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland, is now open. El Roi is the Hebrew name for “The God Who Sees” (read Genesis 16:13) and we know that He sees the babies who are being directed to us just as He sees you and me.
In late February 2012 we opened our doors and wondered when, how and even IF any babies would be brought to the El Roi Baby home. Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the world and this murderous and relentless pandemic has a left a wake of orphans and vulnerable children. It has also left women (often young girls) with a feeling of utter hopelessness that results in them “dumping” or abandoning their new born babies because they have to possible way to care for them.
On March 1st, 2012 our first newborn baby arrived. Please allow me to introduce you to the newest members of our family and of the El Roi Baby Home.
Baby #1: Joshua was a three-day-old baby boy was brought to us because his mother couldn’t care for him and had planned to “dump” him as soon as he was born. The child’s father had been murdered months prior to the baby’s birth and a caring Social Worker convinced the mother to bring the child to life safely and she would help find him a home. El Roi is his new home.
Baby #2: – Esther was a 14-day old baby girl who arrived a couple of days after Joshua. Esther’s mother was young and planned to commit suicide in her eighth month of pregnancy. Again, a caring (and life-saving) Social Worker convinced her to save her own life and the life of the baby. The baby was abandoned at the door of a man who delivered the child to a local hospital. The mother is HIV positive and Esther was treated as soon as she was born. We will know in a few weeks whether she is HIV positive as well, and what her future care needs will be. El Roi is now the home for this little girl.
Baby #3: Fortune is a baby boy and is 8 months old and only weighs 12.3 pounds. Fortune was delivered to a local hospital in a cardboard box, by his father who is in the final stages of HIV/AIDS. His mother had already succumbed to the disease and the father was no longer able to care for him. Fortune is HIV positive and is being treated with ARV’s. He has active Tuberculosis and is covered in terrible sores and lesions. If that wasn’t enough for this little guy, he is severely malnourished and is struggling to survive. El Roi is now his home.
Baby #4: Sizoluhle (which means “a good helper”) arrived TODAY (March 29, 2012) and is 8 weeks old. His mother was raped in South Africa and as a result is HIV positive and while she does not want to have anything to do with the child, the Social Worker encouraged the mother to care for the baby for a time to see if she would change her mind. Today she brought the baby to the hospital and left him there. El Roi is now his home.
Baby #5: Anna is a baby girl, is a month old and has been living in a government hospital since she was found in a pit latrine (outhouse/toilet) just after she was born. She has been struggling with a chest infection since then and getting treatment in the hospital. While she has not arrived at El Roi yet, we are praying that she will be released to our care in the hours/days ahead and El Roi will be her home.
As you can see we have much to be thankful for and much to pray for. The emotional and physical cost to care for these babies is high. Please join us in praying for Helen Mulli and the others who have been hired to provide 24 hour care at the El Roi Baby home. As some of you may know, Helen was rescued by Mr. Charles Mulli at the tender age of eight-years old and was raised by Mr. & Mrs. Mulli at the Mulli Children’s Family Home in Kenya. She has grown to be a wonderful woman of God, married Peter Mulli (Charles’ youngest brother, and Kaleli’s Uncle) and is now living at the El Roi Baby Home to care for “the abandoned and ignored” babies who are brought to us.
As you would expect there is also a high financial cost to care for these babies so that they get proper and immediate health care, the right nutrition for their situation and all the love that can be poured on them. Currently we only have 6 people helping on a monthly basis and are asking if you would consider becoming a Heart for Africa HERO by committing to a monthly donation to support the El Roi Baby Home. It is as simple as clicking here and signing up today.
This has been a long read, but I hope that you are inspired by it and will join me in prayer and thanksgiving to the Lord who is the giver of life, and to El Roi, the one who SEES us all. Thank you also to Annie Duguid, from the Watoto Baby Home in Uganda, who came to Swaziland to help prepare the El Roi team to be ready to receive babies (including hiring and training women who will love and care for these children). We are thankful for the leadership team at Watoto who invested in the El Roi Baby Home by giving Annie six weeks of paid leave to come and serve with us. Thank you to our Staff at Heart for Africa and on Project Canaan and to our Board of Directors in the US and Canada who have stood by us through the highs and lows as we have prepared the way for the little ones to arrive.
Happy Easter everyone! He has risen indeed!
Janine MaxwellShare on Facebook