My Third Mother’s Day in Africa – Chris Cheek

This past week I found myself time and time again on the playground with the kids just watching them in awe.  Two and a half years ago when I arrived at Project Canaan we had 85 children living with us.  At that time Rose and Gabriel, our oldest, had just turned 4.  On Friday we had two little ones join our family giving us 157 children and Rose and Gabriel turned 6 in late December.  Today as I reflect on the lives of the children in my daily life, the moms/Gogos I have met in the community and circumstances of how hard life is in a third world country for moms/Gogos I find myself focusing on three insights.

  1. Children are children no matter where you are.  They giggle, play, hit and two year olds say no.  They have favorite things, they want hugs and attention.  They are moody and whiny when they are tired and hungry. They love unconditionally.   

Bella giggles, Emmanuel wants to know everyone’s name, Ben dances, Ruth makes faces, Shirley loves cake, Rose is a little mom, Portia hugs and comforts everyone, Caleb is cute, and Miriam is in charge.  The personalities of 157 little ones living on a mountain side are each unique and if you sat back and watched them play, walk to school, eat their meals, explore the world you would never know the stories of how their life began. 

I have watched them grow and develop.  They speak two languages (think about 40+ two year olds say no in two languages), they know their alphabet, they count the older ones read, they know colors and the weather.  They are kids being kids.

         2.  A mother’s love and dreams for her children are for a brighter future and a good life.

On Saturday I was visiting a homestead of a couple maybe in their late 30’s.  They have 4 children.  The wife has a job as a housekeeper for a family in a local gated community.  The husband can’t find work.  If he can pick up a day labor job he takes it, but they are few and far between.  So between the two of them they live on, in a good month, equivalent to about $100.  (Keep in mind that her transport to get to work is about $20/month that comes out of the $100.) 

In addition to her family she has taken in her 17 year-old cousin that has a one month-old baby.  The 17 year-old is a double orphan, both her mom and dad have died.  They are now a family of 8 living on the one income. 

We sat on her stoop as she shared her story, cuddled her youngest child and introduced her family to us.   I watched her eyes sparkle as she introduced her children.  As I was taking this in I thought about how many times I have talked about my boys and how I feel every time I think about the or I share a story about them. 

This mom with her baby in her arms is me and I am her.  Our common bond is our love and our dreams.

          3.   Circumstance don’t define who we are, but often times circumstances overwhelm people to a point of hopelessness.

Last night I sat and watched the winter sun drop below the crest of the western mountain ridge.  The winds were blowing and I found myself deep in thought, “Why have the mothers of 157 children reached a point of hopelessness that they have thrown their children into pit latrines, tied them up in plastic bags and thrown them in the bush, abandoned them on road sides or thrown them in a river?”  “How does a mom living on $100 a month, providing for a family of 8, continue to have a twinkle in her eye as she watches her children play?”  “What has been the difference in their lives that has given hope and destroyed hope?” 

Wish that I could say that I came up with an answer, one filled with great insight and wisdom, an answer that would give humanity a way to work together so that all children live with hope, a chance to play and laugh, have the nutrition they need to grow and develop, health care and the love and twinkle of their mother’s eyes.  There was no reconciliation between my heart and mind on how circumstances impact the decisions we make.  

I begin this morning with gratitude that I will see 157 children laugh and play, I will watch with a sparkle in my eye that comes from memories of sweet cuddles and adventures with my two boys, Joey and Michael that are my heart and why it beats.  I am grateful the circumstances in my life that did not lead to hopelessness and for the opportunity to live in Africa and learn lessons as I walk this sacred path we call life.  

What a wonderful Mother’s Day, the journey continues…….


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If Only She Could Talk….Chris Cheek, Long-Term Volunteer

It has been a week of raw emotions.  If only she could talk….

No food after midnight.  If only she could talk….

Two hour ride to the hospital and hungry.  If only she could talk….

Crying to stay in my arms.  If only she could talk….

Hands and arms in big purple cast.  If only she could talk….

Tubes and wires.  If only she could talk….

Nurses and doctors.  If only she could talk….

Cries of pain, moans of discomfort, morphine, tylenol.  If only she could talk…

As I sat by Shirley’s bedside in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit I heard the little boy in the room next to ours say, “I can’t move.”   I remember thinking how I wish Shirley could tell me what she was feeling.  As she cried out I did not know if it was from pain, not understanding why she was there, missing her home – I just wish she could have talked to me.

The week has been long, most of my days and nights are spent with her in my arms.  My hair needs to be washed, I have tylenol stains on my shirt, mashed potatoes on my pants, my back is sore – her weight has doubled with the two large cast.  Two weeks ago I would have written my update at 5 am with a cup of coffee in my hands. Today I’m just getting it started at 7:30 pm and the caffeine from my coffee has long been gone.

My rhythm of life has changed and for the next few weeks there is nothing more important than the rhythm of comforting a little girl named Shirley.  Emails will be late, phone calls missed, no time to Google, stains on my shirts.  How I wish she could talk and tell me when she hurts, if she is hungry or she just misses home.  But she is 16 months old and she can’t tell me, so for now I will just hold her and love her.  We will play when she wants to play, I will rock her back and forth in my arms and I will let her sleep on my chest when she wakes in the middle of night crying.  I will cook her mashed potatoes or pasta, feed her bananas and green beans.

The week has been raw – If only she could talk…….

The journey continues…..from Africa to Staten Island.

GoGo and Shirley

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Shirley and GoGo come to America! By Chris Cheek

A five hour drive, crossing the border with an envelope of legal documents allowing me to take a baby out of the country of Swaziland for three months, several hours in the airport and 20 hours on an airplane with a 16 month-old – Shirley and GoGo came to America!

From temperatures of 107 – 109 in the shade for weeks to 19 degrees with wind chill factors 9 degrees and snow.

It is 4:30 AM and I’m sitting with Shirley in my bedroom for the next three months. She is playing with her doll and we are listening to Swazi Gospel music as I write.  My thoughts are fuzzy from jet lag, but clear enough to be grateful for all the people along the journey from Project Canaan to New York.  All along the way people helped with our bags, paid for my dinner, helped me through long lines, shared books, the list goes on and on.  They came into our lives with compassion, helped and quietly disappeared on their own journey – random acts of kindness.

The journey has been in the works for months. Shirley needs to have the second round of surgeries due to the burns she received at birth after being thrown into a pit latrine and then having fire dumped on her by her mother….to read the full story see Janine’s blog:

Over the next three months you will find these updates will change from life living with 106 abandoned children on a farm in the bush to the journey of an almost 60 year-old woman, living with a 16 month-old as mom after 33 1/2 years since she had a 16-month old.  The changes have already begun – I now focus on nap times, diaper changes, meals on a schedule and poop has become a major word used in my vocabulary.  Whereas my daily routine is changing I find the renewed memories of the true innocence of a little one waking in the morning in a crib next to my bed well worth losing some of the personal freedoms that come with grown children.  There are doctors appointments and surgeries ahead of us, getting used to the cold, new people and places in our lives.  I know there will be moments of laughter and fun with Shirley, time comforting a little one that is away from home and her family for three months, pain and confusion for Shirley as she goes through more surgeries and times of comic relief as after 30 + years a 60 year-old woman cares for a 16 month-old.

I am honored to have Janine and Ian’s trust to be her caregiver and “mom” over the next three months.  I pray for guidance as decisions are made, strength and energy to keep up with a 16 month-old and the love and lessons of the next three months.

As I close this out this week I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you the irony in the fact that I have spent my life wanting to live one of service in Africa.  Finally, after all the years of raising my boys, traveling with them as they lived out their dreams, the doors opened for me and God led me to Project Canaan.  I have over the past year learned many, many lessons and I can say without a doubt that I have been given much more that I have given and I know that God has an incredible sense of humor as He said to me about serving in Africa – “just kidding about living in Africa, I am going to send you to New York to live on Staten Island a few blocks from the ocean, in the middle of winter to take care of a precious little girl from Swaziland.”   The mission is good, New York/Staten Island is wonderful – it is the living near the ocean in the dead of winter up north for the next 3 months that I have laughed at many times because of how I hate the cold –  “God has an incredible sense of humor.”

The journey continues as Shirley and GoGo travel to America…….


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Storms Rolled In, Wind…Rain….Lightening Came, Second Highest Temperature in the World, Baby 105 Arrived & I’m Late Writing this Sunday! – by Chris Cheek

A new week has begun and I’m late, late, late writing. I love beginning a new week looking back over the week before & writing about the journey, sharing the stories of my life at Project Canaan. My morning began as a typical Sunday morning, with my cup of coffee & the time to think about writing. Then I got sidetracked by babies and a rocking chair.  Baby after baby would take their turn, (Enoch, Shirley, James, Joash, George, Samantha, Jacob, Aaron, Adam…..) crawling in my lap, snuggling for a few minutes of rocking, then down they would go to explore the world around them.

I kept thinking I should be writing, but the gentle rhythms of a Sunday morning in Africa won my time.

It has been an interesting week. I guess I say that every week & so I believe that makes every week an ordinary week filled with extraordinary experiences.  On Dec. 2 Swaziland recorded the second highest temperature in the world for that day. Temperatures reached 43 Celsius, with my trusted converter, friends, that is 109.4  Fahrenheit.

That is just plain hot. There are no words to describe it. All I wanted to do was stand in a cold shower. I’ve been told we can expect the same temperatures in the upcoming weeks. It may be a degree or two higher or lower but in that range. The number really doesn’t matter when it gets that hot…hot is hot, even when the wind blows it is hot air. Come, winter, come!!!!

Following the heat came a much welcomed storm with rain!!!!  The country got hammered with wind & lightening but the need for water is so dire, that the storm damage & over 24 hours of no power was a small price to pay for the life-giving water that fell. We are still in a drought and many people are without food & facing a long hard year.  For most it is too late to plant maize. The growing season will be short & the yield low. The people that could plow after the rain are still facing devastating challenges, because if no rains follow, the seed will fry & not germinate. Prices will rise & the sick, the elderly, children & parents will sink deeper into the arms of malnutrition & hunger. Come, Rain, Come.

Yes, I did say over 24 hours & no power. For a family in America it would be a slight inconvenience. For us it means water has to be boiled to be drinkable (105 children – many with weakened immune systems), no ceiling fans in 100+ degree temperatures, antiretroviral meds not kept at stable temperatures, a weeks worth of meat thawing, and crying babies that can’t sleep from heat & total darkness.  “It ain’t easy….”

As the power intermittently came back, storm damage cleaned up, the phone call came. Out of the chaos of heat, storms & no power we got a new baby boy just about 24 hours old. Our 105th baby. That gives us 105 children 4 years old and younger.  One hundred and five little ones that have a place to be loved & call home, food when there are droughts, health care when sick, love & hugs when the lights are out from the storms.

Rocking on Sunday morning to the slow gentle African rhythms….

The journey continues…..


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