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….


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“Play in the yard and hug babies” – Chris Cheek

For many years in the hotel industry when I realized managers were starting to make things more complicated than they were or displaying actions that they were of “great importance” I would quickly remind them to keep it all in perspective – “remember we make beds & clean toilets.”  Yes, this was very much a simplification of the day-to-day work in running a hotel but it was important. We weren’t changing the world by finding a solution for world peace, finding a cure for a death gripping epidemic or leading a new direction for economic change that would impact our community, region, country or world.  Each and every day we welcomed our employees, said goodbye to our departing guest, made beds, cleaned toilets & then greeted the new arriving guests.  The bigger picture is much more complex because there were budgets, sales, operations, capital projects, and economic challenges. All that needed to be managed, but if you break it down – we made beds & cleaned toilets.

This week I realized I can apply this same wisdom to myself living at Project Canaan – “I play in the yard & hug babies.”  It is truly that simple.  Yes, there is a much larger picture. It is important & somewhere in there, even though I may not see the results, I pray that I am a tiny drop of water that will nourish & bear fruit in the lives & the future of these babies.

I arrived with great vision of being a servant leader & innovator – one to change lives & be the person that would truly impact the people of Project Canaan & Swaziland.  Talk about feelings of self-importance.  The only saving grace for me in this thought process was a lesson I learned years ago in the hotel industry.  When going into a new situation, take the time to listen, learn & plan before opening your mouth about how things should be done. This lesson served me well in business & it is one I’m so grateful that I learned.  Without this insight I would have been positioned for some very tough lessons if I had arrived & started trying to be an instrument of “how to do things” with my limited knowledge & understanding of life & culture in Swaziland.  So even though the thoughts were in my mind – the wisdom to keep them there prevailed.

Each week for me has been filled with lessons, insights & growth. The greatest lessons have been about service & compassion.  I came here with a heart filled with compassion to serve. It has taken me almost six months to realize that compassion from the heart is not enough. Compassion that is going to sustain has to come from a much deeper place. It must be “compassion from my gut.”  I know “from my gut” doesn’t have the beautiful images that from “my heart” portrays.  Throughout the Gospels you will read of Jesus being moved with compassion. If you were to read it in Greek the word used is splagchnizomai, which means from his inner most being – his guts. I did not get it until now. To be away from family & friends, limited internet, comfort foods & living in the bush with 92 abandoned babies, you have to find strength & compassion from the depths of your being or burnout will soon win over.

This past week has been one that through the world of a little two year old boy named Peter, who has stolen my heart, I learned about being moved with compassion & why I’m so grateful to be serving here. Serving by living a simple life of “playing in the yard & hugging babies.”

Last Sunday began as a typical morning; toddlers up, the 1st journey to the bathroom, everyone dressed & then the magic words echoing down the hallway – “food is ready.”  “Food is ready” are the words each morning that give me the strength to face the day ahead. Not because of the nutrition, because there will be 33 hugs for me as the kids get to the kitchen.  The morning ritual as they see me is to run to me saying “Gogo, Gogo” wrap their arms around me, I bend down & give them a kiss, say good morning & then off to their seats they go. The ritual is the same each morning, it does not matter if we were all together in the sitting room before breakfast or I helped them get dressed, it is like they are seeing me for the first time of the new day.

All was well with the hugs on Sunday, but as the hugs were taking my attention, I did not realize there was a slight change in the breakfast routine.  It was a change that most would not even notice, unless you are a child like Peter, a child that needs a consistent routine & no change in that routine.  A slight change can throw his world into utter chaos within himself.

Each meal or snack time Peter walks into the kitchen & looks at the island in the center of the kitchen to see what food is in his blue bowl. In a room with 33 arriving toddlers, it is a look that most would never pick up on. In part I can tell by the twinkle in his eye & the slight curve in his smile when it is his favorite food.  There is an almost look of relief or comfort when he sees the lines of bowls filled with food. I sometimes wonder when Peter sees his blue bowl amongst the 32 white bowls if there is not some level of safety for him. Maybe all this time I have thought he was looking to see the food when in reality it may have been his blue bowl.

That morning the aunties were just a minute or two behind in filling the bowls when they called out “food is ready.”  As the kids entered the kitchen all the bowls were not filled & waiting for them. I’m hugging kids and I had not realized what was happening behind me nor that Peter’s bowl was the last to be filled. I did not notice Peter looking at the island when he came in, I only picked up on something being out of kilter when I saw him at the table with a look of panic across his face. I followed the track of his eyes to the island as the auntie was filling the last bowl, Peter’s blue bowl.

Breakfast was cereal & fruit and to truly understand why this is important, you need to understand how Swazi’s like their cereal. I like my cereal nice & crunchy with just a little milk. But here they eat their cereal after the milk has saturated it making soft & with the consistency of oatmeal. Preparing it for 33 toddlers the aunties use a huge stick pot, poor the cereal in add the milk & then stir it until all flakes are soft.

Because it was the last of the cereal when it came time to fill Peter’s bowl, it was taking longer to strain the cereal out of the milk & Peter was having to wait as all the other kids were beginning to eat. (We say our blessing before the bowls of food are handed out, so when the food is placed on the table each child begins to eat.)  In his world of needing consistency & routine each second must have felt like a lifetime to him.  All of this was happening within about a minute time frame. His panicked look across his face quickly moved internally to a forlorn cry that seemed to come from his soul. Then his meltdown happened.  Seeing the meltdown beginning, I was trying to get to him, but felt like I was moving in slow motion. I could see his hand going toward the bowl beside him & knew that if he got it before I got there it was going to be thrown across the table.

I didn’t make it in time, as he threw the bowl that he had picked up he screamed like a wounded animal. Just as I was getting to him one of the aunties was bring him his bowl of cereal. His bowl was ready just about a minute too late to prevent his meltdown.  He was weeping & crying as the auntie sat his bowl in front of him, he just pushed it away. I wrapped my arms around him & began very quietly singing his favorite song in his ear. As his weeping calmed to a cry I continued to sing. In a matter of minutes I felt the muscles in his body begin to relax & he let me begin to feed him.  I caught my breath & prayed that we were not backsliding. This was first meltdown I had seen in about 6 weeks.  There was a time when they occurred several times a day. This incident triggered an immediate concern for me. After months of working with him would this one incident take us back to where we had been only a few months ago?  As the next few days passed things seemed to be back to normal – then Wednesday morning dawned.

Breakfast was served, kids were eating and I heard a voice, “Gogo, I want more.”  I looked over at the table & Peter was holding his empty blue bowl up asking me for more oatmeal.  He had eaten all of his food, wanted more and for the first time of his two years & eight months of life, he was able to verbalize what he wanted. The impact of what had occurred almost stopped me in my tracks, but some how I found away to get my feet moving, got his bowl & got him more oatmeal.  When he finished, he held his no up, looked at me & said, “Gogo, all done.”   I went over gave him a big hug, he smiled from ear to ear & I could feel the tears building up inside me. I quickly put his bowl in the sink & slipped outside as the tears just streamed down my face.  He had moved from a child with anger & aggression so severe that in January he was attacking any child or adult within his grasp, throwing his bowl of food at almost every meal & meltdowns on a regular basis.  We even had a meeting early in the year to map out a strategy for him to ensure the safety of the other children.  I was watching him move from a bad moment & not able to communicate on Sunday to being able to ask for what he wanted & letting me know when he was finished, just three days later.

As the week moved on Peter was a typical two year old; laughing & playing, running through a water sprinkler, playing in the sandbox, seeing a full moon, watching the lion in Madagascar, wanting a toy another kid had & crying because he had to take a shower.  The things every two year old might be doing.

My career before moving to Swaziland was one of knowing & understanding something simple, “making beds & cleaning toilets.”  I came here with no knowledge or training to work with abandoned babies, children with special needs, healthcare issues of HIV/AIDS, TB or malnutrition. Living in a project out in the bush with 92 abandoned babies was not in my plans. Without a doubt it did not include living in a home with 33 toddlers in a third/developing country a world away from my family & friends. But somewhere deep in my soul, deeper than my heart was a flame of compassion sparking. It was this tiny flicker of light that was leading the way so that I could learn how important it can be to simply “play in the yard & hug babies.”  I came with ideas of being a catalyst that would impact lives, for making a difference. It has been that, but the change & difference has been within me.  I was moved with compassion for the people of Swaziland, especially the abandoned babies my first trip here. Then it came from my heart. Today the compassion comes from a much deeper place than my heart.

The journey isn’t completed in a day, a week or a few months. Each day brings new insights & wisdom. I’m so glad that I know about “making beds & cleaning toilets” so that I can “play in the yard & hug babies.”  It is the simple things that teach us the greatest lessons…to be moved with compassion, compassion deep within my gut.

The journey continues…..Gogo

The Blue Bowl

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