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

Share on Facebook

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…….


Share on Facebook

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…..


Share on Facebook

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….


Share on Facebook