Don’t know what you got til it’s gone.

Some of my favourite ‘work memories’ are from my first job. I was 19 years old and had just graduated from college. I joined the college, working in the Community Relations Department. We were a close team of about seven people and what stands out for me was how much we laughed together. We even socialised together and often talked about vacationing together. One of my colleagues often told me ‘You’ll never find a team like this again’. Of course, I didn’t believe him – I was 19 and thought ‘it’s always going to be this way’. Of course it wasn’t.

My point is, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

Joseph Wachira, a keeper at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, says goodbye to Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros. Sudan died in 2018. Two females of the subspecies remain.
Ami Vitale followed Sudan’s story and captured this moment shortly before his death. Read her story from NatGeo.

In 2018 I read a news story about the death of Sudan, the last known male of his species – the Northern White Rhino. By that time I’d been on safari quite often, having lived in Swaziland for a year and travelling in South Africa and Sri Lanka. I had seen Rhino on several occasions, including during an early evening game drive where they were grazing away right beside our vehicle. They couldn’t see us clearly in the fading light, and we remained absolutely silent as they slowly munched their way along. With their poor eyesight we were probably just a big dark shape that smelled a bit funny; we were stopped on a dirt road in Kruger National Park.

To raise money for preserving the Rhino, Sudan joined Tinder – he was called the most eligible bachelor in the world!

Read about it

Reading about Sudan, I remember wondering whether the Rhino I’d seen were Northern White, or Black, or some other subspecies. I had no idea. To be truthful I wasn’t that excited about Rhino – compared to elephants or giraffes, I just didn’t find them terribly interesting. But reading about the end of a species made me terribly sad, and the photo of Sudan with his keeper brought on tears. (Cue the shoulder-shaking, nose-running type of tears). I felt guilty for not appreciating something that I could never get back. The photo was haunting.

“Today, we are witnessing the extinction of a species that had survived for millions of years but could not survive mankind.”

NatGeo photographer Ami Vitale on Instagram

Fast forward two years, and I’m ‘stuck’ in Kenya due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. I say ‘stuck’ almost facetiously because, although I can’t continue with my immediate plans to move to Switzerland, I’m riding out the pandemic at a safari lodge and wildlife conservancy. Pinch me. My breakfast table often offers views of four or five species of animals – Giraffe, Zebra, Buffalo, Warthog, Impala…. A few times a week I’m able to head out for a game drive and search for the lion and leopard, and check on which species are having babies. (So far I’ve seen a Wildebeest and an Impala just moments after they were born!).

Zebra at Chui Lodge
A Zebra wanders across my view while I’m having breakfast. Lockdown life at Chui Lodge.

Since we can still travel within Kenya, I recently visited Ol Pejeta. At first I didn’t recognize the name of the sanctuary right away, but the more we talked about it I remembered Sudan. Ol Pejeta is his final resting place, and where his two descendants, now the last of their species, are still living. Scientists still have hope that they can restore the species through IVF.

Safari guide and photographer Geoff Mayes made it possible for me to meet the two remaining descendants of Sudan. He got down on the ground for a close-up shot. Amazing! Watch a video of our encounter on his Instagram.

I can only describe the experience of meeting the two remaining Northern White Rhino as enchanting. What a tremendous privilege to meet the rangers who diligently protect them and care for them; they literally risk their lives defending the Rhino against poachers. As they wandered around our car, I reached out to touch their horns – knowing that what I held in my hand was considered by some people to be worth killing for; the main reason these animals have been wiped out.

This time I was seeing Rhino with new appreciation, and I marvelled at their slow movement – graceful for such a large animal. Their ears flicked back and forth, gathering information that their eyes couldn’t capture. They are short-sighted but there is an intelligence in those eyes. They were quite playful, having become accustomed to being around their keepers and the rangers, and reaching out for the carrots offered to draw them near for our observation. What a special moment!

An unforgettable moment.

So here I am. More than 30 years after my first work experience, again learning the lesson of valuing what each season in life has to offer; remembering that ‘now’ might be fleeting and I need to savour the sweetness it offers. The time I spent with those Rhino is sticking with me – I keep returning to those memories and the precious photos I have. I feel like I’ve touched the damage we leave on this world. We’ve taken one of the largest, strongest mammals and turned it into something weak and threatened. Shame on us.

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot. (Joni Mitchell)


Remembering Sinjar

Five years ago, 03 August 2014, I posted a photo on my Facebook page of a cute little frog that I saw in Swaziland. He was pale grey and quite small. I thought he looked like a piece of gum. I called him Wrigley.

Five years ago, 03 August 2014, some people whom I consider to be dear friends were running for their lives. Literally. A word often used is ‘fleeing’. I’ve never ‘fled’ anywhere. I’ve never had to.

Today all Yezidis are remembering what they were doing; who they lost; who is still missing; and what has changed forever. I’m remembering too – in my small way – and sharing some photos of my times in Sinjar. I hope this honours all of the people who trusted me with their stories, who welcomed me into their homes, whose lives will never be quite what they dreamed they would be.

This was one of the first photographs I took in Iraq. My first visit to a refugee camp was Sharya, which at the time housed nearly 18,000 Yazidis from Sinjar. I saw strength in her. I would see the same in all of the Yazidi women I met.

Dr Omar worked in the clinic in Sharya Camp. He had been a physician in Sinjar for many years, and some of the people in the camp had been his patients. In the days leading up to ‘the crisis’ as it is called, Dr Omar had the chance to bring his immediate family out of Sinjar, to Duhok. They stayed in Duhok for only a few hours before returning; risking their lives in the process.

“Yes if we would stay, we would be alive,” he told me. “But without all of our family, what would be the benefit?”

Khalid was one of the first employees of the Iraq programme during the initial emergency response. It was not part of his career plan. After decades of saving and working, Khalid and his brothers had just finished building a family house in their village. One day Khalid’s mother showed me photos on her phone; the beautiful tiled floor with a stunning design. The curved staircase. The bright yellow exterior. All of the rooms where her grandchildren would grow up, and where she and her husband would live. As she swiped through the pictures, she came to the most recent one; the house is destroyed; the yellow concrete walls crumbling. It’s been looted and vandalized. Five years on, Khalid’s family is scattered and he is still working in humanitarian aid. Where they once dreamed of raising children together, he and his brothers now connect through Skype.

This young mother feared that her third child, due in a few months, would come before she could arrange travel to the hospital. Two women had died while being transported during their labour. The nearby hospital, in Sinjar City, was still not fully functioning After being bombed, and the fighting in Mosul was still going on. She and her family lived in an unfinished building with five other families. Her sons raised pigeons; maybe they dream of racing them one day.

While sitting outside a clinic in Khanasor one day in 2018, Shary approached me; showing me a photo gallery on her phone. During the crisis 76 of her family members were abducted. She told me that 41 were still missing. I would later learn that Shary and her two sisters had a popular salon in Khanasor. All of the women would come to have their hair and makeup done for special occasions. Before the crisis, Shary and her sisters were inseperable. Both of her sisters were taken on 03 August 2014; one was later returned.

Walking through the deserted streets of Sinjar City in August 2017 was eerie; knowing that terrorists walked these same paths; that every building represented interrupted dreams. That people I knew and cared for once shopped here on special trips to town. Even as a stranger this was so jarring for me; almost haunted. But as soon as we had permission to enter, my colleagues never hesitated to go to these places and provide whatever help that we could.

I met this man when our team checked in on his son who was being treated for malnutrition. This was at the start of the fighting in Mosul, and this man was a soldier; known as Peshmerga. Here he is serving me breakfast as I visited his family tent in Sharya Camp. He is home after working weeks on the front line. Pouring my tea.

As his family moved from one village to another, moving closer to the safety of Sinjar Mountain and receiving phone calls telling them what was happening in other areas, Elias sent a text to his fiance. He feared they wouldn’t live through the day. He worried for his Grandmother who refused to leave with them, concerned she would slow them down.

In 2018 Elias took me to his now-empty and looted family home. He touched the dead leaves on the olive trees and told me about the beautiful garden his mother planted.

“We never thought we would live anywhere else,” he told me as he showed me the room he once shared with his grandmother; his notes and textbooks from medical school still scattered about the room by vandals. “Now we are in separate countries.”

A few days after they fled, Elias’ brother snuck back into the village and carried their Grandmother to his waiting car. Elias and his fiance were married in 2018.

I once stood on Sinjar Mountain while a colleague told me his story. Shortly after the crisis he sent his wife and children out of the country for their safety. His wife didn’t want to leave; he cried as he told me how he was forced to scare her with terrible stories of what might happen to the children if they stayed. He sent them with a smuggler; using the Find My Phone app to track their movements across the Mediterranean Sea. After more than two years apart, during my time in Iraq, he was reunited with his family in their new home.

While I was in Iraq, the young son of a colleague was returned after being kidnapped and held by Isis. He could no longer remember how to speak Kurdish, his mother tongue.

A soft-spoken man often told of his love for his family and of being stuck outside of Sinjar as the crisis worsened. His wife, young son, and newborn baby were at home in their village. He told me of the challenges he faced making his way back to them; the roads were blocked and ISIS was advancing. He shared the story of battling the terrorists – determined to get to his family. Before I left Iraq I learned that he and his wife were expecting their third child.

Five years on, several thousand people are still living on Sinjar Mountain. In 2018 new mass graves were found in Sinjar, and in the past several months groups of women and children have been returning from captivity. ISIS has been recognized by the United Nations as the perpetrator of a genocide against the Yazidis in Iraq.

Boys should be boys.

It’s their eyes I notice first. Wary. And yearning. Older than they should be. Curious, cautious, and skeptical. Three boys, maybe brothers, at a pier on the Nile river, showed me what childhood looks like during a hunger crisis.

I joined some colleagues for a short Sunday drive to the Nile in Renk; a distraction from the six-day-a-week work of humanitarian aid. Down at the pier I was reminded that every aspect of life is in crisis here; this is life outside of the project sites that I generally visit.

Five cargo barges floated quietly, flying tattered flags for the World Food Programme. Their holds contained tones of food aid being brought to the next community. There is hunger in South Sudan.

Barges carrying food aid along the Nile in South Sudan, 21 July 2019.

We wandered around the nearly deserted dock area talking about what it was like in Renk in the past. There was a time when masses of people coming from the north travelled with all of their household goods; each chain of boats was four barges carrying personal possessions and one barge carrying people. During times of peace, commerce flowed freely and the pier area was clean and bustling, rather than filled with rusting boats and overgrown reeds as it is now.

Boats, abandoned when their owners fled, rust away while waiting for the return of peace and commerce.

Back to the boys.

I spotted the first one as he checked his fishing line. I asked my colleague to translate. The boy mumbled his replies in Arabic; barely glancing up and definitely not looking at me. No, he hadn’t caught anything yet today. Yes, he was catching fish to eat; not for selling in the market.

My encounter with these boys showed me the face of the food crisis in South Sudan.

As we wandered to the other end of the pier we saw two traps – quite inventive actually – with some seeds scattered beneath round nets that were propped up with sticks. Strings tied to the nets stretched about 10 metres to where two more boys hid behind a rock and waited for birds to land. Beside one of the traps lay a small sparrow – a decoy placed there to attract more of its kind.

Their trapping method reminded me of Canadian prairie kids trying to catch gophers.

As my colleagues and I stood talking and watching the Nile rush past, we heard whispering behind us. The boys were motioning for us to move. We were scaring the birds away.

I thought of kids back home in Western Canada making small nooses and placing them over gopher holes, ready to pull tight when one of the rodents poked his head out. This was done mostly for sport – sure, it was to rid a field of destructive pests – but something young boys did in their spare time to earn pocket money.

These boys don’t have spare time, I thought. This is not for sport or a hobby. This is for survival.

While we were there, two birds and one fish were added to their catch.
How many people are they providing for, I wondered.

I’ve been told that the first priority for people in South Sudan is food. Every day is a relentless rhythym – find something to eat; find a way to earn some small money; find a way to feed the children. Market prices in Renk have increased sharply – today, four small tomatoes cost 400 South Sudanese Pounds. Compare that to the 50 SSP ladies earn selling a cup of tea, and who must also pay for tea leaves, sugar, charcoal, kettles, cups, and a market stall. I’ve heard stories of mothers having to choose between working in the market to provide for the entire family, or taking the time to bring a sick child to be treated for malnutrition. Imagine having to make this decision.

He seemed like the eldest of the three; the most reluctant to smile.

As I watched the boys celebrate catching two small birds, I saw childhood spent under a tremendous amount of pressure. These boys know a desperation that my young friends catching gophers have never felt.

I made a short video of the boys and called them over to watch. For a moment their guard came down and they laughed, punching each other in the shoulder and pointing at the screen on my camera. Then it was over. The eldest one walked away without looking at me, and the other two followed. Back to work.

It’s nearly sunset. Dinner time. The boys have seven birds and one small fish.

Some days are hard. Don’t tell me to come home.

Someone drank my milk from the staff refrigerator, even though the carton had my initials on it.

The internet keeps cutting out and I’m trying to send an urgent email.

I just saw a photo of myself from a party where I thought I looked pretty cute, but in the picture I see that my hair is frizzy from the salty water and is weeks beyond ‘desperate need’ of a cut and colour.

I’m privileged to share stories of the commitment and compassion of my colleagues.

So in my mind I go home. No, not just daydreaming and imagining being at home, I picture every detail of pulling my backpack out from under my bed, packing the few clothes I have that are appropriate outside of the humanitarian field, throwing in some books and my toothbrush, and jumping on a plane. It’s an epic exit, complete with the settling of dust as I spin on my haughty heel.

Then the facts mess up my plan. I remember that I’m not allowed to drive so I’d need a ride to the airport, and I’ve already missed today’s flight to Nairobi. I’d hate to leave without saying goodbye to my roommate who is on leave, and there’s a party next week for some people I really like.

And I know that the problem isn’t the milk, or the internet, or my hair.

“You can’t quit on a bad day.”

– Me, to every colleague who has a bad day

The problem is the baby I met on Tuesday; so malnourished his skin hangs from his bones. Measles has caused open sores on and in his mouth so it is painful to suck on his momma’s tired breast.

I hesitated to take this photo. My colleague, a South Sudanese health professional, said ‘You need to show what it looks like when there is no vaccination for malnourished children.’

The problem is knowing that the young boys being examined by the doctor have measles. They live in the market. They’ll receive treatment, but then where will they go?

Three young homeless boys came to the hospital, feverish and showing a bumpy rash and sores in their mouths. They sat outside on the ground until someone showed them the doctor’s office.

It’s the mothers and their naked children sitting in the open hospital courtyard because the isolation tent for measles patients is way too crowded and hot. When these women and their children are discharged they’ll walk hours back to their homes.

This mother brought three of her children to be treated for measles. She sits with them all day and sleeps here with them at night. She worries about the children she left at home.

It’s the family who lost two boys in the same day because of a disease that can be prevented for about USD$1 per child.

It’s the smell of sickness, urine, dust, and hopelessness that I can’t get out of my clothes.

This woman lost two grandsons due to complications from measles. “Sometimes I forget; I wonder why I don’t hear them talking; why they’re not playing with me,” she said.

My friends, some days are hard. I don’t call you on those days because you’ll remind me what it’s like to be around people who share my memories and get my jokes. You’ll share your latest news, and tell me that the trees we planted last fall are getting new leaves. I’ll imagine the fresh, clean, spring days and the freedom of driving in the Canadian countryside; windows open and music blasting. I’ll see myself surrounded by people who have access to health care, food, and clean water; people who aren’t suffering.

I’m afraid that if I call you on a bad day you’ll tell me to come home.

I look at my hair and think ‘Ugh.’ But then I look at my face and know I’m where I belong.

You see, I know this will pass. I’ll remember that this is the life I prayed for. That when I started this work I knew God was opening doors I never even knocked on. I’ll remember how often I am in awe of the knowledge and commitment of my colleagues and how privileged I feel to serve beside people so dedicated to common goals.

Eventually I’ll come around to gratitude for this life and the work I get to do; the people I’m fortunate to meet.

Yes there is tremendous suffering. But there’s strength in knowing I’m a small part of a solution.

And mentally I’ll put away my toothbrush and my books. I’ll hang up my clothes and I’ll shove my backpack under my bed until my next field visit. I’ll probably put on some music, have a nap, watch a movie or ‘debrief’ with a colleague. Maybe I’ll have a cry or write a blog.

But I probably won’t call. Because if the timing isn’t just right and you tell me to come home, I’m afraid I would come. I’d pull off that dramatic departure and arrive on your doorstep demanding a haircut.

I’m afraid I would come, and I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

There are more good days than bad days, like when you celebrate that 180,000 children have yellow vaccination cards to show they are protected against measles.

We are the same, my sister.

Tap tap tap.  Giggle.

Tiny, dirty hands reach from behind me, touching the tattoo on my wrist as I try to keep up with our team walking through the Mangateen Camp.  As always I’m falling behind; swivelling my head and snapping photos at every turn. When I look to see where the tapping is coming from, the giggles become squeals and bare feet kick up puffs of dust as the children run away. I’m the only foreigner in sight today; let’s just say I stand out a bit and I understand being a bit of a curiosity.

This is my first field visit since joining the team in Juba, South Sudan; my third country assignment since starting work in humanitarian aid in 2016. Compared to the helicopter-flying, swamp-wading, canoe-paddling visits that I’ve heard are the norm here, the 15-minute drive from our main base barely qualifies as a ‘field visit’, but I jumped at the chance to join. Today we are holding focus group discussions to ask a community whether they would prefer receiving household items distributed at the camp, or to get a voucher for choosing the items in a market.

The group we are meeting were moved to this informal camp in August. Nearly 1,500 people were relocated when there was conflict between tribal groups at a large protection centre in the north of the country.  These new arrivals are now living in a dark, wide open, cavernous warehouse.

There will be two discussions today. A group of women will meet with my female colleague, and the male team members will talk to the men.  Fourteen women sit in the shade on plastic chairs, with a young man from the camp who translates between the Nuer language and English.

What strikes me first are the traditional tribal marks of the women.  Although I have read about the scarification ceremonies, these ladies are the first I’ve met bearing the patterned dots and lines on their faces. Generally quite tall with long limbs, there is an almost regal bearing about the women. I’m immediately torn between wanting to capture their beauty with photographs, and putting my camera away to just sit with them and learn where that dignity comes from.

As the conversation about the distribution unfolds, the women grow more at ease with us as strangers. My colleague, who is from South Sudan herself, leaves room for answers to be given in the form of short stories, as is the culture. I move around the circle, taking photos from different angles to capture how the group is interacting and being engaged in providing feedback.  Finally I get the courage to ask someone if I can take her picture individually.  I point to my camera and then back to her and say ‘Ok?’.  She nods and sets her face in a serious look.

By the time the official discussion is over I’ve taken dozens of portraits and shared some precious laughs with the ladies. I ask a few questions about life before the conflict. I’m told of being able to cultivate when the rains come. Of having so many fruit trees you could live off the forest. Of rivers filled with so many fish.

Suddenly a lady named Mary points to me. Through the translator she says she has a question for me. I feel nervous.  She extends her long arm and graceful hand; pointing directly at my chest.  Her eyes speak volumes. Grace. Hope. Confidence.

“You and I are the same, my sister. The difference is that you have education and I am in need.”

I feel a lump in my throat and the tears prickle behind my eyes.

“I trust you because you brought a woman to talk to us today. A woman cannot hear the troubles of another woman without doing something; doing what she can. Because of this I trust you.”

I nod my head; speechless.

This. I came for this. This privilege of being considered an equal by a woman who has the strength to have hope in South Sudan. Who has the strength to welcome yet another foreigner asking personal questions, despite so many strangers having asked about her needs and who, for some reason, were unable to help.

I came to learn – again – how we are all the same; even those of us who have tattoos or facial markings, or different ideas of beauty. Of family. Of love. I came for the push and pull in my heart; to confront my own understanding and to stretch the limits of my compassion.


Back at it…

A few years ago I took a stab at writing a blog and found it very therapeutic – helping me to process my experiences living in a foreign country. I didn’t write many, but now I read those entries and such clear memories come flooding back.

So, here I am in Nairobi, Kenya, preparing for a new phase of life in South Sudan. I’ve been in Iraq these past 27 months and I wish I’d kept a blog of those times.

But, before I turn the page, I wanted to save something that will remind me of my time in this complicated country and all the people I had the privilege to meet.

Click to view the video – just something simple made with Adobe Spark 🙂 

Ok, Mother Teresa. I get it now.

“May God so break my heart that the whole world falls in.” – Mother Teresa

Ok, Mother Teresa. I get it now.

Swaziland, I love you.

Breathtaking beauty of Swaziland's high veld.
Breathtaking beauty of Swaziland’s high veld.

Everywhere I look the view is breathtaking. Around every corner the scenery defies the stereotypical Africa. Rather than a dry, cracked earth, Swaziland is a thousand shades of green contrasted with iron-rich red soil. Gentle rolling hills fade into the distance until they are hazy and purple; massive boulders look like they fell out of God’s pocket; mystical orange sunsets almost bring me to tears.

Your people are your best asset. Their smiles, laughter and ready hugs steal the hearts of all who visit. Even world travelers find your spirit unique and inviting. Maybe it’s because first-world television and media aren’t common, but there’s an innocence here that’s been lost in western culture. Nobody is telling me how much to weigh or what to wear. There is a lot less noise, and more time for conversation and old-fashioned visiting.

Sharing stories during a homestead visit.
Sharing stories and songs during a visit.

I admit to being in a ‘bubble’; my time is almost entirely spent with people involved with the ministry. Overall, though, interactions are just more gentle than other places. All conversations start with ‘Unjani’ (‘How are you’), and even strangers call me ‘sisi’ (sister) or ‘make’ (mother). Drivers may be erratic but I haven’t experienced road rage – just respect the slow lane/fast lane, and know that the kombi (taxi/bus) drivers are going to speed and change lanes without checking.

Visiting a rural Gogo (grandmother) usually includes some singing. Her face lights up and it’s easy to picture her as a little girl; her sweet voice joining her mother or her sisters as they fetch water or gather wood. She grabs my hand and thanks me for coming; grateful that for today someone has remembered her. Another Gogo thanks us for our prayers over her painful feet and jumps up to dance where just moments before she could barely walk. She offers us a cup of Marula nuts that she has been shelling all morning – originally intended as a gift for the Queen Mother to be used in lotion for her skin. She apologizes that she can’t give us a chicken, but thugs have just robbed her homestead the night before.

And your children. Oh, your children.

Oh, your precious children.
Oh, your precious children.

Little ones quick to grab a hand or climb up onto a lap. Whose whole day is brightened by a sweetie or a silly dance. Who don’t care about the latest toy or fashion fad; who are proud to be Swazi. Life is simple in many ways and a future of marriage, children and family is likely to unfold on the same homestead where they are born. For now they are too young to know that their future may also include chronic poverty, endless unemployment and the unavoidable loss of loved ones to HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis.

Because, Swaziland, you break my heart.

Your people are dying. And they are hungry. Rural churches are burdened with communities in crisis, and it seems that every worldwide NGO is here to help. Renting tents and plastic chairs is a thriving business because funerals and night vigils take place every week across the country. A mysterious flu bug can kill dozens of children in just a week, and there is no vaccine, no antibiotic, no medical mobilization. The cause is chalked up to heavy rains which stir up the waste from cows wading in the river, combined with malnutrition and a weak immune system in the children.

I was sure the baby I held was six months or so. Turns out she was almost two years old but underdeveloped due to malnourishment and HIV.

Driving on the highway I see two ladies riding in the back of a bakkie (pick-up truck), huddled in blankets and sitting with a small coffin. Just a plain box holding a body which has likely not been embalmed and is on its way back to a homestead; possibly of a child who has never had a birth certificate.

One day in the southern area of the country we pulled off to the side of the road to check our tires. Almost immediately four small children ran to the car begging for food – patting their tummies and pleading with clouded, heavily lidded eyes. Our apples and peaches were snatched up by grimy hands; the fruit was quickly devoured. Down the road, from where the children had come, two men walked out of the stick-and-mud house and somehow we just knew those children would be beaten for eating the food without bringing it back first. From their sidelong glances, it seemed the children knew it too. My friend and I drove in silence for a long while.

Swaziland your women are hurting. I know that each one I meet has likely been raped; even those who are very young. I’m told that the primary school girls wear tights under their school uniforms not only to keep warm, but also to slow down the men who are trying to rape them. Witch doctors still prescribe intercourse with a virgin as a cure for HIV/AIDS. When a man dies, his wives and children can be tossed off the homestead with absolutely nothing. There is an estimated 70% unemployment, and many of those are women.

I love the faces of Swaziland, and the hearts that lie behind them.
I love the faces of Swaziland, and the hearts that lie behind them. I often joke that I couldn’t possibly keep up with a Swazi woman.

I marvel at the schoolchildren in their clean uniforms, polished shoes and crisp shirts. I see them at the river on Saturdays, washing clothes on the rocks. Much of the country lives without indoor plumbing or even a tap at the house, and landlords make the water available only at scheduled times. Parts of the nation are still waiting for electricity to reach their area. A Swazi friend, who is educated and employed, once asked me to explain how the washing machine got the clothes clean.

And still, there is hope. There is love and there is beauty. I know people who have been given a ‘turning point’ by being part of a ministry or NGO, and over time there will be more victories. Their magnificent stories of transformation and new beginnings can inspire even the most downtrodden, jaded heart.

Sometimes I feel like my heart is on the outside of my body.
Sometimes I feel like my heart is on the outside of my body.

Of course, the greatest hope comes from relying on God’s promises. I’ve heard it asked whether there are more miracles here. I’ve certainly experienced more of God’s presence and His power here than ever before. Perhaps it is because in Swaziland they don’t take their problems to the bank or the boss or the government. They take them to God, and they expect him to answer.

It is hard to explain how exquisitely painful it is to live with that tension. To know that, despite being uncomfortable, I am being used in a plan bigger than myself. Often I can’t explain or write about my experiences – I expect people to say “well, if it’s not perfect you should just come home”. But home isn’t perfect either, so for now I’ll live with the unease and keep my eyes on the One who brought me here.

So, yes, Mother Teresa, I get it. Yes, my heart is broken wide open – wide enough that this entire country
has fallen in. It’s not the whole world, but it is as much as I can take for now.

Whine and Jesus

Sometime last week, without my permission, my rose-coloured glasses slipped right off of my face.

How does that happen? How does something you love become annoying in the blink of an eye? (I think the married people just snorted.)

Stepping out in faith is kind of like crossing this bridge - thankfully I'm tethered to God and I've got my full gear on!
Stepping out in faith is kind of like crossing this bridge – thankfully I’m tethered to God and I’ve got my full gear on!

Suddenly petty little things became SO IMPORTANT. And IRRITATING. The quiet pace of life in Swaziland was holding me back. And where can I get a decent coffee? And, if I emailed it yesterday, why hasn’t anyone responded yet?

Ah, you see, the problem with leaving one life and starting somewhere else is this….wherever you go, there you are.

You – as in me. The one in the mirror who stopped counting blessings. The one who let the beauty become mundane and the joy become humdrum. The one who took her eyes off of God and focused instead on the things that weren’t perfect.

This is where the whine comes in – a sip here, a sip there and before you know it I was in full-on complaining mode. Getting intoxicated on the ‘did you hear’ and giddy on the ‘woe is me’. Gradually, just like turning up the heat on the frog in boiling water, my peace and my zeal for this adventure had cooled when I wasn’t paying attention. The subtle signs of discontent started to show until they culminated in a full celebration of ‘Meltdown Monday’.

You see, I never considered that I might fail at this escapade. That I might not have what it takes to work in a country that is truly hurting. Where I have no ability to solve the problems for people who die from poverty, and where I even though I know that my trivial problems and inconveniences don’t matter I still have the urge to let them splatter over someone else. I never even imagined that, less than three months into my one-year commitment I’d be sitting at my desk crying because I have no idea what to do, and my ‘career’ didn’t prepare me for this.

On my own, I don’t have the ability to be completely selfless. Even in the face of such poverty, I still cry “what about me?”

And that’s where Jesus comes in. Regardless of what I think should be done or why I think I’m here, it’s all up to Him. When I came here, I chose to be obedient and so, until He says otherwise, here I am, warts and all.

I’m starting to see that it has nothing to do with my work and everything to do with my heart. With learning to respond in love when the lady whose garden we planted neglects it for a week or so. With remembering that hurt people hurt people, and that I’ve been there, done that. With being humble enough, at age 48, to admit I don’t know how to cook a meal for 16 people. With getting my own needs out of the way when the ministry needs something of me. With learning that my value doesn’t have anything to do with my resume.

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” (James 1:2 NKJV)

So I’m putting a cork in my whine and dining on the power and guidance of Jesus. Thankfully there’s plenty to go around.


Life. Pure and Simple.

My pen ran out the other day. I can remember when I bought that pen, and can honestly say I used it from start to finish. How often does that happen? Usually my half-used pens are in a drawer, in my car, in the pocket of an un-used briefcase or left behind somewhere. And so often, I have no idea where I picked up the pen I’m using.

Here's how you fix a hole in the watering hose!
Here’s how you fix a hole in the watering hose!

But that’s how life works here in Swaziland. You have something, and you use it until it doesn’t work anymore. And then, where possible, you use it for something else. You don’t go buy a newer, shinier one just because you’re bored or there’s one that says ‘New and Improved’ on the package.

One day I decided to wash my shoes. I took out a brush, some ‘green bar’ soap (a true miracle product, really!) and put some warm water in a bucket. I sat on the ground, in the sun, and scrubbed out the grime. It was surprisingly gratifying. As I watched my dull Nike’s return to a bright white, I thought of all the shoes I had given away to charity over the years. I’m no shop-a-holic , but looking back I’m embarrassed to say that the only problem with some of them is that they were dirty.

car arrow
Looking back to where we started — this is the view from the garden. The arrow points to my car.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I loaded up a few of the Life Skills School students and we set off into the community. Our mission was to plant a garden for a lady living close to the farm (and by close I mean a 10-minute drive on hilly, rough roads and a 20-minute walk across the valley to her homestead).  When I had met the lady a few weeks before, she was telling Pastor Sipho (SEE-poe) about needing seedlings for her garden. At the time I had the impulse to drive to town and buy them, but I’m resisting the urge to just ‘throw money’ at any problem I hear about – I’ve heard too many stories of westerners, with all good intention, spending a fortune on projects without thinking of the long-term results. (Plus, I don’t have any money haha) As the days passed my mind kept returning to this lady and her bare garden. Pastor Sipho encouraged me to follow my heart and reassured me that planting a garden for her wouldn’t cause problems in the community or perpetuate any ‘dependency’ mindset.

She was so happy! This is one hard-working woman and the new garden can help her start a business.

So, armed with the students and 600 vegetable plants (cost of about 600 Emalegeni, or $60), off we went; excited to simply bless someone. I had no idea what she had in mind for her garden; but had  just picked up whatever I could find that might grow at the higher altitude in winter. Cabbage, beetroot, green pepper, onions, spinach, carrots.

As we planted, Lusito translated for me and we got to know a bit more about this lady and her family. She had been praying for the chance to start a business making Achar (picture kimchee or chutney – spicy and chunky and usually served with meat). Turns out the ‘random’ plants I’d purchased  were the exact ingredients for Achar. Trippy, right? For me, that’s the sign of living a life simple enough that the ‘still, small voice’ of God can speak to me when I’m buying plants. Sometimes he even lets me believe it’s my idea. I get goosebumps every time I think of it – it’s a ‘wheeeeeeeee!’ feeling knowing that God has used me for a small part of His plan, and I somehow paid attention long enough to be obedient .

My Nike’s and I are partners now. We’re in this for the long haul. Not only would replacement shoes be difficult to find here, I couldn’t afford them if I did. They have to last until they just can’t walk another step, and I have to keep cleaning them. As for my pen, I’m back to the plain ol’ Bic, and I have just one.

With the home owners (far left and far right) and Life Skills School student Sandile (second from left)
With the home owners (far left and far right) and Life Skills School student Sandile (second from left)

And I’m content – with my hand-washed shoes and my  single pen. With where I am – where the fruit still tastes like sunshine, and with what I have – all of the necessities and a few of the comforts. I’m not trying to get anywhere or prove anything – I’m just here. Fully present and drinking deeply from each day and its offerings. And listening; waiting for the next time God speaks.