Thank you to CBC Edmonton for the chance to share my story. Saying ‘Yes’ didn’t seem so consequential at the time, but four countries later..,
Thank you to CBC Edmonton for the chance to share my story. Saying ‘Yes’ didn’t seem so consequential at the time, but four countries later..,
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The revelation hit me as I was white-knuckle driving on the M3 highway outside of Mbabane, Swaziland. It was my first day of driving on the left hand side of the road – and I had already gotten lost twice. Part of the M3, called the ‘Malagwane’, was once in the Guinness Book of World Records for the ‘Deadliest Highway’. It’s been twinned since then, but imagine the Autobahn, but with fewer rules.
What. Have. I. Done.
Then Meryl Streep’s voice came into my head: “I had a farm in Africa….”
HOOOOOOONK!!! The blare of a horn cut my daydream short – apparently I spent too long in the passing lane. Where I come from we actually wait until the entire vehicle is behind us before cutting back into the driving lane. I don’t speak Siswati, but I’m fairly sure the guy was wishing me a safe journey.
The circumference of the earth is 40,075 km. The distance between Edmonton, Canada and Mbabane, Swaziland is 15,805 km. I’m no math expert, but it seems to me that I can’t get much further from home without getting closer to home. Oh, and here they call it ‘maths’.
How can it be possible to go half-way around the earth and still feel at home? Nothing is the same! Traffic lights are called ‘robots’, garbage cans are ‘dustbins’, chips are ‘crisps’ and fries are ‘chips’. Product packaging, instead of English and French, is translated to Afrikaans and sometimes a Sanskrit language I’ve never seen before.
Everywhere I look, something is different. Even in the mirror. Those two stress-lines between my eyes were going away, and sometimes I catch myself smiling – just because. I live in Africa.
I’m soaking in the variety like a sponge in water. Most of all, I’m loving the simplicity of this life. I have four pairs of socks, four t-shirts and three pairs of jeans. I do two loads of laundry every week, and I hang it all out to dry in the sun. Sometimes I sit outside my back door and watch the light change on the mountains across the valley. I fall asleep to the sound of doves and crickets, and I wake to the voices of the Challenge Ministries Life Skills Bible School students who live in the building beside me. I don’t have a television and the only radio station I can pick up is in Siswati – I’m getting pretty good at some of the songs but I have no idea what I’m saying!
Sure, there are inconveniences. Wifi is rare, ice cream is expensive, and the only fast food joint is KFC. But fresh roasted corn-on-the-cob (okay, here it’s maize) is only E6 (about 60 cents CAD) and when you pull up to the open fire by the roadside, the guy will bring it right to your car. (It’s delicious – although I wonder why the kernels don’t pop!) They’ll do the same with grilled chicken! Picking up a few things on the way home means stopping at a fruit stand to buy avocados, mangoes, bananas – all fresh and at a cost of about E1 each (yep – that’s about 10 cents CAD).
“I live on a farm in Africa”…..and I have no idea what’s in store for me this year. I do know that I already love some of the people I’ve met, and I’ve been welcomed to a church that is committed to teaching and to living out a passionate faith like I’ve never seen before. And I know that when someone says “You’re already just like a Swazi”, I just about burst with happiness.
When the opportunity arose to spend a year in Swaziland, Africa, I didn’t think twice. After working on a fundraising project for a Swazi charity in 2013 and visiting the country three times, I was already enamoured with the nation and the culture. I knew I would be joining a remarkable team working to raise up a generation of leaders in one of the world’s poorest countries. The water is clean, the environment safe, and generally people speak English. It was a no-brainer. I was going.
Then came the leaving. Sorting through my entire house deciding what to sell, what to give away and what to store; putting useless tchotchkes into storage containers; opening up boxes that had been gathering dust since I moved in seven years ago – it was more an unending parade of decisions. I mean, what do you do with the stuff in your junk drawer?
Do you really want to open up a box in a year and find a collection of stray keys, paperclips and half-used rolls of tape?
The packing was interrupted only by the details: arranging health insurance, advising the bank, the post office and Revenue Canada, advertising my home for rent, getting an international drivers license and selling my car – the first time without a vehicle in over 25 years – and liquidating a few things online to raise extra cash. Every night I fell into bed exhausted only to dream that I’d finished packing that closet in the spare bedroom and waking up to find it still packed with random stuff. All of this took on a frenetic pace with less than four weeks passing between the day I booked my ticket and the day I was on the flight.
To someone who has been accused of ‘fierce independence’, asking for help was like exercising a muscle that has been atrophied with unused. But seeing friends, with busy lives of their own, set aside entire days to haul boxes to donation centres and wipe down cupboards felt like love in action. When I stared into the Tupperware drawer and failed to find a single matching lid and bowl, it seemed more serious than deciding whether or not to give up a kidney. “Take it all,” came my high squeaky voice, and into a box for charity it went; no questions asked. On the occasion that I let myself consider all of the hours that others had spent working to get me ready, I kind of felt like the Grinch when he realizes that the true meaning of Christmas is in the people and not in the gifts. (Narrator: And what happened then? Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!)
The final ten days were a blur. Goodbye lunches, extra-long hugs and, from time to time, silences when my heart said “I love you’s” through misty eyes. No “thank you” seemed enough, and “I’ll miss you” was impossible.
Then there were my pets. A 16-year-old curmudgeon of a cat, and a 2-year-old German Shepherd/Doberman cross. It felt like asking someone to take on my kids, and to love them the way that I did. Would they be okay with Maggie (canine kid) stealing from the laundry basket to bury socks in her crate? And woe to the one who tried to pet The PussyCat without her permission! But once again, friends stepped up to take on the critters and their quirks. I left it as long as I could before they went to their foster homes – maybe sending Maggie out to the ranch with her Halloween costume wasn’t the best idea. I don’t think either of us will live that down.
I was pretty much a wreck by the time I got on the plane; not at all convinced that my 110lbs of luggage was what I would need for a year in a climate that includes intense heat and cool rains, and pretty certain every piece of clothing I brought was unsuitable. As I began 30-hours of travel I was officially of ‘no fixed address’; suspended between ‘where I came from’ and ‘where I was going’. Somewhere over Nairobi, helped along by a cheesy romance movie, my heart broke wide open and I wept silently in row 48 of a dark aircraft at 38,000 ft.
Without a doubt, I know that this year in Africa is God’s will for my life, and of course adventures of this nature redefine ‘comfort zone’ and bring opportunities for personal transformation. The big surprise to me was that those things would begin well before I arrived in Swaziland.