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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sometimes things just don't go as we plan them to.

Christmas 2012
Sometimes I have pictures in my head.  I don’t know if I put them there or if God does, but I get an image of something that I believe is to come and with prayerful consideration work towards bringing that picture to reality.

A couple or examples would include: Grandma’s Cows in Kenya 2007, Litsemba 2010 in Swaziland and Christmas dinner on our patio last Tuesday at Project Canaan.  I will explain. 

In 2007 I had a picture in my head of a team of people from Canada and the US herding cows down a long winding road in Kenya and delivering them to a group of women living with HIV/AIDS in order to help them generate income and to feed their children and Grandchildren.  When that day came and I was walking with a switch in my hand I knew that the vision that had become a reality had come from God.

In 2009 I had a picture in my head of thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children gathering in a large stadium in Swaziland and as they gathered together. They sang praises to the King of Kings and reclaimed the Kingdom of Swaziland for the Kingdom of God.  The following year I stood in awe as streams of children arrived from all over the country of Swaziland for Litsemba 2010 and filled the Somhlolo National Stadium for a day of praise and worship.

In the fall of 2012 I had a picture in my head of all the people who are living at Project Canaan and all the babies from the El Roi baby home gathering together on our patio for Christmas dinner.  I had shipped the fold up tables from the US, we would use benches from the chapel and everyone would bring food from their own family tradition.  We would grow and slaughter our own Turkey and Guinea Fowl, Helen would make Chapatti bread from Kenya and Jamie would do some home cooking from “the south”.  The babies would sit in high chairs and together we would overlook the beauty of Project Canaan as the sun set over our shoulders.

Christmas day arrived and so did the 28 of the 30 people who live/work at Project Canaan along with the 22 babies who live at the El Roi baby home.  But the photo wasn’t quite as I had seen it in my head. 

A huge storm came up in the middle of the day so the patio was wet and wind blown.  A large tarp was hung at one end (the end where the beautiful sunset should have been seen) to keep some of the gale force winds away so that we could actually sit outside.  The storm took out the power for most of the day so the turkey never did finish cooking (good thing we cooked 4 small chickens early in the morning as “extra” meat in case the unknown turkey was not enough).  The Guinea Fowl that we slaughtered looked more like an ugly Cornish hen and there was absolutely no appetite appeal with it at all.  Of course Helen’s Chapatti arrived well made because her stovetop is gas, not electric. Jamie could only use oven or stovetop, but not both at once so the cornbread stuffing made it, but the gravy didn’t (first world problems?).   Of course with no turkey there was little need for gravy.  Mark and Austin Klee didn’t make it at all because they got some kind of African bug and were very sick at home. The next day I was told by Ian and two others, who will remain anonymous, that they really doubted the wisdom of my plan to have us all together, especially the 22 babies part.  But I had heard that with the cows and Litsemba as well (by many).

Christmas day was a comedy of errors in a way.  The day did not turn out at all like the picture in my head, but in many ways it was perfect, in every way that mattered.  Spencer was home from University. Chloe and Ian were here and healthy.  We were surrounded by friends and family from Canada, the US, Kenya, Ireland and Swaziland and we had 22 babies who reminded us of why we were all living in Swaziland. 

I am sure that Mary and Joseph looked back on the day that Jesus was born and shook their heads (maybe even laughed?) at the circumstances surrounding his birth.  A stable?  Really?  No room in the Inn?  No hot water for baby birthing?  No midwife?  Not an ideal situation, but truly the best day of their lives.

My cousin Kim feeding baby Esther
December 25th, 2012 will go down in my books as a great Christmas, not because of the gifts and food, but because of the people who we were with.  I am thankful for all who have supported our move to Swaziland and all who have supported each individual who has been called here to serve the Lord through the children of Swaziland.  I consider it a true gift to live here and call Swaziland “home”.  I am eternally thankful for having a beautiful family, a beautiful home and the best job in the whole world.

As we close out 2012 and look forward to what is in store for 2013 I encourage you to give thanks for the things around you that may not be as you had planned them, but are still good in His eyes.  That is the standard by which we should measure “good”, not ours.  His ways are not our ways, and His plans are not our plans. 

Happy New Year to you all and may the Lord bless you and keep you as you follow Him and seek His will for your life.

Live from Swaziland … I am off to put new TOMS Shoes on hundreds of children’s feet!


Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas celebration at Project Canaan

It’s the Saturday before Christmas and I know that you don’t have time to be sitting reading this blog so I will keep this one very short and sweet so that you can go back to your baking, wrapping and last minute preparations.

Christmas can be a very difficult time of year for many people. My cousin Kim and her three teenagers (Jeremy, Matthew and Joanna) are with us here in Swaziland celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, but they are missing Paul, husband to Kim and father to the kids.  Paul was diagnosed with a rapidly growing brain tumor in June of this year and passed away only 52 short days later.  This Christmas will be filled with grief and pain for the Bannon family, but it is through this pain that we are invited to draw closer to the baby Jesus, who then turned in to a man who died and rose again for each of us.

The Bannon family is not the only family who is hurting this Christmas.  Many people around the world are hungry, scared, grieving and in pain.  I encourage you to take a moment after you read this to stop and give thanks for all that you have been given by your heavenly Father.  Look around you and find the joy that He brings, even through sorrow and sadness.  Ask Him for His perfect peace that passes all understanding.

This Christmas I miss my dad who went to heaven in 2005.  I miss my mom who is in a nursing home in Canada.  But this is a new season in our lives and there is much to be thankful for, so I choose to focus on that.

Today we celebrated the true reason for the season with all of the people who work at Project Canaan.  We slaughtered two goats, harvested many vegetables to cook and packed special gift bags filled with sugar, salt, beans, rice and a blanket for each worker. We are even sending each person home with a live chicken to share with their families for Christmas!  All of the children from these families will receive a new pair of TOMS Shoes and will go home with a fully tummy.  Today is a great day at Project Canaan and just the thought of my new family brings me to tears.  I am so very thankful for all that the Lord has shown me this year and all the stretching and growing that has been required, even through the pain that growth brings. 

Thank you for reading this blog and for your support and encouragement to me and to my family.  I pray that you and your family, whomever that might be, will have a blessed Christmas and that you remember that JESUS is the reason for the season.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Live from Swaziland … it’s almost Christmas!

PS - you can still make a year end contribution to Heart for Africa and make a big difference in the life of the people of Swaziland.  or

Saturday, December 15, 2012

One Mother throws baby out of moving car, another Mother dying of TB gives away her twins

On Tuesday a little baby girl (approximately 4-weeks old) was found lying on the floor of an apartment building in Manzini.  On Wednesday an 18-year old mother decided to throw her baby out of the window of a moving vehicle rather than keep him.  On Thursday I was given a set of 3-week old twins out of the back of an ambulance on the side of the road (literally on the side of the road).  What is going on here!?

I will admit that when I started hearing stories of “baby dumping” a few years ago there was a part of me that just didn’t want to believe it.  The stories in the newspaper just couldn’t be true.  These must be very isolated incidents that are few and far between, and then sensationalized by the press.  But I also felt in my heart that the problem was bigger than anyone knew, and so we pressed on and built a home for the most vulnerable children in Swaziland – newborn babies.

By January 2012 the El Roi home for abandoned babies was ready to open. Walls painted, furniture built, cupboards stocked and staff hired and trained.  And then we waited and prayed.  On March 1st 2012 we received our first baby and his name is Joshua.  As of December 13th the El Roi baby home is home to 22 babies who have been dumped in pit latrines, left on the side of the road, in bus stops or somehow survived after multiple attempts by their mothers to abort them. 

On Thursday I was heading to town to take Chloe to the doctor. She came home from a few days beach vacation in Mozambique with friends and was very sick.  Based on the extreme headache, fever and intestinal issues we wondered if it might be malaria (we don’t have malaria where we are in Swaziland, but there is a nasty strain of it in Mozambique)?  Thankfully her tests came back negative and she is feeling better now.  But during our drive I got a call that there was a set of twins that needed to come to us and they were in the Social Welfare office in Manzini and were in a vehicle heading our way.  I told them I wasn’t at Project Canaan, but would come to them after Chloe’s appointment.

Nothing is simply in Swaziland so between almost running out of gas, a long wait at the clinic, car malfunction etc it was three hours before I was heading to the babies. By that time the Social Welfare folks were getting anxious and drove to meet us on the road.  We connected by cell phone and I pulled over on the side of the road and was met by an ambulance.  The ambulance had two small cots in the back, which were not strapped in.  There were a couple of dirty spare tires on the floor, which you had to step on to get to the cots.  On one of the cots was a very thin young woman with a mask over her mouth.  The woman was the mother of the babies and was dying from Tuberculosis.  Beside her lay the most beautiful twin baby girls I have ever seen.  I don’t know how the mother or babies were able to stay upright in the back of this vehicle with no straps or seats, but there they were. 

They say that Tuberculosis (TB) is HIV/AIDS “best friend”.  People who are HIV positive don’t die from that, they die from opportunistic infections that attack the body because the immune system has been damaged or reduced.  I have been told that 70% of the people of Swaziland have active or inactive Tuberculosis and it is highly infectious. 

The mother was 24 years old and this was her second set of twin girls (she also had a firstborn who was a boy).  She is HIV positive and not taking her Anti-retrovirals (ARV’s) for reasons I could not understand.  She had been living alone in her small mud room with the twins and had a home-based care worker trying to care for her.  The other children were all living with the families of the respective fathers of the babies, but the father of these twins was not interested in his paternal responsibilities.  The babies were at high risk of getting infected with Tuberculosis and the mother was losing the battle, mainly because of her advanced HIV status.
I have blurred this woman's face for privacy reasons.

The healthcare worker told me the story of the young woman and said they were taking her to hospital as a “hospice” measure because she was too sick to stay at home.  She had explained to the mother who I was and what the El Roi baby home was and that we would care for her children.  I could only see the mother’s eyes because of her TB mask, but they were so very sad.  I wanted to comfort her so put on a mask myself and climbed up into the ambulance (truck) and stepped over the spare tires to speak with her.  I told her that Jesus loves her and her babies and He sees her pain and fear.  I asked her what the girl’s names were and both names meant “beautiful twin”. 

The healthcare worker passed me a piece of string and told me to tie it on to the firstborn so we knew who was who. But the twins are SO identical that even the mother couldn’t tell them apart.  She said that the smaller one was the firstborn, but it took some intense looking at both babies with only diapers on before we made our best guess as to who was who? 

Traffic was starting to get busy and cars were honking at us so it was time to take the babies and leave.  Thankfully Chloe was with me and we picked up Bailey Klee  (while the car was malfunctioning) so I had two sets of hands to hold these precious children.  Not quite sure what I would have done without them??

I gave the mother a hug and held her babies for her to kiss and say goodbye before handing each one down to the girls.  Her eyes filled with tears as she saw them be passed along.  I hugged her again and encouraged her to take her ARV’s so that she may live.  She nodded and thanked me for taking good care of her children. 

James 1:27 in the bible says, “Religion that God our Father considers pure and faultless is this; to care for orphans and widows in distress and keep oneself from being polluted by the world.“  This scripture has never been so real to me as it was on Thursday, standing on the side of a busy road, taking twins from a dying mother. 

The El Roi baby home has monthly funding for these 22 babies, thanks to people like you who read this blog and want to be a part of the solution. I honestly don’t know what I am going to do when the next call comes in and I have to say “no”.  There are 400+ people who read this blog every week. If everyone gave something each month we wouldn’t have to turn any baby in distress away. 

Ian, Chloe and I are driving to South Africa this morning to pick up my firstborn from the airport in Johannesburg. I can’t wait to see Spencer and have him home for Christmas.  I can hardly fathom that he is 18-years old.  It seems like just yesterday that he was a little babe in arms.  I can’t imagine being so sick that I would ever give him away or so desperate that I would drop him in a filthy pit latrine.

As we prepare for this Christmas season let us all remember that the reason for the season is the birth of a baby.  That baby was and is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Live from Swaziland… I am excited to celebrate this season with my babies.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

How many Grandchildren am I feeding?

Back in October when our friends from the US Bank were visiting I blogged about visiting a family where there were five children living alone in our neighboring community.  The eldest child is 11-years old and the youngest is 3-years old.  The parents of these children were murdered in South Africa and now they are left to fend for themselves and raise each other.  We had visited the home and given them all new pairs of TOMS Shoes and some food, and then wondered what could really be done for this family.

The blog was read by a woman in the US, who then contacted me and asked how she could help this family.   She said that she and her husband were elderly and living off his disability pension, but that if she sent us money each month, could we provide food for the children?  We have seen this time and time again. The people who  seem to have the least, seem to give the most.  It never ceases to surprise and encourage me, and when it happens I try to think carefully about how I am supposed to respond.

How can we help?  That is often a difficult question to answer for many reasons.  Helping can cause many problems if not done with care and caution.  There are so many Orphan Headed Households in Swaziland that we must be careful to not put the children in further danger by providing them with food and supplies.  We need to be sure that the food won’t be stolen by other people and or misused.  There is also the issue of physically buying food to supply them, the time required to go to town, the cost of the vehicle to drive and the petrol to get to town and then to the community.  It is so often hard and costly to help.  But how could I say no this woman who was willing to give sacrificially to help these children who have nothing?

So we met as a team and discussed how we could best assist these orphaned children.  I love our team at Project Canaan.  They have such tender hearts for people who are hurting and Antony, Denis and Pastor Mike worked on a plan and a budget.  Then the conversations started with the community and the children’s Grandmother, who lives in a different homestead, but was willing to help. The children would often go to their Grandmothers house after school, but she rarely had any food so they would go home hungry. If only we could meet their basic food needs that could help a lot.

While it seemed that it took an inordinate amount of time and conversation to help this one family, our pastor back in Georgia, Andy Stanley, encourages the people in our church to “do for ONE, what you wish you could do for EVERYONE”.  It is easy to look at all the poverty and all the hungry children and say, “well, that’s only one family who would be helped, and it’s a lot of ongoing work and effort to help them”.  I met three families in five days who had five children in each home, under the age of 13-years and had no adult living with or near them.  But we decided to do for this ONE family what we wished we could do for them all.

After a month of discussions, planning and negotiations we arrived yesterday to deliver food to the Grandmother of the five children so that she could cook for them and provide a stable and healthy diet to these children in need.  We sat under the tree in her front yard and listened to this very old woman tell about her family, her dead children and the grandchildren who were left behind for her to care for.  I asked how many grandchildren she was feeding?  She looked at me with some surprise at the question, then her face looked puzzled and then she shrugged her shoulders.  I clarified my question and asked how many grandchildren were actually living with her at the homestead, and whom she cared for?  She smiled, then asked if she could call them all so that I could count them (since I seemed to be the only one interested in the answer). 

The children were called and they all filed out of the one room house they were standing in. There were fifteen children in all. The eldest was 11-years old and the youngest was 18-months old.  We suddenly realized how big this Grandmother’s problem was.  She had 15 little mouths to feed and had no food to give them.  When we pulled out this week’s food allotment (including cooking oil, salt, sugar, beans, cabbage, bread etc) she looked at us and said, “God has heard my prayers and sent help.  Thank you so very, very, very , very much for hearing the voice of God and bringing help to me through this food.”   I quickly told her the story of the woman in the US who was the one who was praying for the family and who had sent the money for the food. But this Grandmother assured us that it was her heavenly Father who had provided. There was no doubt in her mind that the God Who Sees (El Roi), saw her in her need, and answered her prayers through an elderly woman in the US who has little to give, but is giving so much.

Yesterday was a good day and I am proud to serve with amazing people who love the Lord and serve Him selflessly without ceasing each and every day.

Live from Swaziland … doing for ONE, what I wish I could do for EVERYONE.


PS – for those of you who care about my farm animal update – we got our first baby chick at the nest at our house this week!  It is wonderful seeing new life around us.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

WORLD AIDS DAY - and a baby who is infected

Today is WORLD AIDS DAY and it is surreal to me that I am sitting in my favorite yellow chair in Swaziland writing this blog.  I am not just in Swaziland, but I am in the epicenter of this disease that is wiping out families, communities and hope for this tiny Kingdom in southern Africa.  AIDS is not just affecting people in Swaziland, it is a pandemic of epic proportions that is affecting families in countries all over the world, including yours.

Today I want to make WORLD AIDS DAY personal for you and introduce you to a little baby boy named Caleb.  Caleb came to the El Roi baby home in April 2012.  His father brought him to us in a cardboard box and asked if we would take him because the father himself was dying of the disease. 

Caleb’s mother had already passed away (or was “late” as we say here in Swaziland) from this ravaging disease and the father, who refused his own treatment, was left caring for an 8-month-old boy who was wasting away before his very eyes.

Caleb arrived in very bad condition and Helen and the Aunties at El Roi got to work immediately.  First was a time of prayer over this baby so that he would live to be a walking testament to God’s faithfulness.  Next was a bath, and the discovery of open and oozing sores all over his body.  “Jesus help us,” Helen said as she tried to care for him without hurting him more. That was impossible based on the seriousness of his condition.

We were still living in Georgia when Caleb arrived and I remember wishing so desperately that I could be in Swaziland to help. Helen called a couple of times and was very concerned that Caleb was not going to make it. How could we have a little baby, one of our first ones, die in front of our eyes?

Caleb had been on ARV’s (Anti-retrovirals) since birth because the doctors knew that his mother was HIV positive.  It is not a “sure thing” that a baby will be born HIV positive if the mother is HIV positive, but the virus is passed on during childbirth and without proper care (and even sometimes with proper care) it cannot be avoided.  Caleb contracted HIV from his mother during birth and it will be with him for life. 

While his father tried to give Caleb his medicine at the exact times of day that they were required, he couldn’t provide the care (food, protein, diapers, cleanliness) that little Caleb needed to survive, and in a last chance attempt to save his life, the father brought him to us.

After going through a few weeks where Caleb’s future was unknown to us, he turned a corner.  It was truly a miracle.  It really is amazing what proper care, food, love and medicine can do for a person. 

Within a couple of months Caleb’s health improved greatly, but the scaring on his face did not look good and his eyes still showed shear terror.  Helen, Thabile and Gcabile continued to pray for and care for this little one without ceasing and he improved every single day.

Before I left for Taiwan in October this photo was taken by photographer Chris Savas – you can see that not only does Caleb look healthy, but the fear in his eyes is gone.  He has been emotionally healed and his physical condition has improved so much.
Photo by Chris Savas

Yesterday I stopped in for a visit at El Roi and Caleb was sitting in a highchair eating the equivalent of Cheerios here (we can’t get Cheerios in Swaziland).  He looked up and me and said, “MAMA!” and handed me one of his little cereal bites.  I am sure that he calls all of the Aunties “Mama”, but at that moment my heart absolutely melted, and I took the sticky piece of cereal and thoroughly enjoyed eating it.

We will never know what this little one endured before he came to us, but I can tell you that many others are suffering as he did right now as I write this blog.

Today is WORLD AIDS DAY.  Maybe some of you knew that and maybe some did not. But today, you can help someone in the world suffering from this terrible deadly disease that has wrapped its arms around the globe and is starting to give the world a squeeze.  There are 50,000 new HIV infections in the US each year.  If you think HIV/AIDS can’t infect or affect you where you live, you are wrong.

If you can help us help one more child today please do so by clicking here. This is the season of giving so please help us at the El Roi baby home so that we never have to turn another “Caleb” away.

Happy holidays.

Live from Swaziland … it really is WORLD AIDS DAY.