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Saturday, June 29, 2013

161 on the Project Canaan payroll yesterday – employment can bring hope to many

Payday is a great day at Project Canaan.  In Swaziland everyone gets paid once a month and it is on the last workday of the month.  Yesterday Ian prepared payroll for 161 people including farm workers, construction workers and baby home workers. 

In Swaziland it is estimated that each person who is employed is caring for 13 dependents at home.  The unemployment rate is somewhere around 70% causing 65% of all Swazi’s to depend on international food programs to get one meal per day.  Our philosophy is to provide as much employment as we can in order to give a “hand up” rather than a “hand out”. Of course children who have no one caring for them need more help, which is why we use the maize and sugar beans grown by our employees to provide 74,000 hot meals each month through our partner churches all over the country.  It is a beautiful circle that we love to see expanding each month.

Yesterday was a milestone for us because we had had the highest number of people on payroll in three years and if the 13/1 ratio is correct then 1,859 are being cared for through the employee at Project Canaan.

I have included some great photos of people on the farm, harvesting green beans, working in the Lusito Mechanics Shop (shout out to summer intern Danny Comeau from Cape Girardeau, MO), the construction team, the baby home and as of today, the Khutsala Artisans Shop.

I love living at Project Canaan and I love serving God here.  We see His hand each and every day in a mighty way and I am at a loss for words to give sufficient thanks.

Ben and Anthony preparing beans for market.
Stanley and the team harvesting green beans.
Stanley and Anthony do the farm payroll distribution.

Potatoes grown at Project Canaan.

Peter does the construction payroll distribution.
Denis and Danny at the Lusito Mechanics Shop.
Pinky making her first bracelet.

Khosi making beautiful braclets.

Denis helping make some special charms for our jewelry.

Live from Swaziland … employing people can bring home to many.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ian lead me down the garden path.

It’s Sunday morning and I just woke up in Johannesburg and checked my email and Facbook.  Thank you Penny Smucker for asking if I was okay?  Why?  Because she missed my blog yesterday.  What?  I forgot to blog?  How could that be?  It was all Ian’s fault … he lead me down the garden path.

For my friends out there you may be happy to know that Ian and I spent a fun day together just doing “stuff” in Johannesburg as we wait to pick up Jimmy Wilferth and the 2013 interns from the airport today.  We checked prices on furniture and blinds for the toddler home, we spend the whole morning at The Bead Shop, we had a nice lunch together and then spent time doing some other miscellaneous shopping that can’t be done in Swaziland. Then we had a date night at one of our favorite restaurants called Adega (Portugese restaurant specializing in seafood).  It was a wonderful day, and I forgot to blog.  It really wasn’t Ian’s fault at all, it was my “almost 50-year old brain” combined with a fun day that distracted me from my weekly intention.  Thanks for sticking with me.

Some of you (men) are wondering why Ian would spend the whole morning at The Bead Shop?  And for those of you who know me well you are wondering the same thing about me.  Let me tell you a bit about self-sustainable farming and jewelry making and how they go hand in hand.

One of the goals of Project Canaan is to become totally self-sustainable.  Specifically, that means growing the food/animals that we need to provide for those of us living on the farm and generating enough income from what we produce to be able to run the farm as well as care for the children living at the El Roi Baby Home.  It is a daunting task.  While we are proud to be able to create employment in a country where there is close to 70% unemployment and we love that we can produce good quality vegetables to sell in local markets and stores, it simply isn’t enough to generate significant income.  The harvests are never quite what we would hope they would be, new insect varieties continue to challenge the team to maximize productivity and weather is a variable that we can’t control. 

What does that have to do with The Bead Shop? 

As marketers Ian and I are always trying to think outside the box.  What can we “produce” on Project Canaan that can be sold within the country and/or exported to generate more income? That is where the Khutsala Artisans Shop comes in (and our Saturday morning at The Bead Shop).

Becky, Dana, Gwyn, Barbara, Mela and Eleasha
 At the beginning of June we had a wonderful team of volunteers from the US who are brilliant designers of jewelry and accessories. I had the privilege of working with some of them in Kenya a few years ago and now we found ourselves gathered together in Swaziland to create new designs for the women of Swaziland to produce and the people of the world to purchase.  We had a fun-filled, action packed week together and they created infinity scarves, handbags and every type of jewelry that could appeal to all ages and tastes.  It was amazing to see them at work as a team and use the gifts that the Lord has given them including knitting, crocheting, sewing and pure jewelry design.

Yesterday we spent Saturday morning at The Bead Shop in Johannesburg buying “ingredients” or “findings”, as they are called in the jewelry world, so that we can start teaching a special group of women in Swaziland how to make these beautiful things.   Not only will they be able to earn an income to provide for their families, but the Khutsala Artisans Shop will be able to help contribute to the overall sustainability of Project Canaan and the children at the El Roi Baby Home.  

Swazi coins make these bracelets very special
 While I am not a “beader” myself, I will admit to being more than overwhelmed in a store with 15,000 SKU’s all requiring reading glasses to see individually.  It was exciting to be able to pick up this order knowing that many people around the world will enjoy wearing their new jewelry designed in Swaziland while supporting the work at Project Canaan.  Thank you Jamie Klee for taking the lead on this project and having the spreadsheet and samples so perfectly prepared. I/we would not have survived Saturday morning without your incredible preparation.

You the reader may not be able to buy the cabbage produced on Project Canaan to help us, but you can buy our jewelry once it is being made and made available.

Litsemba Bracelet

I have included a couple of sneak-peak photos of some of the first pieces that we plan to produce.  We will let you know how and where you can buy them, but in the mean time, we will get busy producing them and preparing to help the entire project generate income.  Self-sustainability is a team effort and we are bringing in more people to join the team!

Infinity scarf made with traditional cloth from the country of Mali.
Never ending variety of earrings
Live from Johannesburg … it’s Sunday morning and I had a great day yesterday.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why would a father do that to a child?

My dad with Spencer and Chloe at the cottage at Watebeag Lake.

On Monday I had the privilege to attend an official event celebrating the International Day of the African Child.  The theme for this year is “Eliminating harmful social and cultural practices affecting children: Our collective responsibility”.  Prime Minister Dr. Barnabas Dlamini and Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku both gave outstanding speeches defending the rights of Swazi children and calling the nation to protect the children of the Kingdom, but it was the students themselves who spoke that took my breath away, and sucked all the air out of the room over and over again.

I write this blog in honor and memory of my father, Russell F. Willis who passed away on February 13, 2005.  He was a kind man and, while I was adopted by him and my mom as a baby, he loved and cared for me and protected me as a treasure given to him by God.  I wish all the children of the world could have a father like my father. 

This is another tough blog to write because what I heard on Monday was tough to hear.  I was hoping to get a copy of each speech given by each student so that I could post their words directly and not have to summarize them, but alas, that has not been possible so I will summarize what I heard a few of the children say about their fathers.

The issue of “Swazi culture” was spoken of in repetition. Each Swazi student reflected back on what Swazi culture used to be like before everything changed.  They spoke highly of polygamist marriages where a man only took another wife if he could provide for her and her children.  They spoke of growing up with many siblings from several mothers who all lived in harmony and shared the love of their father, shared his food, his property and his belongings. They spoke of love and marriage and the custom of a man seeking a woman’s hand in marriage and then giving a gift of “Lobola” (cows) to the woman’s father to thank him for taking such good care of his new bride and allowing her to remain a virgin.  They spoke of times when children may be orphaned, but the community would protect those vulnerable children against harm.

But then the culture started to change, fathers started to change and children became vulnerable.

I heard a young girl tell a story of being one of many children, from multiples wives that his father had taken, even though he had no job or money to care for any of them. She spoke of being hated by her siblings, by the other wives of her father and eventually hated by her father who spent his days drinking and abusing everyone around him.  This same young girl lashed out about fathers who have started having sex with their young daughters claiming that they are only doing it to prepare their daughter to be a good wife for her husband.  That same girl collapsed in tears behind the podium half way through her speech and had to be rescued and removed by a teacher and the head of the event.  She came back and finished the speech later, and it was heard in dead silence by the crowd who had gathered including the highest levels of government.

Prime Minister Dr. Barnabas Dlamini
I another young girl talked about her friend who was taken out of high school so that she could be married off to a man twice her fathers age. It is a practice called “Kwendzisa” and the girl said that having girl children has become good business.  It used to be that young men would court young women and the families would be involved in helping the young couple get established.  Now, fathers are selling their young girls for cattle so that they can increase their personal wealth with no regard for the girl’s safety or happiness.

Each student got up and spoke with such power and force that the room almost shook, but at the same time there was a deafening silence from the truth they spoke that made the room freeze.  These students spoke truth about THEIR culture to THEIR government officials and THEIR leaders and THEIR teachers and begged for help and protection.

I couldn't stay and listen any more.  I was confused, shocked, in pain and ashamed to be an adult sitting in that room.  But I was so very proud of the students who shared their own pain, grief and torment publically in order to have change made.

Just before I decided to leave there was a young man who got up and spoke about his parents dying and him being left alone to be cared for by his uncle.  He said his uncle beat him mercilessly on a daily basis often making him unable to walk.  One day his uncle came to him and said he was tired of beating him, so instead, he sodomized him.  There was a collective gasp in the room and all the air seemed to be taken away.  The boy went on to say that he was not able to sit on a chair for a week. The uncle came at him again the following week, but this time the boy fought back and then ran to the local officials to report this crime.  Rather than getting support from them, they beat him and rebuked him for reporting such a thing. They told him he was not being respectful of his uncle and that he should never say such things. Instead it should be “Tibi tendlu” or “swept under the mat”, “kept behind closed doors”, “don’t air your dirty laundry” or whatever expression one might use.

When the students had finished the leaders of the nation got up and hugged them and allowed the students to weep in their arms. It was a time of great emotion and I am thankful for their response to the words that had been spoken. I believe that change will come, not as fast as we want it to, but the children are speaking out and I, for one, am listening.  And now you are too.

Tomorrow is Fathers day and I weep for the children of Swaziland, but I also know that children all over the world are being abused, raped, enslaved, sold, mistreated, marginalized or even “just” ignored.  You might have had one or more of those things happen to you when you were a child.  You might be one who is doing those things to a child. But know this, El Roi, the “God who Sees” sees YOU.  He knows YOU and He sees all that happens.   

I am so thankful that my father was my protector and encourager.  I am so thankful to have married a man who loves our children and is their protector and encourager.  I am thankful that I am in a place to protect and encourage 33 children who have been brought to the El Roi Baby home and the children who will come after them.

Psalm 68:5 says that He is, “A Father to the fatherless, a defender of the widows, is God in His holy dwelling”.  For that I am thankful.

Live from Swaziland … Happy Fathers Day.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

June 16th is The International Day of the African Child

“The Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organisation of African Unity. It honors those who participated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 on that day. It also raises awareness of the continuing need for improvement of the education provided to African children.  In Soweto, South Africa, on June 16, 1976, about ten thousand black school children marched in a column more than half a mile long, protesting the poor quality of their education and demanding their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young students were shot, the most famous of which being Hector Peterson (see image). More than a hundred people were killed in the protests of the following two weeks, and more than a thousand were injured.”  (Source Wikepedia)

Today, I had the privilege of attending the beginning of The International Day of the African Child events being held in Swaziland.  There were 700+ children from eight different Children’s Homes who gathered together to celebrate education and life through song, stories, skits and dance.  Of course our children are still too young to be doing any performance, but I took the opportunity to share with the children in attendance about who El Roi (the God Who Sees) really is and how He has a plan for each of their lives.  It was also decided that I should bring Baby Deborah with me (affectionately known as Baby Debs) to show a real live example of how God really does see things that people may not want seen.

If you have not read Deborah’s story please go to so that you know who she is.  Needless to say, she “performed” beautifully while sitting on my lap, and just smiled at the audience as they gasped at the horror of her story.  Sadly, each and every child sitting in that room has a story equally horrific to Deborah’s, but there we were, gathered together to celebrate the African child and all of the tragic stories that come with them.  In spite of it all, there was joy in the room and the presence of God was with us.

The problems on this continent are vast and complicated.  Poverty affects the issue of hunger.  Hunger drives people to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do morally and sexually.  Poor moral and sexual choices bring many layers of health issues and death. Death creates orphans and vulnerable children who are living in poverty and hungry. And the circle begins again.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  So many African children have no chance at an education at all (let alone a GOOD education) so they are forced to turn to other weapons that will kill and destroy - weapons like “hopelessness”. 

As I watched the older children perform today I was thankful for all the people who have supported the other Children’s Homes in Swaziland and on the continent of Africa.  Without international support these homes would not exist and these children would not be breaking the cycle of poverty.

I also became overwhelmed with gratitude to the women from the US Bank who raised the funds to build the Sisekelo Preschool and who are committed to educating children in Swaziland and in Kenya. They understand the importance of education and how it can change the future of a nation, a continent and our Global Village.  They have busy lives and serve in high-level jobs, but they are 100% committed to hosting golf tournaments, selling jewelry or hosting dinner parties to raise awareness and the funds needed to make a difference.  I am grateful to Pam Joseph, Beth Blaisdell and the amazing women at WLA. Thank you friends.

I am a huge Michael Jackson fan and I was listening to his song “Man in the Mirror” the other day. I love the line that says, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”  RIP Michael, but may those words of truth live on.  Today I will look in the mirror and make another change, and tomorrow I hope to do the same.  What about you?

As those of us living in Africa count down the next seven days to week to June 16th to the celebration of The International Day of the African Child, I hope that you will be thinking about these children too.  It may not typically be a day that is celebrated where you live, but it could be this year.

Live from Swaziland … heading to the mirror.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

“I think that woman is carrying a dead baby.” Ian said.

“I think that woman is carrying a dead baby.”  Ian said, as he drove across the narrow bridge near Gebeni. 

Stop the car!

One year ago today our family landed in South Africa and prepared to drive to Swaziland where we would move in to our new home.  It was a long awaited move for me because I wanted to move in 2003 when my feet first hit African soil.  But God’s timing is always better than my timing and June 1st, 2012 was the day when that dream became a reality.

It has been a difficult year, but also one of the best years of my life.   Today was just another “normal day” in Swaziland with highs and lows, but it seems to be indicative of the year we have lived.

Mela, Eleasha, Dana, Barbara, Gwyn and Becky.
We have a small team of amazing jewelry/accessory designers (volunteers) with us for a week working on the first “line” of accessories that will be made at the Khutsala Artisans Shop on Project Canaan.  We started the day by visiting a local family who is destitute.  There are 12 people living in the homestead and the husband/father died in 2001 leaving the young wife with 9 small children to care for.  The woman explained that she has no education and no skill to earn a living.  Her story was sad and her environment even more sad.  I asked if she made grass mats that we might purchase and she came back with 4 beautiful grass placemats that she had made. Clearly she DID have a skill and after we offered twice her asking price (smile) I also placed an order for 40 mats that could be sold to trip participants this summer.  Then Dana from WLA (Women Leaders in Action at the US Bank) also placed an order for an additional 40 and the woman squealed with delight!  Never had she had an order for so many – typically she only made a few at a time.  The day was off to a good start and we potentially had our first Khutsala Artisan employee.

We left excited about helping this family for the long term and were heading to an outdoor event called “Bushfire”. It is a 3-day festival of African music, culture, arts and artisans. We would shop, eat, get ideas and enjoy the afternoon before getting back to the design work.  Not long after leaving we drove down a steep road and then crossed a very narrow bridge. Ian was driving the big van filled with women while navigating a bad road when suddenly he said, “I think that woman is carrying a dead baby.”

What?  Stop the car!

I jumped out and ran back to find a woman walking up the steep hill, sobbing, carrying what looked like a dead baby.  I quickly asked her if the baby was dead and she shook her head and said “no”.  I then saw that her faced was swollen and covered in bruises.  The baby’s head had a big bump and was bruised as well.  I tried to get a man who walked right by her to stop and help interpret for me, but he was not interested in assisting in any way.

Through tears and heavy sobbing she told me that her husband had beat her whole body and that she was trying to get to the police. She had been walking for two hours (with many vehicles and people passing her, I might add) when we found her. The baby was alive, but both had been severely traumatized.  We got her in the van and our amazing team prayed with her immediately for healing, protection, peace, joy and anything else they could think of.  Twenty minutes later we had her at the police station to report the beating and then the police would take her straight to the hospital to have both mother and baby cared for. We will go and check on her tomorrow.

A shaken up group of women arrived at our destination (Bushfire Festival) and it was almost noon, but they pulled it together and forged ahead as planned.  We had a wonderful couple of hours meeting other Swazi artisans and getting more ideas for our own designs.  On the way back we stopped to pick up groceries for Becky Fern to whip up a delicious meal, while the other ladies got back to their design work.

As we were heading home I got a call from Nomsa at the TB hospital.  Baby Rahab’s (who is in a different hospital suffering with pneumonia, malnutrition and severe dehydration) mother (who is at the TB hospital) had taken a bad turn in the night.  She went through a series of seizures and then suffered a stroke.  She appears to be paralyzed on her left side and Nomsa asked us all to pray because she didn’t think this young woman (23 years) would live through tonight.  Becky, Eleasha and I will go in the morning to spend time with Nomsa and continue encouraging her. We sincerely hope that Baby Rahab’s mother is still alive.

So after dropping the volunteer team off at their rooms, Ian and I headed back to the farm, put the chickens away, let the dogs out, put on some music, threw in a load of laundry and then I sat down to write this blog and Ian went to work on a spreadsheet in his office. 

It has been a year (day) of highs and lows, but through each and every situation we feel the hand of God on our shoulders and His spirit around us.  Ian often says with a touch of sarcasm, “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.” 

It is not easy, but there is nowhere else in the world that I would rather be that in His will, and I am thankful that His plan has brought me here.  Thanks for joining us on this journey.  I pray that you have been blessed.

Live from Swaziland … it’s Saturday evening (sorry for the late post!).