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Saturday, December 29, 2018

The truth about the “perfect” Christmas

I won’t speak for all mom’s, but I think I do speak for the majority when I say that we want Christmas with our family to be “perfect”.  We work tirelessly to find the perfect gifts, wrap them perfectly, decorate the house the way you always do, bake everyone’s favorite goodies, meal plan the favorite meals and then worry about what isn’t going to go right.  The sense of control is profound and important, because we want perfection.

This desire for perfection escalates when you only see your children once a year, and only once a year you are together as a family, and it’s for a short amount of time. I know that many of you know what I am talking about.

This year was no different for me in this area.  The HARDEST thing about being obedient and serving the Lord by moving to Africa is the impact that it has had on Spencer and Chloe.  Spencer went off to University on his own as we packed all of our earthly belongings and moved a million miles away, and Chloe moved with us, only to move on to High School in Taiwan the following year as it was a better fit. 

That was 6.5 years ago, and they have navigated through life with their parents a phone call away, but not a hug away.  I have shed many tears over the things I have not been there in person to help with, and can hardly see the computer as I type these words.

Christmas is a most precious time for me, and for us all, and I always want it to be perfect, and perfect requires control. Well, we all know that we aren’t in control, God is.

When Chloe arrived she was missing a suitcase, which had all her clothes and most of her Christmas gifts, which she too had worked so hard to find just the perfect gifts for all of us. Not only did Ethiopian Airline lose her suitcase, but there were items stolen from the suitcase that did make it with her.  She gift wrapped a box that when opened on Christmas morning the recipient found the contents gone.  Can you imagine that? 

Spencer had a terrible journey home with 18 hours of delays, including TWO disembarking from two airplanes due to mechanical problems. It took him 52 hours to fly from Barcelona to eSwatini and we lost a day of family time.  And again, his baggage was opened and he was robbed. They even took things from the bottom of his suitcase, moving things around so that other Christmas gift items were broken. Yes, zip ties are a great idea, and they will use them next time, but seriously?? Should they have to do that?

We are told that Joburg airport has one of the highest theft rates in the world.  That was proven true when 100% of my family travelers were robbed this Christmas. Chloe’s bag never arrived, she borrowed clothes for the week and finally found it in Joburg on her way back out of the country on Dec 27th.  While we are thankful that it was found, it did not provide for the perfect Christmas (and resulted in dozens of expensive phone calls to Toronto, Ethiopia and South Africa).

Did I mention that it is always unbearably hot here at Christmas time (between 96F36C – 104F/40C) with full humidity, leaving us to sit sweating under the fans and putting ice packs around our necks? Oh, and did you know that with this type of humidity a pavlova (meringue) will not hold its shape because it’s too humid? Christmas dessert was a fail. But Ian cooked the turkey on the Green Egg outside because we simply couldn’t bear to put on the oven in the heat, and it was perfect, and delicious.

But with all of that said, our Christmas was perfect.  We were together, and we got to celebrate Jesus’ birth together, as a family, once again.  We enjoyed delicious food, that wasn’t always perfect.  We survived the heat, with very little complaint (except maybe from me J).  We loved seeing 170 children eat French toast and bacon until they couldn’t eat any more (Jonathan ate FOUR pieces and an unknown number of pieces of bacon!) and then we go to hand out a special Christmas gift to each of them and watch them all wait patiently and then squeal with delight (new pajamas).


We live in a broken and hurting world where thieves steal Christmas gifts from weary travelers, where mothers dump babies in pit latrines to die and where each of us have moments of doubt, fear, pride, resentment, jealousy, anger and we just can’t ever hit “perfection”.  But friends, I was reminded over and over this season that Jesus came to the earth and He is perfection, and He is all we need.  Afterall, the first Christmas wasn’t so perfect either though, was it? No room in the Inn?  Having a baby in a barn with no medical support?  No clean water, warm bed or pain killers?  But in the end, it was all worth it, and it really was perfect, it just wasn’t as Mary had planned it to be.

I am eternally grateful for this opportunity to serve “the least of these” in this tiny Kingdom, but I am even more grateful that Spencer and Chloe still come home at Christmas, knowing that their journey will be long and hard and that they might be robbed. They know that mom and dad aren’t perfect, and we all have our “stuff”, and yet they come. 

I have had a very teary Christmas season, some tears because I miss my children, some tears because I wonder if we made a huge mistake in moving here, some tears are from gratefulness, and some tears because I see a deathly ill child (Isabelle) smile when eating pudding for the first time.

Thank you all for reading this very long blog, and for being on this journey with me in 2018.  I will continue to write in 2019 and hope that you will continue to pray with us, love us and support us.

Many blessings to you and your family, broken and all.  Let none of us strive for perfection in 2019, except in Him.

Live from eSwatini … I am thankful.


If you would like to make a year-end gift so that we can continue in 2019, please give here:

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Update on the burned girl

On September 8th I wrote about a baby who was horrifically burned when she was only 5-days-old and had not received treatment in the following EIGHT YEARS. You can read about her story here:

I also later reported that our friends at GMRF have agreed to take on her case and assist with reconstructive surgeries to rebuild her face, nose, ear and also the chunk of skull that is missing (you can see her heart beat through the skin on her head).

After much prayer and hours of discussion, our team decided that we should bring the girl to Project Canaan to acclimate her to “western living” before she goes to Boston to live with the Habelow family for 3-months during the first rounds of surgery.  She would need to learn to use a toilet that flushes (not an outhouse or toileting in the forest), to sleep in a bed (rather than a mat on the mud floor with her Grandmother and Great Grandmother, brother and sister), turn lights on and off (their home has no electricity) and live with other people who are not her own family.  We also wanted to get some weight on her so that she is prepared for extensive surgeries in the months ahead.  Her Grandmother told us that she is always complaining that she is hungry, but there was very little food at the homestead. She also doesn’t speak any English so we wanted to work on that as well.

But how do we do bring this disfigured child to our home when we have so many young children. 

So we made a plan.  We started telling the children about a girl who was badly burned and we started praying for her every night with the kids.  A week after that, we showed them photos of her disfigured face, put the photo up in the living room of the bigger kids and prayed again.  Several of the children were terrified, but most looked quizzically at what they were told was a child.  I was told during the week that several of the children asked why Nokuphiwa (No-koo-pee-wah) couldn’t come and live with them?

Some of the kids asked if she was in pain, and I explained that she had some pain (in fact she still has an open wound on her face that oozes all the time – EIGHT years of oozing), but mostly she was lonely because she had no friends. She only went to 1st grade and then the children were too mean to her so she didn’t go to school after that.

Last Sunday I told everyone at church that Nokuphiwa would be coming to stay with us for a few weeks. The girls squealed with delight.  The staff looked uncertain.

On Monday, I drove for three hours with a Supervisor and social workers to pick up Nokuphiwa.  The roads were very (VERY) bad and it made the journey slow and treacherous.  She has always lived with her Grandmother. Her father is in prison for murder and her mother works in another part of the country.  There is no way to actually get to the house where Nokuphiwa lives by car during the rainy season, and so she and her Grandmother left the stick and mud house at 5:30AM and walked for two hours to meet us on the side of the road.  We found them in the shade under a tree, trying to stay cool on a day that was 104F/40C. 

The Grandmother shook Nokuphiwa's hand to say goodbye, there were no hugs, no tears, just goodbye and off we went on another three-hour drive home.  When we got to Emseni 3 where the big girls live, we had six girls come in at a time to meet her. We also had chocolate for Nokuphiwa to give each child as a “hello” gift.  The girls were wonderful, all except for a few who completely freaked out and screamed and ran out of the room.  By nightfall, everyone was okay with their new friend.  Interestingly, the older boys did not fare so well, and didn’t want to go anywhere near her. One boy actually threw up when he saw her. When the Supervisor asked Nokuphiwa if that made her sad, she said, "No, it's okay, I have lots of new girl friends now."  She was so happy!

As mentioned, it was a very hot day so we put the sprinklers on and gave her a bathing suit.  Within minutes the girls were all running in and out of the sprinkler with Nokuphiwa as the leader of the pack. 

This little girl has a long road ahead, and I don’t know where that road will lead, but I do know that God has a very special plan for her life and I am humbled that He has entrusted us to be a small part of her story.  Nokuphiwa will go to the US in early 2019 with a guardian from Project Canaan.  I will keep you updated as the story continues.

Would you consider making a year end gift to help us continue this work in 2019?

Merry Christmas everyone.

Live from eSwatini … praying for our 2-year-old Morris who was admitted in the hospital last night.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Is it time?

This is Rejoice!  What a great Christmas name she has?

I have been thinking about what to write in today’s blog for about two hours.  That is unusual for me because I can usually sit down and write a story in about 20 minutes, get it posted and be on my way.  But not today.

I feel that I don’t really have anything else to say that hasn’t been said already.  And I wonder if it’s time to stop writing this weekly blog.  I am not depressed or sad or anything, I just wonder if it is time? I have written 361 blogs that have been read 663,871 times in the past 7.5 years.

You, the reader, have read many times about babies dumped in pit latrines, burned babies, HIV/AIDS, and the dreaded Tuberculosis. You have read about drought, weather patterns, the joys, sorrows and frustrations of living in Africa.  You have read personal things about our family and personal things about others, masked by a change of name and a blocked out face.

How much more of this could you possibly want to read?  How much more sadness and sorrow do you want to experience from a million miles away?  How many more babies stories do you need to read before you stop reading or start to get involved and help?

As we approach Christmas I see the season through a totally different lens than I used to.  In my marketing days I would be out buying shopping for hundreds of gifts for clients, staff, neighbors, friends and family. I would be planning a fun and crazy staff party followed by a more formal party at our house.  Christmas day would be filled with food, family, presents and a table surrounded by family and friends.

This year’s Christmas shopping comprised of going to another country (South Africa) to buy vaccines that are not available in eSwatini (MMR, Tetanus, Chicken Pox and Hepatitis A - it turns out that Hepatitis A will not be available here until 2020!).  We bought probiotics, Children’s liquid iron and special diaper cream.  We also bought sour cream and bacon, which are almost never available in eSwatini during the month of December (random right?).  We shopped for pajamas for our small babies and glow sticks for our big children for a Christmas party, and snuck in a meal at McDonald’s since we don’t have one in the country we live in.

Bottom line – I wouldn’t want it any other way.  I am thankful for the journey that the Lord has us on, and wouldn’t want to change a thing, other than seeing Chloe and Spencer more often, but God has a plan for their lives too, and I am grateful for that knowledge and affirmation.

This is King - a child of the King of Kings.  Just had to add a photo of his sweetness.
Today Chloe arrives from Canada for Christmas and we can’t wait to see her.  She just called from her layover in Ethiopia and will be home tonight.  Spencer arrives on December 22nd from Barcelona and my nest will be full again.  I am so proud of both of our children for not only surviving, but thriving in the unknown world of their parents moving to Africa (and becoming parents to 217 Swazi children).  The road has not been an easy one for them to travel, but they have done it with grace, dignity and love, and today, they are our biggest supporters.  I can’t thank them enough, because their love and support help me through the darkest days.

If you think I should continue with this weekly blog, please feel free to leave a note in the comments and tell me what you would like me to write about, or what you would like to know more about.

Live from eSwatini … welcome home Chloe!


Saturday, December 8, 2018

102F in December?

I grew up in Northern Ontario, Canada, where the temperature was often -30F (-34C) in the month of December.  We would have to shovel the snow to get to our car, brush the snow off the windows and then turn on the car with the heat on high to warm it up and help melt the ice on the windows so it could be scraped off, all before driving anywhere.

Now I live in the southern hemisphere and it is summer now. Yesterday it was 102F (39C) and I was thankful to have air conditioning in my truck and a reason to be in my truck for a couple of hours in the heat of the day.  That reason was to go to town and pick up a baby at the hospital who had been dumped in a pit latrine last week and spent a week on antibiotics to ensure her health and life. I was thankful for the coolness of my truck, and thankful for the baby’s life, but found myself shaking my head at how bizarre my life has turned out.

It’s not just the temperatures that have changed to the extreme, but also my very existence.  I was born to a 15-year-old teenage girl and was very much an unwanted baby to her family. But I was a very much wanted baby to my adoptive parents who were unable to conceive.  As hard as that must have been on my parents, the Lord directed me in to their family, and the trajectory of my life changed.

Ian and I are now guardians for 217 Swazi children, whose lives have been directed in to our family, and the trajectory of their lives has changed.  We have received three babies in the past ten days – two of the three were found in pit latrines, and lived. I am thankful that adoption was an option for my teenage mother back in 1963 and that I wasn’t left in an outhouse, or a snow bank for a stranger to find me (or not).

Baby Leana
Adoption is not an option in the Kindgom of eSwatini, so these 217 are our children and we are trying to raise them to the best of our abilities and means (with an incredible team of 80+ caregivers) so that they can be grow up to be the best that they can be.

With that in mind, we did what any parent would want to do - we bought two pop-up swimming pools for these extremely hot days and yesterday was their first day in the pools for the summer season! It brought me such happiness to see the joy in the children's faces and to watch them all just be silly kids.  Many of our big kids also started life in the bottom of a pit latrine (outdoor toilet), or were abandoned in the forest or the side of the road, but today is a new day for them and hope has been restored to 217 precious children.

This week I was stuck by a line in the familiar Christmas carol “Oh Holy night” this week.  One of the verses says, “In His name all oppression shall cease.” What a wonderful day that will be when all oppression shall cease, and we will see Him again.

Live from eSwatini … baby it’s hot outside.


PS - check out the drone video from my Moving Day blog here!  (Blog link here  

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

Yesterday Ian and I went to see the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which just opened at the theater in a town called Nelspruit, South Africa, a full month after it opened in the US.  I couldn’t wait to see the movie and so we made the trek to see it and do some shopping.

Queen has always been my favorite band, and I spent my younger years buying every album, singing every song, knowing every lyric.  Freddie Mercury was a “Rock-Idol” to me, and Brian May his genius side-kick. I recall taking my small (and very new/hip) cassette player to our local hockey arena in Matheson, Ontario and when our boys won the last game of the season I grabbed the microphone from the announcer and held it up to my cassette player and played “We are the Champions” as loud as I could get it, until they managed to get the microphone away from me J.

As I sat in the theater, I felt as though I was meeting one of my musical heroes in person, and I got to know him well as the story unfolded.  At one point, he tells his wife (the true love of his life) that he thinks he is bi-sexual.  It’s a turning point in the movie as she pulls away from him and he soars in to the rock-world stratosphere of drugs, sex and, of course, rock’n’roll. 

My tears started to fall shortly thereafter as Freddie’s loneliness and desire to be loved was revealed scene by scene to the audience.  He wanted a friend. He needed a friend. He needed to be loved. But friendship and love and acceptance were not easy for him because of his own insecurities. Isn’t that true for many of us?

So here is some irony that I saw yesterday, and I have been trying to figure it out in my head so that I could put it in words.

Queen was one of the bands that performed at “LIVE AID” in 1985, raising awareness and money to help the starving children of Africa.  Freddie knew that he had AIDS at that time and was uncertain of his ability to perform and sing well that day. But he was singing to help children in Africa.   At that time, pediatric AIDS was unknown in Africa, but starvation was rampant.

But there was a moment before Freddie went to Wembly Stadium for that performance that he went to visit his parents.   He introduced them to his friend Jim, they had a cup of tea and then I thought for sure he was going to tell them that he had AIDS. I started to sob. I couldn’t bear to see their response because I was certain of their judgement and disappointment. In 1985 AIDS was a death sentence with no hope in sight, and the stigma that surrounded it was suffocating.  He needed to be loved and he needed to be accepted. But in the end, he didn't tell them.

I couldn’t stop sobbing in the theater. What was wrong with me, I thought?  And then it hit me. Ian and I have 18 children (under the age of 8-years) who are HIV positive (untreated HIV turns in to AIDS). Some arrived with full blown AIDS, just like Freddie Mercury had when he died.  All of our HIV+ children are on life-saving medication that wasn’t around back in the 80’s.  But there is still no cure for them. And Ian and I are the ones who have to sit our childrne down and tell them they are HIV positive, not the other way around.

The Baylor Pediatric AIDS clinics in eSwatini have been our partners for many years on this journey, and they are helping us navigate through a fairly new phenomenon called “pediatric AIDS”.  New things are being learned, new drug cocktails tried, new treatment protocols implemented, all to try to keep our children alive and help them thrive.  We have been told that by the time our children are 8-years-old we need to tell them that they are HIV positive and explain some of what that means. By the age of ten, we have to tell them everything – how they got it, that there is no cure, that they must take their medication twice a day for the rest of their lives, how it is transmitted etc.

We have buried TWO children at Project Canaan that succumbed to and HIV related illness and it is an awful death. I have watched two of our children die in front of my eyes after our team tried for many months to “love them back to life”, but just love wasn’t enough for them.

But those two children, Solomon (17-months-old) and Megan (23-months-old), died with dignity, surrounded by people who loved them, respected them and would have done anything to keep them alive. They were buried on Project Canaan and I visit their graves from time to time to remind myself how precious life is.

The stigma that surrounded HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s is still around today.  We still live with that same stigma in Africa every day and NO ONE wants to talk about their HIV status.  NO ONE wants to share their pain, their suffering, their heartache and put the “HIV/AIDS” label on it.  

Daily we see our staff go off “sick” with an unknown illness, or worse, the dreaded Tuberculosis, which is called “AIDS best friend – and killer”. Some come back to work, some don’t, and we are simply notified of their death. 

December 1st WORLD AIDS Day. That is today, and that is what today’s blog is about.  Just after Ian and I married 27 years ago, Freddie Mercury died. He never did tell his family that he had AIDS nor did he share his sexuality with them. But he was and continues to be a legend, not defined by his illness or his sexuality, but rather by his talent and genius. 

We do not share with people which of our 18 children are HIV+, but it won’t be a secret for long at Project Canaan because they all get their medication twice a day at 7AM and 7PM, and they all go to town to the clinic once a month. What we will do, is show unconditional love and acceptance, and lead our children and community to a place of love and acceptance too.

Jesus said, “Love one another”, and that is what we are all trying to do.

Live from Nelspruit … love one another.