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Saturday, July 27, 2019

When, how and where do you evacuate 239 children under the age of 8-years during a MONSTER fire?

I could probably sit and write a whole book about what happened last week on Project Canaan. But for today I will just write a blog and hope that it gets even half of the reads that Chloe’s “Guest blog” got last week with 5,000+ readers.

For months I had been telling people that the 10th Anniversary trip would be “EPIC!”.  I used the word over and over to a point of overuse.  But I knew in my heart it would be true. We had been planning it for a year. From the building of our very own amphitheatre that sits on the side of our man-made lake, to a live art performance by the children that would be life changing, to a super-charged Camp Canaan (complete with a petting zoo that included a monkey, baby piglets/goats/calves and one-day-old chicks), to the presence of the Deputy Prime Minister of the country who is a dear friend and supporter.
Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku.
I had not factored in 36-hours of raging fires that burned almost all of our farm, missing every building (except for the chapel which burned in front of my own eyes in only two minutes), and almost broke our family from physical and emotional exhaustion (not to mention heat and smoke inhalation).  And, as you know if you read Chloe’s blog, I ended up being admitted in the hospital with very high blood pressure (I was later released and am doing follow up medical check-ups – don’t worry, God isn’t finished with me yet).

Ian in the fields looking up at all the smoke and fires on the hills.
Let me try to quickly explain all the different fires that happened, and the locations will make more sense for people who have been to Project Canaan.   Please note that ALL the fires came from the initial one (let’s call it Fire #1) that was set up behind the Emseni buildings on the morning of the 10th Anniversary celebration, but I am going to number the eruptions to help you understand the chaos and flow. Here is what happened as best we can put it together:

Fire #1 – set behind our fire break up behind Emseni Campus (9AM Thursday, July 18th), it was monitored and managed by our staff.

Fire #2 – winds picked up and reignited the fire, which then jumped our fire breaks and burned towards the Long-term Volunteer Lodge, down to our house.  At our house the fire split with one part burning over Fire Mountain and the other part went around our house and on to Moringa Guest house Fires were beaten down and everyone went to bed. (5PM – 10PM July 18th).

This video shows the fire burning on around our house on Night #1 - it did not come in beyond our fencing.

Fire #3 – the winds picked up again and reignited the fire at Moringa Guest house and sent it racing down to the Harp’s house (2AM to 5:30AM on Friday July 19th) and when the fire was under control, those fighting that fire went back to bed, exhausted.

Electrical pole burning by Moringa Guest house.
Fire #4 – Around 11:30 AM on Friday, July 19th the winds picked up again and the fire reignited by the Harp’s house, racing down towards the baby home and Kibbutz.  Everyone on the farm was called in, the babies were evacuated to the toddler home, the Kibbutz children (who were all at home due to school break) were evacuated by the children’s home vehicle, and the farm itself was a raging wildfire. Kibbutz mothers arrived searching for their children, only to find them all missing, and they were distraught. Finally they found them all at the toddler home, safe and sound.

Fire #5 – this really is part of fire #4 as it jumped over the baby campus (or burned around it) and then went down in to the gully straight towards the schools, then on to Khutsala, burning the chapel down to the ground and then racing on all the way to the medical clinic at the front gate. (1PM – 3PM)

Fire #6 – the fire was now back up at the top of the property at the Long-term volunteer lodge, heading like a freight train towards the Emseni Campus where 147 children (ages 3-8) live. (2:45 – 5PM July 19th)  I’ll explain the evacuations below.

Fire #7 – this fire reignited from Fire #2 on the other side of Fire mountain and it raced down towards the Greenhouse, Pump houses, Layer barn and Dairy.  (4PM to 1AM on July 20th).

There are so many facets of these fires that I could write about, but for today, let’s go back to the title of this blog. At what point do you make the call to evacuate 239 children from 2-weeks-old to 8-years-old? That was at the forefront of my mind while fires were erupting in all directions around us. 

I distinctly remember being up at the Lodge and Ian telling us all that if the fire jumps the fire break there, it will head straight to Emseni. I told him that I needed him to tell me when we need to evacuate the children. We didn’t want to panic them, but I needed enough time to get them to safety.  He was the only one who could make that call.

Ten minutes later, without taking his eyes off the fire, Ian said, “The fire has jumped.  You need to evacuate the children at Emseni now”.

I called Bryan and asked him to quickly take all the 147 Emseni children on a quick walk down to the Dairy (1.5 mile walk) to see the cows. Then I sent David Bryant with the van to pick up the 3-year-olds who would be slower walking.

I drove down to the baby home and we evacuated the 50+ small babies (under age of 2-years) from the baby home over to the toddler home, for the second time that day, putting 90 children in that house.  Our nursing team removed all the children’s medical files and put them in a car. We moved diapers, wipes and formula to the toddler home, then commandeered all available vehicles to be ready to evacuate those babies if the fire pushed through Emseni down to the lower campus.

The plan was to take the 90+ babies/toddlers to the Kindergarten (the fires had already burned through there and were stopped by the 1.5 miles of “back burn” another team did from the main road) and the bigger kids would end up going to the Primary school to sleep.  Amber had all buildings unlocked and ready.

 This video shows the second baby home evacuation on Day #2.
I need to stop here and tell you how incredibly proud I am of our entire Project Canaan staff. EVERYONE who was able came to help, and no one panicked.  The volunteers who were there moved swiftly and worked tirelessly for hours and hours through smoke, fire, flames and on their feet, without complaint or panic.  My family (Ian, Spencer, Chloe, Jane and Andrew) ran miles and miles either putting out fires, delivering water to people beating the fires with tree branches or moving children from A to B.

The fires heading towards the children’s homes were subdued and around 5:30 PM and we decided to bring the Emseni kids back up from the dam.  One staff member from each and every home was stationed outside the home that night (they took shifts) to walk around and watch for embers reigniting during the night winds.  All was quiet at the Children’s Campuses and our children slept soundly.

By 6:30 PM our Ian and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in our bathroom/closet with Spencer and Chloe in a state of shock, emotionally and physically exhausted beyond any comprehension. God had protected us all, and He was with us, but wow, no words can describe what we all experienced that day.

Only 30 minutes later we were called to see if we had any gasoline for the water bowser that had run out of gas.  We did, so our kids got up again, drove the gas down to the farm and came back home. An hour later Ian got a call about another fire (#7) that was heading from behind Fire Mountain down towards the farm. We couldn’t move. We were done.  So, the team continued without us and Tim Lambert and Matt Marschall came from the Nkonyeni to help the guys flood the fields with the water irrigation lines.  We are thankful for their help.  Those fires were stopped around 1AM on July 20th.

The next day, Saturday, July 20th, I woke up and thought I might be having a heart attack. Ian and Chloe took me to the hospital and I was admitted with very high blood pressure. I was later released and our final event, the “Music on the Mountain” concert, went off without a hitch on Sunday, July 21st at 9AM – noon.   

I am writing this blog while watching the waves on the Indian Ocean, getting some much needed rest.  I will be getting further medical assessments next week, but for now am feeling good.   While I know that God was in control of those fires for 36 hours, and He was our protector, I am still very much human, and I did put the children’s safety squarely on our shoulders.

A year of planning for the 10th Anniversary events had come to fruition, and everything planned was executed with excellence by our amazing team. It does seem that my prediction of the week being “EPIC”, was clearly an understatement.

We will be meeting with a large team of stakeholders next week to work on a more comprehensive fire plan for Project Canaan. 

Thank you for reading this whole, long blog. Thank you for your prayers, your thoughts and your love. 

Many of you have asked how you can help us, and there are two areas that we really need help with right now.  The first is our Diaper Drive which has been extended to August 5th.  If you click on this link  you can buy diaper and wipes for our children and they will be shipped to our warehouse and into a container that comes to Eswatini in August. We have 500 packs more to go to be full!

Secondly, we have not been able to do fully assess the damage to water lines, crops, electrical lines etc, but we do know that we will need funds to help us rebuild the chapel and repair other damages. If you would like to make a contribution toward our Emergency Medical fund you can do so by clicking on this link in the US and this one for Canadian donations.

Live from Durban … I am thankful for rest and restoration.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Mom's in the hospital - Guest blogger Chloe Maxwell

I know that after the live feed yesterday, that most of you are looking forward to reading my mom’s Saturday blog with an update. With the craziness of yesterday, and the turn of events today, my mom has allowed me, her daughter, to write a guest blog for today.

Spencer and I get to come home to visit our parents and Project Canaan at least once a year, but this year we were both lucky enough to come a second time. We arrived to Eswatini on Monday with Spencer’s girlfriend Jane, and his friend Andrew, along with a team of 100+ volunteers. 
We were so excited to be home to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Project Canaan with our parents and 239 little brothers and sisters! 

As Thursday rolled around, we were ready. Mom had been planning this event for a year, and we had received lots of updates along the way. From the children rehearsing, and the invitations being sent out, to the construction of the Imphilo Theatre (which was completed in 35 working days… that’s crazy), every detail was nailed down for our 10AM start.

The event when off without a hitch, and what a celebration it was (you can check out the videos and images on Janine Maxwell’s FB page and the HFA FB page). We noticed at the beginning of the event some smoke at the top of one of the mountains on our property, near where our house is located, so Denis’ team went to check it out. Andrew slipped out as well to check on our house, to confirm all was okay. The event ended at 1PM, and we all went home for a well-deserved nap and shower, mom and dad ready for a relaxing afternoon after a hectic year of planning.

Around 4PM, mom and dad were sitting on the deck, overlooking the property, when they noticed that the smoke that we had seen earlier in the day was much closer to our house than before. The winds had picked up, and that is when the big fires began. We watched from our electric fencing, as the fires came closer and closer, down the mountain and back up the valley, towards our house. Dennis and his team had been fighting the fire for an hour already, and because it was getting so close, we began back burning from the electric fence at the lodge all the way down to the electric fencing at our house. 

I’d like to add that we’ve burned 17 Miles (27 KM) of fire breaks around the property to avoid these problems, but these fires had been either intentionally set inside of the fire break, or jumped the fire break when set on the outside. The fires were huge, we cut branches or “switches” to beat out the fire where we were told to beat, and the night seemed to come to an end around 10PM. Another call came in at 2AM, that the fires had reignited from the wind and were now burning towards the Harp’s house. After fighting fires all night, everyone went to bed around 5:30AM.

At 11:45AM, we got the next call, all hands-on deck. The fires had reignited and were bigger than before, heading straight towards the baby home. We called the Eswatini fire department (who have never responded to one of our calls in the 10 years we’ve been here), and they assured us that help was on the way. We loaded up the car, got the bush knives to cut branches, 2-3 face masks, sunglasses and the 2 pairs of ATV googles we had (what do you bring to fight a big African bush fire?).   

The fire was massive. We split up, sort of, some going towards the baby home and some going towards the fields where they and the bales of hay were on fire. The flames were insane, the smoke was consuming. Jane, Andrew (and others who are a blur now), and I ran through and I looked back for Spencer and my dad. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t see them. Were they okay? The fire had picked up on the Kibbutz side now, so the flames were on both sides of the road. We looked at the burning field, and the flames were growing higher and turning to a dark red, one I hadn’t seen before in fire. Andrew ran into the smoke to find Spencer, they came running back out, and dad came a bit after with the car. I went to his window side, and saw that his face had been singed. His eyebrows and all the hair around his face were a brown fuzz... I cried. He had jumped out of the way and fell hard on a rock when a burst of flames came in front of him by the baby home. What was happening. I just wanted to wake up from this nightmare.

We headed towards the soccer field, as they were back burning the fire to Kibbutz so that it would not continue down the hill. The fire got so big and the smoke so strong, we were sharing the googles and masks we had brought, and had to find refuge under the stage that Jerry Scott had built on the soccer field to shelter us from the smoke. Dad came in his car to the rescue, and we were off through the smoke and down the hill.

The fires burned all day long. Every time we thought we had put one out, another started or reignited. I’m trying to remember the order, and I really can’t. All I know is, the fire was everywhere, coming from every direction. From the Kibbutz, down the side of the Norman Borlaug Park, flooding down behind Khutsala and the medical clinic, then back up behind the lodge and flooding towards Emseni, and back on the farm. The flames were towering over the Khutsala building, and the embers flew on top of the grass/thatch roof of our beautiful chapel. Within 30 second, the roof ignited and the whole building collapsed within 2 minutes. Mom sat in the car sobbing, while allowing the world to watch with her through her LIVE FB feed. It was hard to breath, our eyes were burning, I felt like I was going to throw up. It just wouldn’t stop. It was never going to end.
The chapel built in memory of my biological father.
2 minutes of fire
Everyone was everywhere. Up and down the property, Spencer and mom both had vehicles to shuttle people from place to place and deliver water. We evacuated each building, we evacuated the Emseni children to the dairy farm, we evacuated the babies to the toddler home, twice. There was no time to process what was happening.

Once things had settled and most of our land had burned, the fires seemed to be “controlled,” so we made our way up to the house. It was 6PM.

Last night and today, we are pretty numbed out. There are no emotions, there is nowhere to put this experience. I woke up and went online to see some of the images from yesterday to reflect, and got a text from mom saying, “I see you’re awake. Want to have some lemon meringue pie..? And maybe a cup of coffee? Meet in the kitchen in 5?” Coming from the mom who never eats dessert. “Absolutely,” I replied. The best wake up message.

We started to discuss some of the moments from yesterday as we looked off our porch at the property. Suddenly mom wasn’t feeling so well, and had some heaviness in her chest. We decided to take her to the hospital to make sure things were okay. Mom has been admitted at the Mkhiwa hospital, and I am sitting beside her as I write this blog. We think she might have over done it the past few days, but believe she will be okay. God isn’t finished with her just yet. 

No one said this would be easy. I have no more words, but I ask that you pray for my mom. Pray for our family. Pray for Project Canaan. As that is all that we can do. God’s plans are perfect, right? He makes beautiful things out of the dust. He makes beautiful things out of us.

Live from Eswatini ... Chloe Maxwell

P.S. As usual, the Eswatini Fire trucks never arrived, but we were later told that the reason they didn’t come was either A. all available fire trucks went to the reed fields to protect the king’s reeds for the upcoming reed dance in August, or B. they were broken down.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Indisputable evidence that HE, GOD, personally did all this.

The sun is rising over the mountains here in Eswatini and the smoke from winter fires is causing a haze that looks very beautiful against the orange sky.

This week we will celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Project Canaan and 100+ people are flying in from all over the world to celebrate all that God has done in these past ten years.

Last night we had dinner with the Heart for Africa staff members who are here to prepare for the upcoming trip. We have an incredible team who works diligently in the US to support the work here in Eswatini.  Ian and I are thankful for each and every one of them and simply couldn’t do what we do without them. While celebrating all the good things that have happened in the past ten years, I found myself also remembering many of the hurts that I have felt during those same years, and my heart was sad. 

When I was in business I understood the “rules” of business, managing expectations, delivering against commitments and the importance of integrity.  When we stepped into the Ministry world, it was like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. What should have been up, was down, and what should have been down, was up.

I have often said to Ian that in this Ministry, many people have a “say” or a “vote” in our lives, and what we are supposed to be doing and even how we do it, even when they really don’t have any skin in the game.  Our skin is all in. 

During these past ten years we have lost friends because they didn’t agree with the vision of Project Canaan, we have had donors walk away because they didn’t agree with the importance of bringing water from the top of the mountain so that we could become “water secure” and we have had people say things that have hurt us (and our children) deeply.  But we have continued to follow Jesus, and the vision HE has given us, through it all.

This morning I got up early to shake off all this negativity and start the day with joy and peace, two words that I have been praying for the past few days as I mentally prepare for the week ahead.

Early morning on the farm.
I am one of those people who reads my bible on a tablet, but this morning I went back to my old bible that I was reading when we first started this journey. I was led to Isaiah 41:8-20, which was highlighted many years ago, but when I read it now, I see that it was not only comforting, but incredibly prophetic. I hope you will read the whole scripture – it is PROFOUND.

“But you, Israel, are my servant.
    You’re Jacob, my first choice,
    descendants of my good friend Abraham.
I pulled you in from all over the world,
    called you in from every dark corner of the earth,
Telling you, ‘You’re my servant, serving on my side.
    I’ve picked you. I haven’t dropped you.’
Don’t panic. I’m with you.
    There’s no need to fear for I’m your God.
I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you.
    I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you.
“Count on it: Everyone who had it in for you
    will end up out in the cold—
    real losers.
Those who worked against you
    will end up empty-handed—
    nothing to show for their lives.
When you go out looking for your old adversaries
    you won’t find them—
Not a trace of your old enemies,
    not even a memory.
That’s right. Because I, your God,
    have a firm grip on you and I’m not letting go.
I’m telling you, ‘Don’t panic.
    I’m right here to help you.’
“Do you feel like a lowly worm, Jacob?
    Don’t be afraid.
Feel like a fragile insect, Israel?
    I’ll help you.
I, God, want to reassure you.
    The God who buys you back, The Holy of Israel.
I’m transforming you from worm to harrow,
    from insect to iron.
As a sharp-toothed harrow you’ll smooth out the mountains,
    turn those tough old hills into loamy soil.
You’ll open the rough ground to the weather,
    to the blasts of sun and wind and rain.
But you’ll be confident and exuberant,
    expansive in The Holy of Israel!
 “The poor and homeless are desperate for water,
    their tongues parched and no water to be found.
But I’m there to be found, I’m there for them,
    and I, God of Israel, will not leave them thirsty.
I’ll open up rivers for them on the barren hills,
    spout fountains in the valleys.
I’ll turn the baked-clay badlands into a cool pond,
    the waterless waste into splashing creeks.
I’ll plant the red cedar in that treeless wasteland,
    also acacia, myrtle, and olive.
I’ll place the cypress in the desert,
    with plenty of oaks and pines.
Everyone will see this. No one can miss it—
    unavoidable, indisputable evidence
That I, God, personally did this
    It’s created and signed by The Holy of Israel.
Isaiah 41:8-20 (Message)

This week we celebrate the “indisputable evidence that HE, GOD, personally did all this”. 

Live from Eswatini … today I choose forgiveness.


If you would like to make a 10th Anniversary gift to help us continue the work at Project Canaan, please do so today by clicking here for a donation in the US or by clicking here for a donation in Canada.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

What happens when God gives you a vision?

If we had said "no", this would not be our view.
On July 6th, 2005 our family was volunteering with an organization called Dream for Africa that served in Swaziland and South Africa. I distinctly recall being at a hotel in White River, South Africa, when a man from Dream for Africa offered Ian and I both paying jobs, Ian in Operations and me in Marketing.   At the time we thought the idea was absurd, but thankfully we had matured enough in our faith to say that we would pray about it (and really meant that).  Later that morning we were reading our daily devotion by Oswald Chambers and it said:

“God gives us a vision, and then He takes us down to the valley to batter us into the shape of that vision. It is in the valley that so many of us give up and faint. Every God-given vision will become real if we will only have patience. Just think of the enormous amount of free time God has! He is never in a hurry. Yet we are always in such a frantic hurry. While still in the light of the glory of the vision, we go right out to do things, but the vision is not yet real in us. God has to take us into the valley and put us through fires and floods to batter us into shape, until we get to the point where He can trust us with the reality of the vision. Ever since God gave us the vision, He has been at work. He is getting us into the shape of the goal He has for us, and yet over and over again we try to escape from the Sculptor’s hand in an effort to batter ourselves into the shape of our own goal.

The vision that God gives is not some unattainable castle in the sky, but a vision of what God wants you to be down here. Allow the Potter to put you on His wheel and whirl you around as He desires. Then as surely as God is God, and you are you, you will turn out as an exact likeness of the vision. But don’t lose heart in the process. If you have ever had a vision from God, you may try as you will to be satisfied on a lower level, but God will never allow it.”

Here we are, 14 years (5,110 days later… but who’s counting?), and preparing to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Project Canaan – the place that we now call home in the tiny Kingdom of Eswatini, Africa. 
Home sweet home.
As Oswald said, we have been battered, put through fires and floods (literally and figuratively), put on the Potter’s wheel to be whirled around, all in preparation to be used by Him for His purposes.  He has directed us to build a home that currently houses 238 orphaned or abandoned children, and will be home to hundreds more in the years to come.

Project Canaan is a Place of Hope and a place of safety. I have no idea why God chose us out of the 7 BILLION people in the world, to do this work, but I sure am glad He did!

Don’t be afraid of God’s calling on your life.  Who knows? You might get really lucky and be sent to Africa!

Live from Eswatini … preparing for the celebrations.

"We need more diapers please!"

PS - please be sure to go to our Amazon Baby registry and buy some diapers and/or wipes for our children. They will be shipped in a container coming our way in August.  Just click here to shop!