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Saturday, March 28, 2020

An unprecedented week of encouragement

The world is crying out in pain, and the pain will continue to intensify in the days and weeks ahead.  We are watching from a mountain top that feels to be at the end of the earth.

South Africa is approximately 15 days behind the US outbreak and Eswatini is likely a few days behind South Africa. So, for now, there is silence.   As Ian and I sit out on our patio every night we have been talking about the tsunami that is coming our way, but this week we started to change our language to the wildfires that are coming rather than a wave.  Back in July we experienced for 40+ hours of horrific and terrifying wildfires on Project Canaan that quickly changed directions, jumped over buildings and came back to life after we thought they were out.  As this tiny nation, with the highest HIV rate in the world starts to look to the horizon, waiting for COVID-19 coming over the mountain, we know that we are not prepared.

Our Prime Minister made an announcement on Tuesday night that provided a glimmer of hope – a country shutdown that would start at midnight on Thursday night and end on April 16th.  He explained that all non-essential services should stop and only essential businesses such as banks, grocery stores and medical facilities could remain open.  We met with the Supervisors from all our departments to determine who was essential and who was non-essential. Then we met with all 345 Project Canaan employees to deliver the news.  Most non-essential people were very upset because they would lose their pay, but we did what we had to do.

Swazi’s all get paid once a month and it’s on the last Friday of the month, and then they all rush to town to buy groceries for the next month.  Public transportation and streets are packed with people, stores are emptied, and Swazi’s experience joy at being able to get their hair done, get nice food for the weekend and maybe even a treat for their children. The first day of the lock down was pay day. 

Then, a change in direction.  Friday morning we were told that the Minister of Commerce made an announcement on the radio on Thursday night saying all businesses are to remain open (perhaps so people could do their month end shopping?), and were to call all employees back to work on Monday. If we chose to remain closed we were to pay all employees their full pay until work resumes – that is 185 Project Canaan employees. It is only a partial lock down? 

Our employees all walked out through the front gate and headed to town with money in the bank, and the satisfaction of knowing that they would be back to work on Monday.  Ian and I saw their departure to town as being like matches lit and thrown out in to our surrounding communities.

We have put all the precautions in place that we can, and now we wait. But in our time of waiting the Lord has blessed us beyond measure.  We are in a time of preparation, and let me tell and show you what the Lord did in the last FIVE days.

The farm is an essential department and we have been looking for a new tractor for a couple of years. At the end of 2019 the funds were donated and our search began.  The current exchange rate is the highest it’s ever been in our time in Africa, so we were able to buy TWO tractors this past week. One is brand new and is being built and the other one is gently used and a really powerful piece of equipment that will help us immensely in our agriculture program. Our farm team is on the moon!

We currently have a 7-gallon milk pasteurizer that takes 90 minutes to pasteurize those 7 gallons of milk in our main kitchen. We need to pasteurize close to 44 gallons of milk every day for our children’s consumption.  Ian found a company in South Africa that makes inline milk pasteurizers, which will pasteurize 22 gallons per hour.  He ordered this equipment to be made at the end of 2019 and it arrived this past week!  Not only does it allow us to pasteurize 22+ gallons per hour, it then chills the milk and has a 90-gallon chilled storage tank.  The cherry on the top of this is that we purchased a milk separator and a butter churner, so we will be able to make our own butter! 

We want to increase our goat production so that we have more meat available, both for us and for our church feeding program.  This week we received the funds and were able to hire the people and purchase the materials to start fencing in 10 acres of land that will be prepared to start an intensive goat breeding program.  You can see the area planned in the image below.

With the recent closure of all schools, we took the opportunity to focus our construction team on building the 3rd/4th grade classroom. The materials for the second floor (called span slab) are made and imported from South Africa and we needed the funds to order them in order to proceed. Not only did the Lord provide the funds needed earlier this month, we were able to order the product and get it delivered on Thursday, before the borders completely shut down. 

Lastly, but perhaps the most interesting and comforting, was a US foundation approaching us and asking what we needed during this time of uncertainty.  David Bryant explained that with flights/trips cancelled for the foreseeable future, we will lose significant income that we receive when people travel with Heart for Africa to Eswatini.  The foundation committed to FULLY cover that lost income and a check is in the mail.

God is so good. He knew that during this unprecedented time of uncertainty that we needed an unprecedented week of encouragement, and He sent it in waves that brought joy, refreshment and hope.

I pray that this encourages you too. Look for the ways He is blessing you during these difficult times. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”  Isaiah 4:10

Live from Eswatini … we are going for a long walk.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Swazi's aren't worried about toilet paper

Nine children whose names can encourage you today.
We are living in strange times, and the whole world knows it, even Swazi’s in the most remote parts of our tiny country.  And they are afraid.

They are not afraid of not having enough toilet paper, because most Swazi’s are too poor to EVER buy toilet paper, so it won’t be missed (they use leaves or crumpled up newspaper).  Most Swazi’s are too poor to have a pantry, so there is no stocking up of food, and no money to stock up with 70% of the population being subsistence farmers.

This is a people group who are currently living with the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world and an estimated 70% of the population living with active or inactive Tuberculosis, but that is not what scares them.   What makes them afraid is the government hospitals because here have been out of critical medications for the past couple of years, so how will they possibly be able to help really sick people?  There are no masks, there is no protective gear and there are reports that some nurses just don’t want to go near sick patients. There are only four functioning respirators in the entire government healthcare system in the country. Yesterday I had a nurse say to me, “In the west, people who are thought to be sick with the coronavirus are considered ‘people of interest’.  It is the opposite here in Eswatini – no one is interested in them.”  Ouch.

Ian and I drove to South Africa on Tuesday and spent a day going from one pharmacy to the next to get the medications that our children will need for the next eight weeks.  The borders were starting to close that day so we had to work quickly and only got 75% of what we needed.  We also haven’t been able to get critical medications for many months from Swazi suppliers so someone always has to drive to South Africa (Pretoria is a 5-hour drive) to get meds each month. We pray that the borders will reopen before our medications run out.

It has been widely reported that we have only had one case of COVID-19, a woman who arrived from Germany, but we aren’t sure whether testing is being done and/or reported accurately. That is what Swazi’s are telling me they are afraid of – no tests, dishonest reports, and no possible medical care if they do get sick, which they will.

We are all trying to practice social distancing, but Swazi’s (like most Africans) depend on public transport that are small vans crammed with as many passengers as they can fit.  If the thought of contracting Tuberculosis wasn’t terrifying enough, COVID-19 increases the risk and fear, but still it is the only way for them to get from A to B.

Then there is the practice of “sharing a meal”, which is common to most of the African continent of one billion people.  Families share the same meal from the same bowl.  We see it from the front office to Khutsala where two or three people will take turns cooking that week and bring a plastic bowl of food that everyone eats from. 

I know that the world is afraid, and I can’t imagine the fear that people are feeling as they wake up each day to new startling numbers and data, but please don’t forget to pray for Africa.  Most countries won’t have access to the testing kits that they need (if the US can’t get them, how will we?), so we really won’t ever have accurate data, and most of those billion people don’t have access to health care services at all. 

We will not live in fear, and we have put all protocols possible in to effect here at Project Canaan, and we wait. 

Spencer is in lock down in Illinois now and Chloe is self-quarantined in her University apartment in Canada. For the past four days we have been working tirelessly to get Phiwa and Nokwanda home from Boston after the Doctor discharged them on Monday.  But alas, after two failed attempts at the airport where they were turned away at the gate two nights in a row.  Now, they will not be able to get home. South Africa has closed its borders so we are now locked in the country for the unforeseeable future and they are locked out.  Thankfully, the Habelow family came to their rescue again and got them flights to Florida where they will live with them until the borders open, international flights resume and they can come home.

After herculean attempts to get the girls home, we could not.
While these are complicated times of uncertainty, what we do know for certain is that God is God and he is securely on the throne.  I took the photo below yesterday of nine of our children who have names that will surely remind you to keep your eyes on Him, and do not be afraid. He is with us, to the end of time.

Live from Eswatini … enjoying the fresh air and daily walks around the farm.


PS – and in the midst of all this, Willis fell off the top bunk, hit his head and broke his clavicle this week requiring several days in a private hospital.  And theft continues, this time it was the Dairy Manager, who we liked and trusted, stealing dairy meal. He and his partner in crime were given a E7,000 fine ($400 US) or FIVE years in prison. They don’t have access to that kind of money so will spend the next five years in a Swazi jail.  This job doesn’t get any easier.

Posters we have put up on the farm to deter theft.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A new perspective on viruses

Last week one of our workers was bitten by a dog which was thought to be rabid.  If you don’t know much about rabies, there is no cure, and you have no more than ten days to start a series of five injections or you die. There were no rabies injections in any government hospital in Eswatini, so he went to a private clinic and got his first two shots.  Ian and I learned about this when we just happened to pick him up at the front gate on his way to get his third shot.  Our family was sprayed by a rabid bat when we lived in Ontario, and we know the fear and the pain of many needles, so we gave him our sympathy. The next morning during our morning walk, Ian saw him and asked how he was doing. He was visibly upset as he told us that the private hospital was out of rabies vaccine and they couldn’t complete his five-shot treatment. He was afraid he was going to die a horrific death.

Ian spoke with our nurses who were able to find a pharmacy in Nelspruit, South Africa (a 3-hour drive crossing two international borders) and we said we would drive and get them. The nurse asked us to please get chicken pox vaccines too as they have not been available in Eswatini for 7+ years.  When we got to the pharmacy, I told the pharmacist that I had strange list of prescriptions:  rabies vaccines for an employee, chicken pox vaccines for our children and blood pressure medication for me, which I need because I deal with rabies and chicken pox!  She suggested that we stop at the liquor store before he headed back to Eswatini!  Meanwhile, that huge pharmacy had already sold out of hand sanitizer, but that happened months ago before the coronavirus scare began.  She pointed to a poster that told us how to make our own hand sanitizer – good to know. She also told us that they had been out of chicken pox vaccines for months, but we ended up driving home with rabies vaccines, blood pressure medication and little tequila.

Eswatini has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world. HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and it is the very reason we moved here.  There also is no cure for this disease, and medication is antiquated, sometimes out of stock, but effective if take properly twice a day, every day at the same time of day (7AM/7PM).  It’s effectiveness is also dependent on proper nutrition and protein.  People don’t die from HIV/AIDS, they die from a common cold or the flu or Tuberculosis (TB), which 70% of our total population are estimated to have active or inactive TB.  If their TB is inactive it can be activated by getting sick with something as simple as a cold, or the flu, or coronavirus. 

Most of our 315 employees have children, and most of those children are cared for by elderly parents or grandparents while the employee is at work.  Many of their children are sickly with conditions that could be treated if hospitals weren’t out of medicine, but they are.  We are a country with a very broken healthcare system, virtually no hospital care and both clinics and hospitals have run out of many/most essential medications.

This morning we had our first coronavirus patient confirmed to be positive in Eswatini. She came from the US, traveled to Lesotho, and then came back here and tested positive at a private clinic.  It bears repeating that this is a country of very old and sick people, very young and sick people and an HIV/AIDS rate that could be as high as 40%. 

As the world is facing unknown fears, which includes health and economics uncertainties, I would like to say two things to you today. First, I am personally committed to post on social media every day with words of encouragement from our children, our staff and our volunteers so that you know we are thinking of you and praying for you.  Second, I am asking if you will help us raise the funds we need to build the rest of Emseni #7 for 40 big boys.  When I spoke at an event last month in front of 15,000+ Keller Williams agents, they collectively gave almost $100,000 towards the $225,000 cost of the building. Only a few short weeks later a gathering of that size is impossible, and none of us know when there will be speaking opportunities again to build awareness and raise funds for our needs here. I know that this is a time of financial fears for many people around the world, but I also know that we need to get this building finished quickly as the children are still coming and they are in desperate need of a home. 

Please consider putting your fear aside today and help us do what we can do for these children while waiting to see what happens as the coronavirus spreads throughout the Kingdom.  Please buy a block for $25 or 100 blocks or 1,000 blocks and help us get this done. Would you also please share this post today? Everyone is looking for content to read and looking for hope for the future. I hope that our lives can be a beacon of hope from afar in the days and weeks ahead.

Just yesterday as we drove back from South Africa we got a call about two different new born baby boys that needed a home. We haven’t received a new baby in SEVEN WEEKS, so this was a surprise.  One was the result of a violent rape and the other was found in the bushes covered in his own waste which burned his face.  Both tiny boys were in government hospitals, and very vulnerable.  We stopped and picked up baby Solomon and baby Rocky (the one who looked like he had been in a fight … a fight for his life!), and we brought them home, along with the rabies vaccinations.  That is the world we are living in.  We may not be able to stop the coronavirus (although we did a hand washing seminar with all our 315 employees yesterday and gave everyone a big bar of soap), but we can help these two little guys who are not safe in a government hospital.

Isaiah 41:10 says, "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

Live from Eswatini … we are washing our hands and praying.


P.S. There are rumors that our borders to South Africa may close soon.  90% of all food is imported, so that will cause another problem.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Nokuphiwa surgery update – things did not go as planned

If you don’t know who Nokuphiwa (Phiwa) is please start by reading this blog from just one year ago Phiwa was badly burned when she was only a few days old and did not get any medical intervention until last February when we sent her to Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston under the care of the Global Medical Relief Fund and in to the loving home of our dear friends, the Habelow family.

Phiwa did not have any family who could travel with her so we asked a young lady who had just graduated from University in Eswatini and was working in the front office at Project Canaan to go with her as guardian.  A pretty big ask.  Her name is Nokwanda Fakudze and we had known her for many years and had come to trust and love her.  When I asked Nokwanda if she would be willing to take a young girl, whom she had never met before all this started, to the US for several months of extreme surgical intervention, and she said yes.  None of us had any idea where this journey would take them or the people who have come to know and love them both.

Phiwa’s first few round of surgeries was to take skin grafts from her thighs and release her lips (really, it was to create lips).  Her lips had completely burned off as a newborn which impacted her ability to speak (impossible to enunciate without lips), eat and do other things we take for granted by having lips. Those three surgeries were successful and then she came back to Eswatini.

In November 2019 Nokwanda and Phiwa made their way back to Boston for the second major round of treatment and surgery.  Phiwa has a whole in the front left side of her skull that is the size of a golf ball, in fact you can see her heart beating through the skin.  We all assumed that the doctors would want to fix that first, but we learned that they couldn’t do that because of how taught her skin was, so that is why the lips became the first priority.

In November they put a port in her skull so that each week they could inject fluid that would expand her skin, stretching it so that when they did the cranioplasty the skin could be pulled over top of the hole. (I am writing this in layman’s terms so that you can all follow – surgeons please forgive my simple explanation of a very complex surgery). After three months of head expansion yesterday was the big day for the big surgery!  The plan was to take a half thickness piece of skull from another part of her head and insert it in the hole at the front of her skull.  If I understand correctly, both sites would eventually grow the bone back to full thickness. Once the hole was filled then they would take the expanded skin and stretch it over the left side of her head where she had no hair because of the burns. She would get a new hairline on the left side giving her hair all over her head.  How cool is that?

You can't have too many fun hats.
I think those of us who understood the surgery were nervous about it – it just seems so crazy that surgeons could do such a thing.  But the Lord has protected this child for so long we knew that He would continue to do so.  All of the big kids at Emseni did a video call with the girls the night before surgery and Ian prayed over her for peace, joy and safety. But here's the thing about Phiwa – she is never sad, scared, angry or in a bad mood. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still a kid, and can be stubborn about things, but really, she never complained about her skin expansion, never cried from pain and I often comment that she might not be human.

Yesterday as they went in to the hospital she was skipping and singing (see video below). WHO SKIPS AND SINGS when going to have cranioplasty?  Only Phiwa.

We had a video call with Nokwanda, Phiwa and Eileen as they headed to the hospital and both ladies are so good and sending me updates.  Then I got this one from Eileen:

“Dr. B just came out.  He is very happy with how the skin expansion went.  She now has a hairline that goes all the way to the bad ear and back.  He says there is still a section on the back of her head that needs hair.  That will be a small skin expander next round with which he will finish her scalp and construct an ear.  They did NOT put a new piece of bone in her skull - thought it was too risky during this one.  If the skin replacement leaked it would not allow the bone to heal well enough. He said they added another layer of very healthy skin over it and feels she is protected.  We might get out tomorrow since they did not do the bone.  Check up on Monday and/or Wednesday of next week.  Then, in two weeks or so (I am going to ask for March 25 so I can be here in-person), we will have the consult planning meeting to map out her next year.”

What the heck? They didn’t do the very surgery that we thought she was getting her head expanded for?  I was so disappointed, but Eileen was not, she knows that they would only do what was best for Phiwa.  What I do know is that God’s plans are not our plans, but they are always better, so I will rest in that promise.   

May I take this moment to say thank you again to Nokwanda, who really is a Super Woman in my books, and the blanket that she is wearing in the photo below is really her cape. Thank you for your love, your selflessness and your kubeketela.

Elsa and Super Woman save the world.
The girls will come home next month and we will be really excited to have them back.  We will know what the next round of treatment will be after a meeting in a couple of weeks.  We do know that future surgeries include an ear, a nose and hopefully an ocular implant to replace the eye that is sealed shut and non-functional.  Unfortunately, the Habelow’s have moved to Florida, and while they have very generously and graciously kept their apartment rented for the girls to live in during these months, we will need another host home for the next round of surgery. If anyone knows a family or perhaps a retired couple in the Boston area who would be blessed beyond measure to host a very special young gal, who might just be an angel in disguise, please let me know?

Live from Eswatini … thinking about my girls in Boston.