Written by Janine Maxwell Tuesday, January 08 2013
Greetings from the Kingdom of Swaziland, Africa where the rainy season has begun, and the temperature is “hot and sticky” most days. I grew up in northern Ontario Canada, where holiday preparations were done in minus 40F weather with two feet of snow on the ground. In contrast, this was truly a unique Christmas.
Our family moved to Swaziland in June 2012, and the transition has been very difficult but very rewarding at the same time. My move from corporate businesswoman to abandoned baby rescuer has been indescribable, but it’s funny to see “transferrable skills” appear at the strangest times.
Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world (46 percent), and the death toll has left more than half of the total population as orphaned and vulnerable children. Poverty and hunger force young women to have sex for food (or “transactional sex,” as it is called here), and the net results include pregnancy, infection, hopelessness and death.
On March 1, we opened a home for abandoned babies, and my new role in life is now “advocate” for those in serious trouble. This includes babies who have been dumped in pit latrines (outdoor toilets); mothers who are in jail for stealing baby food; and even a 13-year old girl who was raped, became pregnant and wanted to abort the baby.
Being an advocate in these types of situations is tricky for a Type A personality like mine because it is very difficult to plan my day (or week) or to accomplish anything I had on my list to do. Can anyone relate to that?
I’ll give you an example from last week.
Our 16-year-old daughter Chloe had gone away to a friend’s birthday party for the weekend and came home sick. That happened a lot when we lived in Georgia because she burned the candle at both ends, but it’s different here. Chloe came home with a high fever, intense headache and bad intestinal problems. First thought? Malaria. So, off we went to the doctor to get her tested for malaria. That was my only priority of the day. I planned to be a really good mom and focus all my attention on her and get my baby healthy.
While driving to the clinic to get her tested, I received a phone call from the government office that is responsible for orphaned and abandoned children. They were frantic and needed my help. A 24-year-old mother was dying of AIDS-related Tuberculosis and couldn’t care for her 3-week-old twins anymore. She had been living on the floor of a small mud room since the babies were born and couldn’t provide any care for them, much less keep them safe from being infected by her own cough and sputum. They asked (begged) me to take the babies to our El Roi home for abandoned babies so that they could live while the mother died.
It’s a day in the life in Swaziland.
I focused on Chloe and got through her clinic appointment (thankfully the malaria test was negative) and then headed toward the government office to pick up the twins who had been brought there. My car broke down on the way (we purchase used vehicles here because we can’t afford new ones) and after three hours, I was called by an ambulance driver saying that he had the twins, they were crying and needed care. He asked, “Where are you? I will bring them to you!”
The car was fixed, and I headed toward the ambulance.
We ended up meeting on the side of the road, in a random part of town, and with both vehicles still running, I received the babies. The twin girls are beautiful, and while they have tested negative for Tuberculosis, they still need to be in isolation for the next month. But, they are safe and sound at the El Roi Home for Abandoned Babies, and the mother is in hospice in a rural hospital.
What will happen to these girls? They will live on our farm in Swaziland their whole lives. They will start their early childhood education in the Sisekelo Pre-school (Sisekelo means “Cornerstone” in the siSwati language) thanks to Pam Joseph and the amazing women at U.S. Bank (who I connected with at a Womenetics event!). They have raised the funds to build the preschool and have now partnered with Janice Johnson and the wonderful people at the UPS Foundation to ship a container of educational supplies, furniture and other items not found in Africa. This will make a huge difference in the lives of these little twin girls and the other 20 abandoned babies who now live with us.
My days don’t quite go as planned anymore, but at the end of each day I still feel that I have accomplished something important.
I am often asked how people can help and what is our greatest need? Our greatest need is for more people like Pam Joseph and Janice Johnson to take the lead and help their corporations understand that they really can make a difference in Africa. I’m thrilled that Pam and Janice will both be in Swaziland in 2013 working alongside us to get the preschool painted, furniture assembled and chalk boards hung.
Life in Africa is hard. I’m not going to lie and say otherwise, but I believe the work we are doing is lifesaving and life-giving, both to the babies who are rescued and to those who are loving them and caring for them.
More women creating change in Africa:
Imagine not being able to go to work or school because you can't afford to buy feminine hygiene products. For many Rwandan women and girls, this is an unfortunate reality that Elizabeth Scharpf is rectifying.
Dedicated to bringing electricity to African villages, Solar Sister follows an "Avon-like" model that utilizes social capital in order to improve communities.
Realizing that there was a serious lack of opportunity for Rwandan women to further their education, Elizabeth Dearborn Davis co-founded the Akilah Institute for Women, which provides leadership and career training.