Hope in the Heart of Africa

Discovering inspiration and fulfillment amid the impoverished conditions of Swaziland.

In the driveway of my new adopted home, on a mountaintop in Swaziland, a beat-up Isuzu truck has replaced the BMW I once drove. The designer clothes that once filled my closets have been replaced by off-the-rack outfits from a department store. Instead of fancy shoes, I wear sandals and have given up the pedicures I used to get regularly.

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Instead of taking care of fortune 500 clients, I care for babies born in outdoor latrines and left to die.

Here, I’m no longer the owner of one of the largest marketing agencies in Canada. Instead of taking care of fortune 500 clients, my husband, Ian, and I care for babies born in outdoor latrines and left to die.

At times the conditions and the hardships our babies face make me cry out in despair. But I’ve never been so happy or so fulfilled.

The events that brought me to this place so far from home and to this challenge began on September 11, 2001. I wasn’t even supposed to be in New York that day. But a last-minute client meeting changed my schedule. In hindsight, I realize it was God, fate or some other powerful force that put me there.

On the day the world changed, I found myself running with thousands of others in the streets of New York to escape the sound of planes exploding, buildings crumbling and people screaming. The sights, sounds and smells of that day will never leave me.

I know the world will never be the same, although in some ways the horrors keep repeating themselves: Al Qaeda has become ISIS, caution has become fear, and safe is now a relative term.

Discomfort in My Comfort

After 9/11, I slid into a deep depression, a symptom of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which I’m sure was fueled by fear and unanswered questions. Why was I spared when so many others died? Wasn’t there a larger purpose than collecting the outward symbols of success, like cars and houses? I was unsettled. Maybe most unsettling was my discomfort in my comfort.

One day, I bumped into a college friend who was heading to Africa with his wife. He told me he was going to film the street children of Zambia. I didn’t know anything about the street children of Zambia or their plight. At that moment, I only knew that I needed to convince him to let me go too.

A few weeks later, I found myself on the streets of Lusaka, listening to children as young as six tell heart-wrenching stories of being raped, eating maggot-filled scraps from garbage cans, and burying their parents in shallow graves.

There were 75,000 children living on the streets of Lusaka. I learned that there were more than 500,000 on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. Most were there because of AIDS.

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Whatever had changed inside of me in the aftermath of 9/11 told me that it was not okay that a child dies of hunger or malnutrition every three seconds.

If something didn’t change, an estimated 11 million AIDS orphans were projected to reach 43 million by 2010. Why didn’t I know this was happening? How was it possible for this level of inhumanity to be so common in this day and age? Why wasn’t someone doing something to help?

As I struggled with these questions, I realized there was another question I needed to answer: What was I going to do about it?

Whatever had changed inside of me in the aftermath of 9/11 told me that it was not okay that a child dies of hunger or malnutrition every three seconds. It was not acceptable that young children were trading sex for food. It was not right that millions of children were living and dying without parents, all while I was hiding in my disconnected and oblivious world.

As I flew back to my beautiful home, family and career in Canada, the faces of the children I left behind followed me. In 2004, I closed my marketing business and decided to make my new life’s work the children of Africa. Thankfully, Ian and our two children wanted to join me. Together, we started the adventure of a lifetime.

Welcome to Swaziland

After years of traveling back and forth to work in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa and Swaziland, we decided to focus and go all in. We would move to Africa and focus our work on one location, hoping to make a big difference in a small place. We chose Swaziland; more accurately, Swaziland chose us.

Swaziland is a country about the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey. It has a population of 950,000, which is down from 1.1 million who lived there less than a decade ago and before the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Swaziland has the highest HIV rate in the world – as high as 46% of the population, according to some. More than half of the total population are orphaned and vulnerable children. There are 15,000 households where the oldest person is 15 years old or younger.

3A4B8425We love it here. We now live on 2,500 acres owned by the Heart for Africa, a charity Ian and I founded. The property has been named “Project Canaan – A Place of Hope.” Project Canaan has two distinct endeavors: agriculture and children.

We employ more than 200 locals who help us grow fresh vegetables, which we export to Europe. We also grow maize, a staple here, which is distributed to the country’s neediest children.

Project Canaan’s second initiative is our home for abandoned babies. The El Roi Baby Home is the home for many babies who are born along the side of a road, sometimes in the squalor of an outdoor latrine, and left to die. The ones whose cries are heard are rescued and taken to a hospital for care.

Many are the children of mothers who are children themselves – girls, 13 to 15 years old, who have been forced to trade sex for food to provide for younger brothers and sisters. Often they contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sometimes HIV, and often become pregnant.

When they come to El Roi, Ian and I become their parents. We do our best to nurture, love and care for them to the best of our abilities.

We opened the baby home on March 1, 2012; by September of this year we were caring for 70 children, all under the age of three-and-a half years. Many of these children come to us severely malnourished, suffering with pneumonia, diarrhea, ringworm and the effects of Cerebral Palsy. Ten percent already are HIV positive.

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 We receive a baby on average every 14 days. If this trend continues, we’ll have 245 children living on Project Canaan by 2020.

Our dairy cows provide milk for our children to drink with enough left over for us to make yogurt and cheese and to sell to the local community. Our Kufundza Carpentry Center builds beds, cribs, tables and anything else that can be made of wood.

Women known as Khutsala Artisans make beautiful jewelry that is sold online and overseas. The meager profits help us buy the 400 diapers that are changed every day and 130 bottles of milk that are fed to the babies. They also pay a small amount to a staff that washes 600 articles of children’s clothing on a daily basis.

We receive a baby on average every 14 days. If this trend continues, we’ll have 245 children living on Project Canaan by 2020. So we are busy planning for our future and the future of these children, the future leaders of Swaziland.

The Sisekelo preschool opened in January 2014; the kindergarten will open in January 2015. As our children grow, we will build a primary school and a high school. When they complete high school, many will find their way to university or to skills training. But no matter how far they travel, Project Canaan will always be “home,” and they will always be welcome.

Our plan for Project Canaan is solid and achievable, based on the business skills we acquired in a career that now seems so distant. But we know we cannot survive without critical partners – companies like UPS – that are helping us reach our goal of being self-sustainable by the year 2020.

Not so long ago, I could not have imagined that I would be living my life in a place like this. Now I cannot imagine living it anywhere else. goldbrown2

Click here for more info about Heart for Africa.

The video produced for this blog post received a bronze medal in the corporate social responsibility category at the New York Festivals TV and Film Awards in April 2015.


Janine Maxwell is the co-founder of Heart for Africa.

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