Aïsha, a little girl who attends the school across the street, is not part of my family, but as she lives in the next village over she eats lunch with us on school days. She is a reticent pair of open eyes that stares unabashedly and eerily never seems to blink.
Sometimes I try to talk to her. “How old are you, Aïsha?” I ask, but she stares straight ahead.
When she does answer, her voice is hoarse and monotone.
“Why aren’t you at school today, Aïsha?”
“My mother didn’t pay the school.” Her voice is an empty cave.
We all take our shoes off to avoid soiling the mat, sit on the low benches, reach for the shiny silver spoons, and dig into today’s variation of fish and rice. After the meal is over, Nancy heads over to the refrigerator (we are the only family in the neighborhood who has one) and pulls out an orange while Aïsha and I clean up. I put the half-eaten rice and sauce-stained spoons back into the kitchen and shake out the mat while Aïsha picks up a bench to wash the dishes.
Today, I watched Aïsha’s submerged arms rinsing silverware in a soapy bucket, and I realized, I have no idea where this girl will be in ten years. She’s back in school now, but how long will that last? Will her mother refuse to fund her education after primary school? Will she be forced to marry before she turns eighteen? Will she work as a maid until then? These possibilities aren’t foreign examples of female oppression found in UNESCO pamphlets. Not anymore. Now, these are lives.
Had I been looking at a girl living in the western world, I wouldn’t be thinking of everything that could go wrong, but everything that girl could accomplish. In the U.S. free quality schooling, government checks, and enforced laws help a child achieve a high school education. I speak from a middle-class perspective, but I think that for most Americans it is choices and not circumstances that result in the outcome of that schooling. The people I know who left school early did so because of drug use or apathy, not because they had families to support. I myself had less than adequate grades for a while because I didn’t understand why I was learning.
And looking at petite Aïsha with her tunnel eyes, I shiver not only because I am scared for her, but also because I have an intense gratitude for the opportunities I was born into. To think that for the majority of my recent life I despised the pressure to stay in school and then get a job, thinking it a repressive Game of Life-like track; it’s ridiculous to me now because I am living in a country where a 9-5 desk job is a luxury, not a restriction. So thank you development, thank you time and positive change. I intend to take what you give me, and not just blindly follow along, acquiring money and family members, nor rebel against you; instead I’ll practice my sacred autonomy and see just how much I can get out of you.