As she sat down in the office of the Women’s Education Center, I asked if she would like a piece of the cake the cooking ladies had given me. After all, what was I going to do with a whole cake, and “cake helps people talk to strangers” was my thinking. The ladies in the office said she needed to eat “real” food first. She agreed, sort of. I said she could have the rest of my coke if she would like. She smiled.
She was dressed neatly in a brown polka dot skirt, a turquoise striped top and sandals. Her hair was in braids that traveled away from her face, stopping in the middle of her head, rows standing on end, not gathered together in a bun or bow. Just like all twelve year olds, it would be a few years before she grew into her toothy smile.
Alexandra is twelve, she is adorable and she is a restavek. She gets up at six a.m. each morning to cook, clean and wash dishes for the family who has taken her in. They are her extended family. She isn’t sure how, they are just cousins. Her mother died and she isn’t sure when or how. Her father is a farmer in the Province and he has a few animals and crops he tends to with her two brothers. Her sister is Port, living just as she does with a different extended family member. She guessed she has lived away from her family for a year now, and doesn’t think she will see them again. It all seemed to come across more like math flash cards she had learned and had little to do with her.
No, she had never been to school before, no she doesn’t have a favorite Bible story or scripture, but she does go to church. She can’t remember the name of the lady that told her about the Literacy classes or even how it was that she got to come to school. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation, I mean other than the cake being good. She seemed to enjoy sitting in a room full of grown ups and was willing to answer my questions in return for all the new attention.
When I asked what was she most proud of, her whole face lit up, her bright white teeth and smile no longer hidden. “EVERYTHING”, she said. Now I was getting somewhere. What was she working on in class? The letter “L” and reading. What did she want to be when she grew up? A nurse.
We talked about education, how she would have to try hard to go to school to be a nurse. The reality is, she will need an advocate to help plow through the years she has missed already in terms of education. She will need a voice to speak up for her when she has lots of chores, knowing school comes last.
Yet, the seeds have been planted in her mind for the things beyond what she has seen in the tattered pages of her new reading book. I could already see it in her face.
As we finished up our time together, I said she needed to quickly finish up her cake and drink her coke. She looked at the ladies in the office and said her coke was warm now and she needed ice. We all laughed. Yes, we needed to get her in school. She had something special.
I wandered into the Literacy class and sat on a bench next to her. She wasn’t impressed and had nothing to say. I said I was the Professor for the day and would give her an exam.
So, I pushed the envelope a bit and took her reading book out from under her hands.
Her teacher would come to her rescue and get her off the hook with my teasing. I asked if I could take her picture and she agreed. I explained that I thought coming to Literacy class was one of the bravest things a woman could do and it took courage. I asked if we could talk more later. She agreed.
The next time we would talk she reminded me her name was Marie, since I am horrible with names. This time I made sure I shared our cake, since I had been warned she was mean. When I offered cake as a peace offering, she laughed as if she too was twelve. But unlike Alexandra, she had grown into her beautiful smile. She wore medium sized pearl earrings that seemed to be a perfect fit for her refined personality. Her hair was braided and pulled away from her face in a neat bun with a black ribbon.
She softened as we talked and she explained that before she came to school she used to sell “pepe”(used clothing) on the street with her family. I didn’t ask her age. I guessed in the ballpark of thirty-eight knowing she had a son who is twenty. This was her first time at school, just like Alexandra. School had not worked for her because people are not patient with her and she cries about learning. I wondered what all that meant.
Soon she told me she was keeping school a secret from her husband. I asked if she remembered our previous conversation about coming to school. She did, and I reminded her about being brave and having courage. She said he would only say she is too old for such things. She did tell her son and only him. She said her son was glad for her, but her husband won’t know because he works away from home all week while she cares for their son and seven year old daughter.
When she talked about her family and coming to school, she no longer had any interest in eating my cake and wanted to take it with her. She opened up even more and shared so much about herself. I knew no one in the room would think she was mean anymore. “She was only shy and scared,” I said after we finished.
She said that a friend in cooking class told her about Literacy and that it was free. She agreed it was a good time to learn to read and write. I asked her what was her favorite thing about what she had learned in school. She said, “I can send text messages to my son on my phone.”
I loved her answer! I laughed out loud; that was so great. I never thought about that before. Wow! A whole new world had just opened to her. Math was good too.
In closing, I asked her what she wanted to do when she finished Literacy. “Why, come to cooking classes and go to sewing school,” she said like I should have already known the answer to such an obvious question. Again, I laughed. Yes, I should have known this too.
No matter if you are twelve or thirty-eight”ish” the world becomes a whole new place once you have the ability to read and write. It is a gift. Mothers need to read directions for medicine and help with homework. If they have jobs they need to understand a contract. There is another world that opens up to readers, as well, when they are able to read the Gospel for themselves. Education in developing countries is hands down the most important tool we can give.