That’s me at the back over there. No, not the one holding the large blue umbrella, further back… Yes, that one, the one with the knowing smile and a few drops of rain on my face from standing just slightly outside the umbrella. It’s okay if you don’t notice me at first, that’s how it usually is, and that’s how I’ve come to like it.
I walked about ten kilometers to be at school today, but that’s okay because other than that, I may have had to go without lunch again. I was happy to come today; it’s been five long days at home. Five days without lunch. Five days of no movement because it was that time of the month and I could not afford those fancy sanitary towels that I saw in the television commercial through the window of the brick house that’s just on my way as I walk home every evening. My friends have warned me about passing by that brick house. They say that if one of the older boys catches you there after dark, you have to become his wife. I’m among the lucky ones; I’m turning fourteen and my father has not yet spoken of marrying me off. Sister Mena was not so lucky; she had to go with the rich man from the town even if she did not want to.
My best friend advised me to get pregnant. She says if I do, I would not have to deal with the monthly mess for nine whole months. I won’t have to miss out on the lunch at school either, but I don’t know. I rather like the mathematics we are learning in class now. I like to sit on the floor next to Omiya, cross my legs and write numbers from 1 to 100. Usually, I have to squeeze in between Omiya and Abwoc, and the dust from the floor affects my breathing. Sometimes it’s so dark and there is no electricity to see what I’m scribbling but I want to become like Nurse Maureen. She says if I too want to own the white clean uniform one day, I have to write all the time. I’m smiling today because I have written three sets of multiplication tables today and not one of them was incorrect.
Can you see me?
That’s me seated on the brown wooden chair, in front of almost all the elders in my community. What do you see when you look at me? Can you tell that my back aches from carrying this seven months old pregnancy? Can you tell that I’m in pain, physically and emotionally? Do you see that when my father died, and my mother ran mad, I had to do what I thought best in order to survive?
Can you tell that I dropped out of school and found me a man that I thought would provide for me?
I bet you cannot see that this man has since disappeared from the village, leaving me to fend not only for myself now, but for my baby as well. I bet you would never tell by looking at me that I’m too ashamed to return to school even after the baby is born. I feel like it’s been way too long, and I feel I would be too old. I’ll bet too that you cannot tell that I’m only fifteen.
Can you see me?
You look, yes, but you don’t really see me. You don’t see the responsibility I carry on my shoulders. You don’t see that underneath my threadbare white shirt with red stripes, underneath that steady gaze, is the weight of the world. You don’t see that after my midday meal at school, I have a family to care for. You don’t see that all we have left is each other, my brothers and I. You don’t really see that if I don’t bring back some food tonight, if I don’t find some firewood that I can sell for money, we will not be eating.
You do not see that I sleep with one eye open, looking at the door-less entrance of the grass thatched hut our parents built before they died, watching for snakes as well as people. You do not see that this very same white shirt with red stripes is what keeps me warm at night. You do not see that I am nine years old.
I see you.
I see the pity in your eyes. I see how you nod and shake your head with concern when you learn that 11% of us are orphans, and that all 300 or so of us share one latrine. I see you writing these things down with a fierce determination. I see you wondering how I can smile so genuinely when I have been through so much, when I have so little…
You should instead see that I’m beating the odds. You should see that I’m among the few 6% of children here in my village that have seen the inside of a classroom. You should see that I’m a role model; that if I can make it, then so can many others. You should see that my situation is not final at all; with the right effort and time, I could look very different. You should see the future in me.
You should see hope.