Almost Eight

We’d taken the tuk-tuk as far as we could into the little village. Getting this far had been an adventure, due to the incoming tide which blocked some passageways and forced us to find other paths. We’d driven alongside the coast, but the powdery sand proved too much for the heavy-laden tuk-tuk, and we’d gotten off and helped heave it out of the ruts and walked alongside for a ways already, past the little girls giggling at the sight of us struggling to keep our headscarves on in the wind, past the old lady spreading manure to dry in the hot sand.
The ground hardened and the driver motioned for us to get back on and now we were further from the shore and the tide. The air carried the scent of drying fish. As we drove past the open-aired café, it seemed most of the men in the community had gathered around the single small TV to watch the national cricket game. Once the alleys narrowed even more, the tuk-tuk pulled to the side and the driver motioned us off. From this point on we walked, following our host as he navigated the maze of alleys with the confidence of a local. Families had sectioned off little plots of land as best as they could, tying boards to palm trees with scraps of rope to demarcate their space, houses built from bamboo and scraps of tin in the middle. Some had hand-pump wells in their courtyard. A few had constructed makeshift counters at the front of their plots of land, selling chilis and onions and eggplant and the sundry items needed by families in these parts. Toddlers, barefoot and clothed on the top half of their bodies but not on the bottom, peeked through the makeshift entrance gates, curious about the group of foreign women traipsing down the alleyways. This spit of land is often in the bulls-eye of Bay of Bengal cyclones, and I shake my head to rid myself of the mental images of what a cyclone would do to these dwellings and to these people. Nowhere to run. No higher ground. No stable shelters.
We come into one family’s courtyard and slip our shoes off at the door of a new hut. It has cement floors, thanks to recent funding from Partners, and the tops of the walls are an open lattice-work of bamboo to let the air circulate on hot days. It’s a school, one of three we’re visiting today. In total 110 students between the ages of 5 and 12 are getting to attend school, most for the first time in their life. They are the children of Rohingya refugees who’ve slipped out of the camps and into society and local children as well, many orphaned by fishing accidents. They are the most vulnerable in this small village, and they come to school every weekday morning to study Bengal, Math and English. The youngest teacher is 16, one is in her early 20s, and the other is in her mid 30s. None of the teachers have had formal training, but they are kind and persistent and do their best to stretch meager resources into a basic education for each of their students. One of the schools has electricity and a coveted ceiling fan humming above the classroom. The newest school has no electricity and doesn’t even have desks yet. Partners has plans to continue investing in these schools as the local leaders identify the most pressing needs.
As the kids recite their ABCs and sing nursery rhymes for us, we wander around the room, smiling and congratulating the children on their hard work and offering high-fives. One bright-eyed girl catches my attention. Her English is a little better than the others, and she’s less shy than some of the girls. I ask her how old she is and I smile when she says, “Eight soon.” Her answer makes me think of my own daughter, about the same age. It is a universal truth of 7-year-old girls, I’ve learned, to claim to be “almost 8” just as soon as they feel the scale of their year has justifiably shifted past the mid-point. I tell her I have a daughter about her age and pull out my phone to find a picture. The whole table of girls lean in close to get a glimpse of my daughter, her long blonde hair a novelty in contrast to their raven-tresses. They giggle and smile and seem to understand when I tell them that if Cora were here with me, she’d like to be their friend. I ask the bright-eyed girl if I can take a picture of her with my daughter, to show Cora when I go home. At first she’s confused but soon realizes my meaning. She holds the phone close and smiles shyly and we snap the picture.
I’m looking at the picture a few days later on the other side of the world. My own almost-eight-year old is busy beside me working on her science fair project. (Question: Is there real bacteria in my yogurt? Hypothesis: Yes. I’m a little worried she won’t eat yogurt after she’s finished.) She’s curious about volcanoes and baking and she likes to read. She wants to be a dog groomer when she grows up. As I predicted, she’s very interested in the life of this little girl on the other side of the world. She scrolls through all my pictures from the day, zooming in to catch details – the pretty dresses, the interesting alphabet – and notices how different her classroom is from the one in the picture.
In the small rectangle of the photo, the two girls are so similar in so many ways… bright, curious eyes. They are each interested in the world around her and in the life of a little girl about her age on the other side of the world. But outside the square of the photo, these two almost-eight-year olds couldn’t be more different. In Bangladesh, many girls their age don’t get to go to school. (In fact, children peer into the schools we visited through cracks in the wall, eager to participate in the lessons but finding there’s no more room right now.) According to the Girls Not Brides charity, nearly 60 percent of Bangladeshi girls are married by the age of 18 with nearly 22 percent married by 15. The girl with the bright eyes will be lucky to go to school past the age of 12. She’ll also be in the minority for her country if she isn’t married by her eighteenth birthday.

And I just can’t shake the thought that she could be my daughter… my daughter could be her.

And as I look at this photo I’m struck by one stark reality: Potential may be equal but opportunity isn’t.

My 7-year-old daughter deserves no more or no less than this 7-year-old daughter of Bangladesh. They both bear the imago dei in the curve of their nose and in their quiet smiles. They are both eager to learn and eager to grow; eager to be eight. And yet… one will have endless opportunities to pursue her dreams, and one may not even know to dream.

This isn’t a story about how our life is better than theirs… for all I know my little Bangladeshi friend loves running down the alleys of her neighborhood to her friend’s shop to buy a treat. She may enjoy the challenge of carrying jugs of water from her well to her home, and she might laugh with friends over a game of kickball. She’s home – exactly where she should be, and to assume she’d be happier somewhere else is arrogant and ignorant. This isn’t a story about how we intrinsically have it better than they do. In many ways, especially when it comes to living in close-knit and interdependent community, much of the world has it far better than us. But it is a story about two little girls and the future we hope they both have. It is a story about me recognizing that while I can’t “fix” the injustices of this world, I can care enough to help tip the scales.
After this trip, I find myself even more grateful for the work of Partners. They live into their name by coming alongside local community leaders to provide concrete relief and invest in development in meaningful ways, like through supporting schools. They give you and me the opportunity to step into the other side of that equation; giving us virtual access to places we may never otherwise be able to go, effectively and efficiently leveraging the resources we have to give into addressing concrete needs of the people living there, all the while sharing the love of Jesus. Though they work in places and circumstances where the needs stretch into the millions of affected people, Partners isn’t under an idealistic illusion that they can change the whole world for everyone. But as I saw reflected in the faces of the 110 children in their schools, Partners know they can change the whole world for a few of them.  And they do this faithfully and well.
Girls in Bangladesh may still get married far too young. Girls in Bangladesh may still find education ends at around 12 years old. These are hard, hard truths that sit like a rock in my stomach, especially as I look at the two 7-year-olds in the picture. But even as I wrestle with this, I know changing cultures is slow and arduous work, and frankly it’s not the task God has given us, especially when it isn’t even our culture. It’s tempting to throw our hands up and turn away. We can throw our hands up in despair, feeling frustrated by how far something is from where we think it should be. And we can throw our hands up in despair, overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.

Or we can throw our hands up in hallelujah, praising God for the opportunity to help a few more of His children understand their value and worth.

So here’s the invitation before us: Live wide awake, eyes open to the depth of our privilege, the ache in the world, and that responsibility the gap in between calls us to. Live wide open, hands and heart ready to invest our blood, sweat, tears and money into making His Kingdom Come in the lives of “the least of these.” Live wide-eyed in wonder, praising God for how He’s moving and asking Him to take us deeper on this journey with him.

Little by little, let’s work towards a day when the two almost-eight-year-olds in the picture have the same possibility to dream, imagine, and achieve all that God intended when he knit them together with the same love and care in their mothers’ wombs.  One not more precious than the other… both Daughters of the King.