She walked slowly out of her classroom, her face turned towards the ground. Her shoulders hunched up around her ears, the ragged sleeves of her dress nearly reaching her elbows.
“What’s wrong with her,” I asked the group around me. They stopped the girl, and French phrases passed much too quickly for me to keep up. Finally, someone translated for me.
“She can’t pay her school fees, so they’re sending her home.”
That’s when I noticed the headmaster, moving from class to class, a list in his hands. Those were the children who hadn’t paid their fees. He was calling them to the front of their class and asking for the school’s money. And if they didn’t have it, they were sent home.
My stomach literally ached. I wanted to run up and tear the list out of his hands, ripping it up right in front of him. But I’m much too logical for that.
The little girl was still standing in the middle of our little group. She looked up finally, and I saw that her eyes were bright with tears. Every time she would blink, another one would make a muddy track down her face, dripping off of her chin and making a dark mark on her plain brown dress.
“How much?” I asked quietly. After a brief conference with the headmaster, we discovered that she owed 1,200 CFE.
Two dollars and forty cents.
One of the women in our group yanked the money out of her wallet, disgusted that this child was being sent home for less than the cost of a liter of water. Another in our group gently explained to the little girl that she could go back to class. She walked over, bowed her head, and whispered so quietly that I could barely hear it over the arithmetic lesson going on behind me.
Funny how much that sounds like mercy.