She didn’t eat yesterday.
The little girl told me that as we sat with her and her mother under a mango tree. The fruit was not ripe yet, and still sat high and green and out of her reach.
Just behind the house, a few rows of corn grew. But they didn’t belong to her family. She could see them every day. But they were out of her reach.
I feel like every week I write about children who “went to bed hungry.” And they did. But right then, I sat before a little girl who literally went to bed less than 24 hours ago with nothing to eat.
I tried to imagine the tiny bit of hunger I’ve felt in my life, magnified. That small ache after missing a meal turned into deep pain after missing one, two, three meals. The slight ache when I take my lunch late turned into a pounding, relentless headache when late turns into never.
I couldn’t imagine it. But this little girl doesn’t have to imagine it. She lives it.
She is hungry when she walks past the market, her pockets empty.
She is hungry when her neighbors light up their braziers at night while her family’s remains cold.
She is hungry while fresh fruits and vegetables are in her sight, but not on her table.
As we left that night, we hauled a bag of rice out of the back of our van. Her mother bowed her head, thanking us over and over. And I knew that when this little girl visited the child development center, she would receive a meal. And that the center workers would watch her carefully, and at the first sign of malnutrition, she would be treated.
Those things are not out of her reach.
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.