Immersed in talk about clothespin incentive systems and Friday assessment routines with my teacher, I hadn’t noticed one of the center’s head administrators walk into the classroom. I turned upon hearing the disrupting voice cutting through my meeting time, only to notice him standing by the partition in need of my attention.
Lifting myself from the edge of the four-year-old-sized pastel plastic chair on which I was perched, I put on a smile and approached, wondering what news would warrant a visit to my rarely-noticed nursery school.
We have a problem, he started. Someone is waiting outside and we need to talk to you. Will you come?
Glancing back at my teacher and then up at the clock, I did the math in my head. I could already hear the little fists pounding in anticipation of entering the classroom after our porridge break time, as well as the subtle ticking of the clock in my mind that was winding its way down.
Wait a little bit for my meeting to finish, okay?
The answer seemed to be sufficient when coupled with the promise of only another ten minutes passing before the outside problem would be addressed.
I refocused my body into the too-small seat and my mind on the utter importance of using dried beans to make letters of the alphabet, but my wandering mind kept running through a list of potential problems my exiting might bring to its attention.
Was there a lack of food? A few weeks ago, we had completely run out and had to scramble to buy a few bags of beans and maize flour to postpone the hunger of 500 for a few days. No, that couldn’t be it. A group had just come this weekend; the kids had been assembled like a little circus act to perform and then to listen as a meaningless report of the large sums of money given was read aloud with pomp.
Was a child sick? Just three days ago, the two-year-old grandbaby of Mr. Michael, our teacher of the blind, had died of malnutrition. We had spent the proceeding day silently sitting on the concrete floor of their small house alongside a grieving mother who was balled up in the corner and covering herself in cloth to hide the tears. No, that couldn’t be it. I spoke with the nurse this morning and there was no mention of serious illness.
My mind continued to postulate as ten minutes came and went, as did the conclusion of the meeting. Hurriedly excusing myself once again from the plastic seat and breathing a sigh of relief that African time, which says that ten minutes can acceptably be twenty-five, I headed out to find the administrator. Spotting him sitting next to an older child with albinism at a table, I approached and stood opposite, murmuring a quick apology for my delay.
As the conversation started, I was introduced to Enock, the young man who I soon realized was the reason for the meeting’s arrangement. A shook a sun-damaged, rough hand and looked into eyes that were similarly lacking pigment and shaded by a wide-brimmed hat. His free hand clasped a crumpled piece of paper that was gently unfolded onto the table between us as we sat down. Glancing at its contents, I could see bits of Swahili and some numbers inked-in on blanks. At the top was printed one word that was similar enough to English for me to understand: Sekondari.
Turning my attention to the administrator, I began to put the pieces together in my mind. Enock was in secondary school. This was a paper from that very school. The blue numbers indicated the school fees. And he couldn’t pay them, I guessed.
I listened patiently for the explanation, waiting for the inevitable asking of money, all the while feeling a bit irritated at being seen as the mzungu, white person, with money at the center. Having solved the mystery of the problem I’d face, my mind now started rolling through the acceptable responses.
I should get approval from my organization before giving money. That was one good, and usually true, get-out-of-giving-money answer. Or maybe I could say that I don’t have it right now; but, I did. How about that I only use my money to support the specific programs we are running at the center?
Quieting the answers and excuses I’d quickly created, I turned to prayer. What would you like me to do, God?
And, as I refocused my attention on the pale-skinned young man humbly asking for my help right in front of me, God started to show my heart a bit of His own.
Enock had left the safety of the center to make a dangerous trip to his home village in search of the money. He had gone to visit a poor mother and a house that was abandoned by a negligent father. He had pleaded with the villagers for the help he needed to pay his school fees, and they had come together with what little they could sacrifice. Yet, as he uncovered the details of his story quietly to me, he also slowly uncovered the meager amount with which he’d returned: 35,000 shillings, which translates roughly to $18. And he couldn’t go to school because he didn’t have the remaining amount to pay.
How much are you short? I asked, holding my breath.
Elfu ishirini na sita. Twenty-six thousand shillings.
I shot an inquisitive look at the administrator in need of verification. Elfu ishirini na sita.
I’d heard right.
I broke my gaze to again look down at the crumpled paper, and it was as though the numbers had started to change. Before they’d been amounts of money that the rich mzungu could give. Now, they were nothing more than a simple $13 that prevented a student from an education.
And as I sat and thought about those thirteen little dollars, the quality of this young man’s life began to hit me. He was living a life where thirteen dollars was an impossible amount of money to pay. Thirteen dollars was too much. Thirteen dollars kept him from his desired life’s path. Thirteen dollars.
I can’t even imagine living without thirteen dollars to my name. To live trusting, day to day, that the center will give you food to eat and that your neighbors might respond in sheer grace to a solicitation of money for education. Money that symbolized the last shred of hope for a better future.
My heart started to soften. The discomfort and anger of being seen as a money-supplier began to dissipate, replacing itself with a deep sense of sadness. The cynical attitude I had put on, having slopped through an environment thick with corruption, faded as I took a single minute to feel the sadness and hardship of an insurmountable problem of not having thirteen dollars.
In that moment, as I held back tears and as the reality of Enock’s life settled into my heart, two things became crystal clear: One, that I can in no way come close to imagining or experiencing the daily hardship facing my children here. And two, that the thirteen dollars was as good as paid.
I decided to go through the motions of double-checking the numbers, verifying the bank for depositing, and emphasizing the need for a receipt, just so I could protect that little part of me that wanted people to know that I wasn’t just at the center for monetary handouts. Finally, I couldn’t take his downcast eyes any longer.
I’ll help you.
A smile, one that was pure and full of delight, spread across the administrator’s face. She’ll help you, he translated, turning to the young man. He shot up and extended his hand in my direction. And at that moment, I learned about bringing hope to the hopeless with only thirteen dollars: about lifting up downcast eyes and sunken hearts, straightening up hunched-over shoulders and strengthening weakened handshakes.
And you know, it’s not even really about the money. It’s about putting the money in the hands of the One who can take thirteen bills and create hope. It’s about a God who can take a little bit of cash and create a sense of destiny and purpose and determination in a young man’s life. It’s about a God who can take the small, temporal, finite things that we have to offer and can create eternal, kingdom significance in a life and in this world.
And, it’s about a God who can take thirteen little dollars and create in me a softened heart to freely give to His precious children.
Sure, they may live in the midst of a corrupt mess. But we are called to enter into the mess and love it into holiness.
Sure, they may have learned somewhere along the way that Western skin equates with money. But we are called to do missions rightly, and sometimes pick up the pieces left behind by those who think they’re helping yet have created dependency and hurt.
Sure, they have been given a life of poverty and suffering beyond their control, and they’ll sometimes do anything to free themselves from it. But, we have the Spirit of the Living God in us and in our midst to bring discernment and impart the Father’s wisdom, so that we’ll know exactly how to live and give His way.
Never be afraid to give thirteen-dollars-worth of whatever you have. Maybe it’s thirteen-dollars-worth of your time. It might be your prayers or your talents. Maybe it’s bringing encouragement to one or speaking the truth to the masses. Or maybe it’s sitting in the dirt with the poor and speaking value into their downtrodden lives.
But not matter what it looks like, it always means letting God soften your heart and transform you more into the likeness of His Son Jesus, so that when you see a world full of hurt, you’ll have the faith to believe that your thirteen dollars will change lives when placed in the hands of the One who is able.
Written by – Claire Fedele