Why Every Girl (and her dreams) Counts — and what happens if they don’t

When you kneel down close and look into her face, her eyes look like tender full moons, like you could look from your world right into the mystery of her, see into the abyss of her.

Is Annette sad to be a girl? That’s what I want to know.

Annette is one of 5 girls living with her grandmother in eastern Rwanda and I sit in her house made of mud with a goat tied to a rope out back.

What does it mean for dreams to live inside the mind of one small girl in this world?

In a world where 130 million girls will not go to school today because they aren’t given a chance.

In a world where, if all the girls in the world who are denied an education for the sole reason of being female, were an actual country, they would be the 10th largest country on the planet.

In a world where half a billion women can’t read what you just did right now.

Annette’s grandmother, Madeleine, her dhuku winding loosely and vibrantly around her hair, she pats Annette’s hand, and reaches out to take mine.

Madeleine has 3 daughters. And two sons, and a dead husband, and 5 granddaughters, and more grandsons, and a lost herd of cattle, stolen by violence that’s made her a refugee, but it’s her 3 daughters Madeleine feels compelled to tell me about.

“My three daughters were all kidnapped in Tanzania,” Madeleine looks me right in the eye, sitting on the edge of her couch, our knees touching, me still gripping her hand.

Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life

“All — three? Of — your daughters — kidnapped?” I mean — what can you say? To make sense of three of one mother’s daughters being snatched away, one after the other? Six-year-old Annette is swinging her legs off the edge of her chair.

For 9 months, Madeleine and her 5 granddaughters lived in a refugee camp within Rwanda. Madeleine has had nothing to eat for days at a time, went to bed hungry, but she held on to those 5 granddaughters of hers and she found Africa New Life, their church and their schools, and their philosophy: Tear down gates, set out more plates.

She found Jesus.

“If I hadn’t given my life to Jesus, I wouldn’t be alive right now,” Madeleine twists her hands in her lap and I nod, grip her hand tightly: Living fully given to Jesus is how one is given the fullest life. I watch Madeleine watching Annette.

When women surrender everything to Jesus, they win every battle that matters. We could live like this. I can see the steely, certain determination in Madeleine’s eyes.

I ask Madeleine about the stitched verses on her wall. Madeleine looks up Romans 8:31 in green thread opposite the one window. “When things are hard, I walk through the house and I see the Scriptures up on the wall and I pray,” Madeleine speaks with this worn wisdom.

Write His Word on your doorposts and you know the way forward.

Madeleine can’t read. Two-thirds of the 774 million people on the planet who will never read any words are female.

Is Annette sad to be a girl in this world?

Madeleine does have a Bible, Words that she can’t read but she literally clings to.

She tells me that after she hears a verse in church, she sits down her granddaughters, gives them her worn Bible, and tells them to find that verse and read it to her again and again.

Do women who can read words, cherish the Word like this? I feel uneasy on the edge of my chair.

Madeleine quotes what her heart knows by heart, “What, then, shall we say — ? If God is for us, who can be against us?” And my throat burns: If God is for us, who can be against us, but if we are not for the world’s girls, what does it matter who is for us?

Madeleine calls one of her oldest granddaughters, asks her to read Scripture for her, for us, and the young girl read words on the page for her grandmother hunched over the holy book like a fledgling waiting to be fed.

The moment is holy.

It can happen and it is happening: When a woman makes the Word her world, she changes her world and a thousand other worlds.

And one girl is passing the Word on to one woman who cannot read words, who needs Words, and this is who we are: women are made for the connected life, the given life, the community life, the together life, and the sisterhood of women is meant to be assisterhood, every woman assisting her sister.

Is Annette sad to be a girl?

If every woman committed to be part of the assisterhood of women assisting women — would any girl be sad to be a girl?

I lean in and ask Madeleine what gives her courage every day, and she nods slowly, her eyes not leaving mine, “Focus on the circumstances, you will die.”

I nod, not turning away from her: Focus on Christ, because He provides.

I cannot stop scanning Madeleine’s face. How much do we have to rely on Christ to provide — instead of our credit cards? How much do I focus on what is happening, instead of on Who is in control of everything that happens? How rich in faith is a woman in Africa, and how poor in focus are those of us who have food in the fridge tonight?

Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life

The rains will stop. The drought will come. The oats will run out. Madeleine will not have even 100 frank — a dime — to buy salt.

“I don’t beg people,” Madeleine speaks softly. “I only beg God — and God moves people.”

I want to turn away from her eyes. How often has the Spirit of God moved in me — and I haven’t moved? How often has God moved to answer through His people — and His people haven’t moved?

“We share everything,” Madeleine’s patting my hand, like she’s inviting me into a different kind of life, “If I am out of porridge, my neighbour will share. If I have salt, I will share my salt.”

Before she’s even done speaking, I’m murmuring Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “…The Life Together. We are called to the together life. All of us — and distance doesn’t determine our togetherness.” 

Who of us isn’t longing for the shared life? Isn’t that the haunting longing of our existence — to share togetherness? The shared life is how we have shares in joy.

“God Himself taught us to meet one another as God has met us in Christ,” writes Bonhoeffer. “Once a man has experienced the mercy of God in his life, he will henceforth aspire only to serve… Christian brotherhood… is… a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

As God meets our needs in Christ, we get to meet our sister’s needs through Christ, and if we have ever had any shares in the grace of Christ, how can we not share that grace with anyone in need?

I memorize Madeleine’s face. Aspiring to success isn’t about reaching up ladders —- it’s about reaching out and aspiring to serve.

Christian sisterhood is assisterhood — women who insist on assisting because this is how we relentlessly resist the dark and passionately persist for the Kingdom of Light.

And Madeleine circles back to her daughters, because this is what Madeleine wants me to know, in the midst of everything else so things can change something now: “All three of my daughters. Kidnapped.” Madeleine nods. “By men who forced them to be their wives. By men who made themselves their husbands.”

I turn to look for Annette’s wide-moon eyes.

Is Annette sad to be a girl in the world?

The translator sitting on the floor tries to explain what I am struggling to compute: “It is cultural in several countries here: A man sees a girl, waits for when she goes to fetch water, and then you take her. Then you come back to her parents 2 days later and say: “Hey, we took your daughter — how many cows do you want?”

Annette steps out of the doorway to scoop up their one goat.

And I face the translator’s words head on: When girls can be stolen for marriage and bought with a bunch of cows, it’s our own collective souls that are sold to buy a kind of hell.

Annette looks luminous in the doorway. I want her to run out of this house, away from these words, run through the rain, as if she can wash this all away. But where do you run away from your reality?

Madeleine’s Pastor sits down next to her on the couch, speaks clearly: “It was an atrocity.”

Maybe Annette won’t hear what Pastor Charles says next: “And girls knew that this could happen to them. They knew that one day they could go to the well to carry water and then never come back and that is the way they would be forced into marriage.”

I don’t turn toward Annette, hoping that if I don’t catch her eye, maybe she’s not listening?

The Pastor’s voice cracks: “The girl had no rights or no choice of her own — she was treated like property.”

Annette’s stroking the goat’s back, standing in the door way, watching the sky looming dark and heavy from from the north.

When a girl has no rights — what does it matter what is right in the rest of the world?

The Pastor’s words try to rise above the sound of the clouds weeping rain upon tin roofs: “When Madeleine was a young refugee girl in Uganda, a man approached her and did what was culturally acceptable — threw a ring around her neck. Automatically making her —- his.”

I turn to Madeleine, read her eyes. Madeleine was made a wife for life — the same way her daughters were. By force. Against her will.

Madeleine wanted me to know her daughters’ story, because it was her story — so it won’t be her granddaughters’ story.

Madeleine’s eyes are pleading with mine.

Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life
Esther Havens for Africa New Life

When girls are treated like pawns — it’s the world that finds itself in checkmate.

When girls have no choice — we have to make a choice to say yes to their worth, their voice, their rights.

And I try to stop something inside of me from breaking and spilling, like the sky, like the Pastor.

When girls are forced against their will — where is our will to change the forces that be?

The Pastor’s wiping a rain of his own away, “The reason men take young girls — took her, took her three daughters — is because the girls were not going to school. If girls had the opportunity to go to school…” Pastor Charles brushes his wet cheeks with the back of his hand and I catch him staring at Annette in the door way.

“The life of a girl can be different now.” He speaks louder, above the pounding rain. “God emancipates girls. God uses education to emancipate girls. In receiving an education, girls become free.”

He turns towards the door, says it like a blessing toward Annette, “The best way to emancipate a girl is to give her an education.”

And it keeps coming likes the rain and I want to drum it like the thrumming on the tin roof.

We have to make sure half a world of girls can dream —so the whole world doesn’t live a kind of nightmare.

Annette’s sets down the goat, stretches out her open palm — catching water through her fingers.

Waste a girl’s dreams — and the world starts to waste away.

When we refuse to be part of helping girl’s dream — how do we refuse to be like Christ?

Does Annette dream?

When a girl in the world dreams — more of God’s dream for the world comes true.

When we help a girl dream — we live woken.

Dream, Annette — you get to dream.

 Annette turns to me from the doorway and smiles, her moon-wide eyes rising like dreams awakening in the willing.

 

 

“The best way to emancipate a girl is to give her an education.”

130 million girls right now — are being denied an education. And every one of those girls counts. You could be one of the blessed & lucky ones who get to put one of these 500 girls into school.

You could be one of the blessed & lucky ones who get to stand with the girls of Africa and help them dream. When we refuse to be part of helping girl’s dream — how do we refuse to be like Christ?

This is our chance: When we help a girl dream — we live woken.

 

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