The censeur gave me an unclear story. The person who was hosting him died and he had moved to another house that could host him in turn for labor, but could not pay his tuition. I didn’t ask too many questions. He sounded like someone worth helping.
Adrien told me that he was 12 years old. This was clearly false, but often the students don’t know their birth-date, and as a result they go through a process to have their birth-year determined by a government official; I didn’t think much of it.
He starting coming to my house regularly, sometimes just to greet me, and other times to do his work. A few times I offered him some of what I was eating. He ate like he was hungry, and I quickly realized that he wasn’t being well fed. Normally I cooked (and ate) for two anyway, so I started preparing food with him in mind. Not long after, the mama of his house moved to the city to stay with her family during the time of mourning for her husband. He could stay at the house, but he wouldn’t have any food. So I told him I would feed him for the duration.
He started spending more time at my house, doing his homework, myself helping him with English and other subjects where I could. Slowly, as time went on, his story started to unravel. One night, my friend Claire, was visiting. The three of us were in the kitchen preparing dinner when we started talking about age. I’m twenty-five and Claire is twenty-four. We’re old compared to many of our fellow volunteers. Adrien again made the claim that he was 12.
“No really,” I said, “what is your age?”
“I don’t know, maybe 12, maybe 16, who knows,” he responded. I kept bugging him, and he left the room and came back with a paper where he wrote the year he was born.
“That means you’re 20! There’s no way. Really, when were you born? Tell the truth.”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe I’m 16.” It was left at that. For the next 24 hours, it really bothered me. How was I supposed to react to this? What if he really was telling the truth now, that he was 20? It’s one thing to lie by 4 years; it’s another to lie by 8. With students here, you can’t always look at them and make a fair judgment. With malnutrition and the resulting stunted growth, a 20 year old can easily be the size of a well-nourished 12 year old.
And even more, the way I would help a 16-year-old is very different from the way I would help at 20-year-old. He would only be 5 years younger than me. I would probably be more fraternal to him than paternal- less preachy and condescending.
I spent the next day in the city, and that evening I was watching a bad movie on my laptop when Adrien arrived. We chatted for a while and finally I said, “Tell me how old you are. It’s not a big deal, but I want to know. We’re you really born in 1988?”
He avoided the topic as much as possible, but I persisted, telling him that it was a stupid secret to keep from me.
“O.K. I’m going to tell you the truth, because right now you’re it. You’re my patron, my papa, my big brother. I’m 20. I was born in 1988. For real.”
“But I don’t understand. Why lie?” And so his story began,
My parents were farmers. My father had a team of ox, and I worked in the fields from a very young age. He died when I was young, and my brothers and I kept working. My mother is very old, 80. My father had two wives and too many children. School wasn’t important. I started primary school when I was 8, three years late. It was an 8 kilometer walk there and back every day. I never succeeded in primary school; my family needed me in the fields. Normally the adult is in the cart, and a child leads the oxen from the front. If there was work to be done, they didn’t care if I would miss a test or quiz, I was needed in the field. The ground isn’t very good where I lived, up north, so there wasn’t a lot of work. We were really poor. We suffered. There wasn’t always food, maybe that’s why I’m so small. When I was older, I was sent here to do work. There are more farms here and the ground is more fertile. I couldn’t find money for school there, but I thought that if I could find enough work I might be able to afford it here.Now he helps the Mama of the house with chores, and on Saturdays goes to their farm to do work there as well. He doesn’t get paid, but stays there for free. He had had a cell phone, which he sold to pay for Martin’s tuition. He didn’t have the money to pay for his second year of school. That was when I came into the picture.
Over the next months, I found farm jobs around the village, and further away, even Nigeria. The next challenge was getting into school. I had finished primary school late and was too old to get into secondary school with a file transfer. I went to see the director of the secondary school. He told me that for a bribe of 20,000CFA he would let me in without a file. I didn’t have the money. I had only saved 15,000CFA, and he told me to go away. I came back that night. I emptied out my pockets, I said “this is all I have,” and started crying there in front of him. The director took the bribe, and let me in.
The next challenge was to find a place to live. When I was up north, I went to the Assembly of God church. When I left to come here, my pastor wrote a recommendation letter for me, saying that I was a good kid, and asking that the church here might help me. I showed the letter to the pastor here, and he helped me to find a room. The room I found was 2500CFA a month. I brought all my stuff to the house thinking I could move in right away, but the landlord wouldn’t let me move in without the first month’s rent. I didn’t know what to do. I had just spent all my money on getting admitted into school. I went to one of my favorite teachers and explained my situation. He gave me 3000CFA. I paid the rent, moved in, and used the other 500CFA to buy corn to mill into flour so I would have something to eat.
On the weekends during the school year, I could find jobs to pay for rent and a little food. But when it came time to pay my school contribution, I didn’t have any money. Again I went to a teacher, and he tried to help me convince the censeur to give me some time to raise the money, without kicking me out. He initially said no, but after I came back to him with another teacher, and another, he finally agreed.
When my landlord died, I needed to find another place to live. I came to live with my friend’s family. Since the situation was decent there, I brought my brother, Martin, here to start secondary school.
“But why do you lie about your age? You’re 20, not 12. That’s a big difference.”
“I was certain that if the director found out about my age, he wouldn’t let me into school. I’m too old for school, but if I don’t, I’ll end up back on the farm with all my brothers. My one brother – he’s not much older than me – and he’s destroyed his back in the fields. He can’t work and people have to take care of him all the time. I don’t want to be like that. My parents didn’t realize how important education is. I do. I don’t want to be tired and worn out half to death.”
“But what if you don’t succeed? You barely passed 1st year, and you’re not doing that well this year. What do you want to do with your life? You can’t go to school forever, especially if you’re not good at it!”
“Je ne sais pas. I don’t want to end up like my brother. For now, I can go to school, and I don’t have to work in the fields. There’s no work anyway. Even the people who go to university, they can’t find work. They end up teachers, even though they don’t want to be. I guess it’s God that helps us.” That sort of reliance on deistic aid is normal here. Unfortunately, it becomes a sedative also – an excuse to do hang tight and hope.
“You’re surrounded by God’s gifts; they’re just waiting for you to discover them. She’s not going to hand you money and wish you luck,” I said to him.
What really destroys my hope is that Adrien’s story isn’t that special. It might have a happier ending because he has found me to help him get by, but in reality he reflects a majority of my students. Essentially I teach middle school, and my students who are claiming to be 12, 13, 14 are clearly 15, 16, 17. Where else should they be? In the fields doing back-breaking work? As a house servant for the elite wealthy in one of the big cities? The longer they stay in school, the longer they can put off the harsh reality that for most of them, their dreams will not be realized, and even for the very intelligent, the future is bleak - maybe $150 a month as a teacher or facilitator for an ONG.
With stunted dreams, why work so hard to succeed? Perhaps this is why many bright eyed, thinking students don’t pass and repeat the same grade level again and again. It buys them another year away from reality. Then, the girls get pregnant, which is normal for a 17 year old west-African female. The boys have to provide for them. They get poorer, and have more children. More malnutrition. More Adriens. No simple protection against diseases like Malaria and Cholera. No one listens when this or that ONG comes to the village and tries to teach about condoms or birth control. Teachers abuse their status, get their students pregnant, and instead of reporting it, the families go to the Teachers, who are rich, and ask support.
Having heard Adrien’s story, my view of the land I walk on grows darker and darker. As an American, I find it hard to believe that anyone so set on succeeding in school – so dedicated to study and responsible in his coursework – could so easily face the grim possibility of failure. Such a failure will send Adrien back into the fields. At first, I thought of him as a boy. 14 or 16 years old. Now as we’ve grown closer, I’ve come to see that his age has never really mattered. He has always been a man.
N.B. Obviously, this conversation took place in French and was three hours long. It’s been condensed and adapted to share the general gist of my brother’s situation.