It was our first day at Fatima. We went to meet the children, get accustomed to their school schedule, and talk with the teachers to see how we might best use our time with the students. We arrived during their mid-morning break, and children were milling around. It is times like these that cultural differences and language barriers don’t matter. A quick scan of the crowd and I needn’t have been 10,000 miles from home; the scene was all too familiar. The “cool” girls are in huddles, laughing and gossiping, whispering in each other’s ears and glancing our way. The “cool” guys are on the far end of the school yard, leaning against the building, bags slung over their shoulders, with earrings and colorful streaks in their hair to demarcate their social status.
As I surveyed the scene, one girl quickly caught my eye. She was an anomaly, to be sure, sprinting across the yard with a bunch of boys, the only girl wearing pants instead of a skirt for the school uniform. Well, it would be difficult to play during recess with a skirt on, I think to myself, amused, as she sprints by me to chase after another kid. I immediately recognized her as an athlete. It was clear she loved to move. She was in her element, joy written all over her face.
My suspicions were confirmed when, later in the day, Victoria and I went to organize a basketball lesson. The girl was first in line and all kinds of talented, but in a very raw and unrefined way. Understandable, since she probably had never played in any structured context.
A week later, I got to witness her in action at Fatima’s sports day. She won every single running event, a beaming smile all the while. Later in the day she was the only girl to play in the soccer game. And this girl is good at soccer, really good. The amount of raw talent is amazing, but it is painful when I realize that she has no way to play. I turn to one of the school teachers to ask if there is anything for her, any team, any league. “Doesn’t Mauritius have a National football team for women?” I plead, already aware of the negative answer. “They must, they are crazy about football here!” (Via google that evening, I soon learn that very, very few African countries have any athletic opportunities for women.)
My mind begins to race, and I think about the athlete this girl could be with a real coach, real equipment. Hell, lets start small…give the girl some shoes. I watch as she sprints by an opponent to win the ball, juggles it in motion through another, and books it up the field. (Her opponents are boys on the Junior National Mauritian Football team, and she is more than holding her own.) I ask the teacher about her background, her performance in the classroom. She sets up a meeting with her social worker for the following Monday.
Monday arrives. I soon learn that the girl, whose name is Charlotte*, was a street kid until the age of 8. She had no paperwork, nobody knew she existed, until she was eight. The “social worker” works for an NGO that works to provide street kids and orphans with an education. He has inadvertently become a father figure for her, although her parents are still alive. One parent is in jail, and the other is heavily involved in drug trafficking. Charlotte goes home only to sleep, and never sees her parents.
Her saving grace is her natural athletic talent. I learn she will do anything to play, which is unsurprising. Apparently there was a big, island-wide soccer tournament earlier in the year. A rule was imposed that each team needed at least one girl. Charlotte looked up all the teams that didn’t yet have a girl, and joined them all. This amounted to six or seven teams. She wanted to prove she could play with the boys, and that it didn’t matter whether she was tired or not.
I am shocked to learn she is almost 18. The social worker tells me her mother, the druggie, wants her out of school, so she can start working..The NGO is fighting to keep her in school, despite the fact that she is many grade levels behind. The problem is, the social worker explains, the NGO looks after many kids and their resources are limited. Charlotte will soon have to leave school with hardly any preparation for real work and a stunted education, so her career options will be very limited. I am later told that with so few options available to her, there is a high risk of Charlotte falling into “shady” occupations, such as prostitution. Athletics is her escape from all of that. Without school, she won’t even have a school yard to play on.
I leave the office where I was meeting with the social worker. It is recess, and Charlotte is playing soccer. I envision bringing her to the United States, where she would witness college and professional soccer for women, her eyes wide with excitement. I then imagine her being pushed out of school, forced into work, and not being able to play sports. I know a small part of her would perish in the event, in the same way I know a small part of myself would be lost were that to happen to me.
*name changed to protect privacy of individual(s) involved.