Aileen’s Girls

Sometimes problems here are thorny and provocative. They are not only difficult to solve; nobody wants to talk about them.

One of these is fistula – a life-threatening and embarrassing problem. Here is a link to understand it better:

I can’t imagine that more than 2 million women in the world have fistula. I can’t imagine not having access to a doctor to repair any damage that occurs during childbirth. But, for most girls in Niger who have babies beginning at age 12, this is normal. And, when fistula gets bad, there are not many options. A girl walks out of her village to lie under a tree waiting for death.

What is the proper response? Remember that our cultural identity is huge. Even when Christianity has entered into a place, problems don’t go away. But truly following Christ requires a different way of looking at problems. How do we solve them in a way that makes room for the fact that each person’s life matters?

In Niger, it is hard to make a living. The majority of people are subsistence farmers. And, there are many children to feed. This creates a cycle of marrying off girls beginning at age 12. When I read The Kite Runner, the author gave an apt description of such behavior – “cutting off a finger to save the hand.” If a girl gets married, there is more food in the home for those who are left. But, then she begins to have children, and the cycle begins again.

There is a missionary here named Aileen Chung who is a school teacher at Sahel Academy. She is completely sold out on the idea of saving the lives of teen girls here. When I asked her why she moved from one mission organization to another this last year, she shared a story of how she hopes to begin to address this complicated problem.

Aileen loves the Lord and she loves education. She loves what it can do to change a person’s life. Someday I will tell you of her first project in Niger, but that will have to be another story. During that first project (really because of it), Aileen found a Nigerien man knocking at her backdoor. Her French is passable, and her comprehension is good. This man told Aileen that in his village when girls finish primary school, there is no middle school available for the girls. He also knew that she helps with education for Nigeriens. She asked him how he got her name. “We talk, and we know who cares.” It’s true. Nigeriens are watching us, and we are known by what we do.

This man told her his youngest sister was getting married. She had been given away at age 12. She had just finished primary school at the top of her class. There were five other girls who graduated the same year. They were all married within a year to older men who could afford a dowry – with the agreement of their Christian parents. They were also all extremely bright. The man who searched for Aileen wanted her to start a school. He understood the cycle and what is wrong with it – and he knew that Aileen could help. The cycle is:  too early marriage, the possible onset of fistula, and the possible premature death of any of these girls.

SIM has started a fistula hospital in Niger.  Word is slowly getting around that there is hope for a girl with this problem – if she can find a way to get to Danja. But, really, what she needs is prevention. The hospital employees are sent out to find girls who have fistula because most people can’t get the girls to the hospital. The girls are considered cursed by Allah and sometimes cannot return to their villages even if they are healed. So, the girls will also learn a skill at the hospital and may have to start their lives over elsewhere.

Aileen realized very quickly that she couldn’t start a school – who would come to this village in the middle of nowhere to teach a few girls?

But, Aileen went to some Nigerien pastors and educators and discussed the problem. How had the women among them received a higher education? They came up with a plan.

If the parents would agree, for the girls who were not yet married in the village, could each girl be sent to a family member who lived close to a “college” or “lycee” (middle or high school)? The girl would be required to continue her education, the parents were not allowed to marry her off until after she graduated high school at 18, and the girl had to get good grades in the meantime. The family that took in each girl would receive a huge sack of rice once a month, which would be paid for by Aileen. Aileen also pays for the girls’ private schooling, uniforms and textbooks. Once the girls return home after high school, they are required to teach a younger girl in their village for one year about the things they learned.

This seemed like a workable idea. Aileen got some help writing up the contracts. And, she had this idea that she would take all of the families and girls to a lawyer in Niamey and have them sign the contract to make it binding in everyone’s eyes. Her Nigerien friends laughed, what a funny notion! No, she needed to go to the village chief to be a witness of the contract.

Her friends took Aileen to the pastor of the village. He took Aileen to the parents and their daughters.  The girls, their parents, and Aileen signed their agreements in front of the village chief. The girls are doing well! Aileen visits them and their host Christian families once a month to deliver the rice and see how they are progressing in school. In the meantime, no one has fistula.

Today, Aileen has requests from the families of 30 girls. She was back in the States last year, driving in her car, wondering how she was going to keep up with 30 girls. She told me at that moment she received a clear vision from God – she would build a school where all the girls would be under one roof. Since her return, she has spent her weekends searching for a piece of land to be purchased by an organization called GEM out of California. She is looking on the outskirts of Niamey.

But, get this!

A few weeks ago, a woman in Niamey who is of the main faith here heard about what Aileen is planning. She insisted that someone find Aileen and bring her to the woman’s office. Aileen was brought, and the woman said she had heard about this school for girls. She held out several drawings of tracts of land. She told Aileen to pick one for her school! Aileen was shocked! How much was she selling the land for? It would be free – provided there would be a school for girls built on it. Aileen picked out a tract on the outskirts of Niamey looking over the Niger River – the land is now being registered in the name of the school. When Aileen asked her why she was donating the land, the woman said she had heard of how this would help these girls. Then, she showed Aileen how she would build homes on the land around the school in hopes that families would be drawn to it. While she may profit from her decision, we know God uses who He chooses to accomplish His purpose.

Ken and I went with Aileen to look at the land. There are four concrete markers at the corners of 2 plus acres that have been donated. The picture above does not do justice to the barrenness of this place. The ground is rock hard – with rocks that have the heft and color of lava rocks. The hot wind blows sand and grit into our faces. A woman with a tub full of something balanced on her head walks by with a little boy holding her hand. She has walked to the goudronne to buy something and is returning to her hut somewhere down the track. Her little boy keeps twisting his head back and staring at us – what in the world can we be doing standing out in the middle of nowhere? After a few minutes, a shepherdless herd of goats wanders by.

Aileen tells me that she knows why Ken and I are with her. At first, she admits, she wondered why we would care – why would we bother to spend a Saturday afternoon praying over this dry and barren land? Then, she smiles, and says it’s because she has prayed many times to God saying that she cannot do this on her own. Could He send someone to help her, to support her, to pray over this school with her? She realized that God was answering her prayer for help and support. Really, if something were to happen to Aileen, these tenuous plans would all disappear. This daring project for these girls would die. Would you join us in praying over Aileen and her work?

The plans are ambitious – the school is set to be open next October. We prayed together there – and plan to do so once a month.

While we were there, Aileen mentioned that a group from Oklahoma is coming to Niger this month. They want to build wells for any Christian organization. They had their organizer visit the land last week. He has added this property to his list of possible well projects. They will not charge to build the well. Aileen has been shocked and blessed in her efforts. Would you pray the well gets built in the next week?

One last thing, there are very different opinions here about whether or not Aileen should build this school. She has truly gone past the boundaries of “normal” projects – which is why she is no longer with her last organization. In my mind, the verse I Corinthians 9:22 pops up – “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Compassion and mercy will always draw certain types to try crazy things. Even if just one of Aileen’s girls breaks out of this cycle, saved from fistula, to God be the glory.

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2 thoughts on “Aileen’s Girls

  1. Julie, thank you for writing so vividly about Aileen and her project. Aileen is someone very special to our older girls and I am so grateful that she is back in Niger. Thanks for standing by her.


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