“You are going to be my friend,” the young girl making my breakfast omelet told me with a big grin on her face.
Every day for two weeks, I stopped by the restaurant/shop that Shami’s parents own as I finished my morning run. Often, I would buy a rolex, the Ugandan version of a breakfast burrito: two eggs cooked with onions and tomato, wrapped in a chapatti (a fried tortilla).
Since coming home from boarding school in Kampala at the end of November, Shami would run out of the shop when she saw me coming to cook my rolex on her hot stone oven and talk to me about her studies, the day ahead, life. On days when there were no eggs available or I wasn’t hungry, I’d stop by just to say hello, buy a slice of bread or a water.
As time drew near for me to depart from Pader for the holidays, I told Shami I’d spend a whole day with her. At eleven years old--old enough to have responsibilities like fetching water and overseeing the shop--Shami needed special permission from her mother to spend the day out.
With her mother’s approval, our date was set.
Shami came by my house early in the morning to tell me the plan for the day: first, we would go to the photo booth in town and have several photos taken; then, she would take me to the mosque; and finally, we would return to her family’s restaurant for a lunch prepared by her mother.
“Don’t forget to wear your long blue dress!” She told me. “It will look perfect with the headscarf I will bring you!”
On our way to the photo booth, Shami spoke excitedly, asking all about my life. She asked if I am the only girl in my family, and explained that she is now; her older sister died of disease. When I explained that I too am the only girl, she responded with delight: “That’s it! We shall be sisters! You will be my older sister in America and we will be sisters forever!”
Little by litte, Shami was stealing my heart.
Shami walked proudly into the photo booth with her muzungu friend and told the shop owner with authority that we would take three photos with the Japanese garden background. We posed like models, then like sisters.
Our giddiness on the walk to the mosque made it feel like we’d skipped the whole way. Shami continued in her cheery manner and told me of her dreams: “Some day, I will be a doctor.”
“You are a very smart girl,” I told her. “You will do it. I know you will!”
“I want to help my family out of poverty, and I want to help other people too. I study very hard in school and have been number one or number two in my class every semester for the past two years!” Shami told me with pride.
My heart beat a little faster.
“Do you like to read?” I asked, hopeful.
“I love to read! I love to read about everything: history and science and even stories. I love to study science, and even though I’m not the best in mathematics, I like to do the work. I am a very hard worker. My parents like it when I am home because I work so hard in the shop, and I am like that in school as well.”
We entered the mosque and sat behind the curtain separating the women from the men. With each warm breeze, the curtain moved just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the imam and men sitting on the mats in front of us.
After prayers, I told Shami I wanted to take her shopping. I had noticed she wore the same worn school uniform most days, and I wanted her to have a new one for the coming school year and a change of clothes for Christmas.
Shami was delighted. When we arrived back to her home, her mom had prepared a huge lunch for us: pasted and non-pasted greens (boiled greens with and without peanut butter), sweet potatoes, beans, peanut butter, and water.
“Mama, mama! My sister has agreed to help me with my math!” Shami told her mother in their native Luganda. “And she wants me to go to University, all the way in America! She says if I keep working hard, I will go to Harvard some day, a university where they pay the school fees if you are poor!”
I looked at my little sister and I believed it. I believed she would become a doctor some day and that she would go to Harvard.