Friday, December 9, 2011

I knew that it could happen, that I could fall in love in Uganda

“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.

Shami standing behind her mother and three of her brothers

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

4 Chickens and a Dream

The journey to Nighty’s village began around 9am with the solicitation of drivers and fierce negotiation led by Nighty. After finally settling on a price, four adults and three children piled into a 1980s Honda Civic that appeared to be driven right out of a salvage yard.

While Nighty insisted that her village is close to Pader, the journey took over three hours. Several times, we exited the vehicle to push the mighty Civic over bumps or to pull it out of the ditches of the poorly maintained dirt road.

When we arrived at the part of the journey where we took the small car off-roading, I knew we must be close. Nighty pointed out a gathering of a few dozen huts which she explained were the remnants of an IDP camp, largely abandoned now as people have returned to their homes.

Nighty’s family lives on an isolated plot located several miles from the main road and center of Abilo Nino village. Her father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and a slew of children live together in several bandas, subsisting off the land and selling what little crop they can to afford items like clothing and sugar.

Upon arrival, I greeted each family member in traditional Acholi style, spent a short while helping to grind jeenut paste (peanut butter), and then followed Nighty around the compound as she proudly showed off the grounds, well-tended crops, and simple bandas.

The place was beautiful, isolated and peaceful. With fields of sunflowers, high stalks of maize, goats and chickens, it seemed like an idyllic place to raise children.

“You think this is a peaceful place now, but not long ago, this very plot was taken over by the LRA,” Nighty’s uncle explained. “They used our home to cook for the militiamen, and those of us who survived the raids were driven to the camps.”

After a thorough tour of the compound, Nighty’s aged mother invited me into the women's banda. Inside, she set a woven mat upon the dirt floor and swept the ground before placing the meal she had prepared for her first ever muzungu guest: sweet potatoes, pasted malikwang and boyo (greens mixed with peanut and sunflower seed butter). The long journey left me quite hungry, and I was delighted by the vegetarian meal.

Outside, the men gathered in a circle of plastic chairs, awaiting my return. When the father of the family finally spoke, calling everyone to order, the lone English-speaking uncle translated.

“It is such a great honor to host our muzungu friend,” the father began. By three in the afternoon, when the father began his speech, the compound was teeming with nearly fifty people. Word spread quickly about the fair-skinned visitor and every clan member hurried to the compound to witness the event.

As part of a formal ceremony, each elder took a turn giving an oration. All expressed great appreciation for my visit, and then presented a unified dream, a desperate request to help their family.

“You see us before you, living very poorly, some of us with nothing to wear. We do not want your pity, your clothing, or medicine, all we want is education for our children,” one man spoke. “We will give you a plot of land, build you a home upon it, and provide you whatever you need, but our children will be nothing without an education.”

“I will marry you and care for you myself,” one of Nighty’s brothers generously offered.

Each elder echoed the same sentiment, first thanking me profusely for visiting, and then asking me to do anything I could to help their family plan for financing their children’s educations.

Nighty later explained that of her entire family, only one uncle had received an education and the rest remained illiterate. The youngest generation, mostly under six years, have little hope of going to school without a miracle. It was clear that the elders dreamed I would be part of that miracle.

After listening to each speech, I was invited to give my own. I had been moved by their appeals and wanted to communicate deep gratitude for their welcome, but I knew that I could not marry Nighty’s brother, build my home within their compound, or--most regrettably--cover the costs of educating each child on my own. It is one of the greatest disappointments of my time here, wanting to do so much, yet feeling helpless when asked to provide the assistance requested of me.

Before leaving the village, I was informed that the five homesteads had prepared gifts. Nighty took my camera as each head of household shook my hand with a wide grin and presented me with a live chicken, four in total. I am quite sure I have never held a chicken in my life, and my facial expression betrayed me as my mind wandered to thoughts about what a vegetarian would do with four chickens and how I would get them home. [The men tied the chickens’ feet and placed them in the trunk of the car for me. I squirmed every time I heard them squeal on the ride home.]

From a family with very little, I was treated with great honor. Despite my inability to make grand promises, I was embraced upon my departure and invited to visit anytime.

On the ride home, I played American music for Nighty, allowing my own mind to wander to ways I could help her family and others like hers. In time, my thoughts were interrupted as Nighty began to share with me for the first time her own war story.

As I have begun to gain the community’s trust, I have heard many stories of the war, each one equally moving. Nighty’s was no exception: the story of a young girl who ran away from the war, making it all the way to southern Uganda where she found work as a domestic servant and fish factory worker. She returned home to find that everything had changed: several family members had been killed, their homes burned, and the plot overtaken by rebels.

This is the story of the friend who gave me a soda and invited me into her hut on one of my first nights in Pader. Despite not having a clear solution for her family’s struggles, I will never forget them, their warm welcome, four chickens, or dream for their children.

Nighty's immediate family members gather for a portrait.