It’s hard to forget a girl like Shamim. Full of charisma, spirit, soul and cheer, her presence cannot be ignored. She is the star of TASO Mbale and, as we learned today, her village. It was the first time Emily and I had the chance to spend a whole day with our friend Shamim. While Joe, Kevin, David and Eric built the coop, we went exploring the village with Shamim. She took us up a steep, red-dirt road to her school, to her teacher’s house, to meet her friends and elders, to the clothing market and to meet her friend the tailor (she repurposed an abandoned truck cabin into a sewing studio). Everyone seemed to know Shamim and she greeted each acquaintance, relative and classmate with a handshake and smile. Every old man was introduced as her grandfather, adult women-auntie, and the old women were grandmothers. We walked back to her house to avoid the rain and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging under the trees on papyrus mats. Shamim speaks perfect English now, making it easy for us to communicate with her (ideally, we would speak her language, Lugisu). Back at the house, she shows us her recent school reports and they don’t match up with her obvious intellect. She’s been struggling at school lately because of sickness and the subsequent absences. And when she is at school, hunger, fatigue and ARV side effects affect her concentration. She kept telling us she was hungry, so we went back to the market and got her lunch and some bananas. When we returned to the house, she gave all the elders her food and left only a small portion for herself. This really bothered us, as we know that she needs every bite of protein, fat, and carbs she can get.
As we were loading up the car to leave, she pulled me and Emily aside for a confidential chat. She gazed toward the ground and her smile faded as she told us her caregivers don’t love her and treat her poorly. We didn’t have much time to gather more information before one of the elders came over and Shamim quickly changed the subject. We have requested that a counselor speak with Shamim and her grandmother to figure out the whole situation and hopefully prevent any abuse, should that be the case. It could also be that the caregivers are favoring the other children over Shamin, because of her HIV status. It’s very common, for the positive child to be treated differently, whether it be with access to school, food rations or the amount of housework given. It’s really frustrating to not be able to solve all of Shamim’s problems right now. To make sure that she has the childhood she deserves. The Poultry Project is not going to bring Shamim’s parents back or take away her illness, but it will help her and her family make some money and it has the potential to flourish into a thriving business. Shamim’s family purchased a cow with profits from their poultry business and her enrollment at school, from P1 through P4 has been a direct result of the project. We are hopeful that the TASO counseling team will be able to identify and resolve the current issues the family is facing. Before we left, we hugged Shamim and told her that we love her and that everything will be okay-I hope we can keep our promise.