Sisters since birth, best friends forever – kind of cheesy, but so true. My aunt Mary bought us a print with that saying and I can’t get it out of my head. Last Wednesday, we met some sisters with an impenetrable bond. Tracy lives in a peri-urban neighborhood in Tororo. Her father died several years ago from AIDS-related illness and her HIV+ mother has been living in the village with the grandparents, too ill to care for herself or her children. Tracy (age 19) took on the role of mother and father to her sisters Winnie (17) and Sharon (11) a few years ago. Although Tracy is the oldest and the primary caretaker, it’s evident that they take care of each other.
I have two sisters and I consider them my best friends. But we are not orphans. I still have a hard time trying to truly understand the challenges these children face when they lose one or both parents. The simple thought of losing a parent paralyzes me, and I’m thirty years old. As a mother, I think about my daughter and I’m so grateful that I have the health and resources to care for her. Tracy is one of the top students in her Senior IV class. She aspires to be a doctor but, aware of her responsibility to care for her sisters, she is considering becoming a teacher because it will be less expensive and allow her to enter the workforce sooner. Tracy’s counselor and the rest of the Tororo Poultry Project participants recognize her sharp intellect, reliability and strong work ethic–the group of farmers unanimously selected her as the Tororo chairperson.
We spent the day with Tracy and really got to know her. As the chairperson, her coop would be built first. While the build team cut poles with pangas and constructed a chicken coop, my sister Emily and I shared stories, challenges and dreams with Tracy. She showed us her school books and report cards. She told us about her friends at school and in the neighborhood. We walked to the market together and helped her gather food for supper. It’s spring holiday, so most Ugandan children are off school until the end of May. Tracy confided in us about the rocky relationship between her mother and her sisters. Her youngest sister is HIV+ and she struggles with seeing her mother ill and bed-ridden. She fears the progression of the disease and tries so hard to adhere to her treatment regimen.
Tracy ensures that her sister has food to eat, transportation to TASO appointments, and a durable mosquito net. It’s not easy for Tracy to keep up the house, her sisters’ health and wellbeing, and her schoolwork. Tracy tells us about the challenges and is hopeful that the poultry business will help make ends meet. She smiles often, but you can see the pain and struggle in her eyes. She rarely gets the chance to enjoy her teen years. I don’t know how she does it. She is one of the strongest women I have ever encountered.
Being with my sister Emily while spending the day with Tracy and her sisters made me feel so lucky and grateful. When I came to Uganda for the first time back in 2006, Emily took a sincere interest in HIV/AIDS work and started helping right away. She helped me start the Poultry Project and began working in HIV/AIDS in the US. Theresa, our other sister, is equally committed to the Poultry Project and has mobilized her high school friends to get involved with fundraising and HIV/AIDS awareness.