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This young woman is asking for latrines this holiday season

Dec 4, 2015

Well, the last of the leftover turkey has been eaten or frozen, and the gift-buying and giving season is here.

Hanukkah starts Sunday. Christmas is just three weeks away, and I can’t wait for the first fist-fight in a Michigan shopping mall.

During lunch yesterday, I listened to two young women at the next table agonize that they didn’t know what they wanted their boyfriends to buy them.

Well, I wanted to tell them I knew another woman about their age who knows exactly what she wants.

Tahrima Khanom, a pert, once-stylish future teacher from Hamtramck, wants a latrine.

A bunch of them.

Yes, you heard me correctly. Latrines. Holes in the ground for human waste.

Two years ago, I could count on going to my office at Wayne State and being greeted by Tahrima, our cheerful student assistant.

She usually wore a stylish beret, was well-dressed, and was often reading some literary classic. Today, she is in Western Uganda, where she is a literacy specialist at Kyakatara Primary School in the foothills of the mountains.

Last year, instead of heading directly to graduate school, she decided to follow the dream she’s had since she was a teenager, and join the Peace Corps. She told me,“it epitomized everything I’ve ever wanted to do – teach, travel, and make a difference in someone’s life.”

They sent her to a place where there is no electricity, running water or plumbing.

During the last year she’s been mugged, robbed, and injured in a motorcycle accident.

She is homesick, desperately misses ice cubes, and always feels not quite clean, but as she writes on her fascinating blog -- tahrimatravels.wordpress.com -- she is also happier than she’s ever been before.

Happier, but very worried.

The latrines at her school are almost full.

There’s no money to build new ones.

If they don’t come up with $4,000, the school will have to shut down, probably dooming nearly 600 children to a life without education, perpetuating, she told me, “a cycle of illiteracy and poverty.”

So as a last resort, Tahrima and the school’s headmistress set up a GoFundMe account -- gofundme.com/latrinesforkps

So far, she’s raised about half the amount needed. She told me that she lies awake at night worrying. One of the students just died of malaria.

"I think about the pupils who come to school with no shoes, their feet caked with mud."

“I think about the pupils who come to school with no shoes, their feet caked with mud.”

She thinks about the children at the school who have already been diagnosed with HIV.

In her spare time, she works on AIDS and malaria prevention work in the community, and she has nightmares about the school closing.

This will be her second Christmas in Uganda.

I saw her when she came back for a visit this fall. She was thrilled to see her family, and immediately began missing Uganda.

She told me she felt guilty about her "American privilege," but in fact, Tahrima has never taken that for granted.

She only got to Detroit when she was nine. She was born 25 years ago in Bangladesh, where many are poorer than in Uganda.

She’s grown up in two cultures, fluently speaking two languages.

And there’s something else about Tahrima I want to mention. She’s a Muslim, and came here as the daughter of a refugee.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.