Opinion

Goat helped ‘luckiest girl' reach dreams

This year's college graduates owe their success to many factors. But one of the most remarkable of the new graduates, Beatrice Biira, credits something utterly improbable: a goat.

“I am one of the luckiest girls in the world,” Beatrice declared after earning her bachelor's degree from Connecticut College.

Beatrice's story helps address two of the most commonly asked questions about foreign assistance: “Does aid work?” and “What can I do?”

The tale begins in the rolling hills of western Uganda, where Beatrice was born. As a girl, she desperately yearned for an education, but it seemed hopeless: Her parents couldn't afford to send her to school.

Beatrice was on track to become one more illiterate African woman, another of the continent's squandered human resources.

Children send opportunity

In the meantime, in Niantic, Conn., the children of Niantic Community Church decided to buy goats for African villagers through Heifer International, a venerable aid group based in Arkansas that helps impoverished farming families. A dairy goat in Heifer's online gift catalog costs $120; a flock of chicks or ducklings just $20.

One of the goats bought by the church went to Beatrice's parents and soon produced twins. When the kid goats were weaned, the children drank the goat's milk and sold the surplus for extra money.

The cash accumulated, and Beatrice's parents decided they could afford to send their daughter to school. She was much older than the other first-graders but was so overjoyed that she studied diligently and rose to be the best student in the school.

An American visiting the school was impressed and wrote a children's book, “Beatrice's Goat,” about how the gift of a goat had enabled a bright girl to go to school. The book was published in 2000 and became a children's best seller — but there is now room for a more remarkable sequel.

Beatrice was such an outstanding student that she won a scholarship, not only to Uganda's best girls' high school, but also to a prep school in Massachusetts and then to Connecticut College. A group of 20 donors to Heifer International financed her living expenses.

Granted, foreign assistance doesn't always work and is much harder than it looks. “I won't lie to you. Corruption is high in Uganda,” Beatrice acknowledges. A crooked local official might have distributed the goats by demanding that girls sleep with him in exchange. Beatrice's goat might have died or been stolen.

Millions of things could go wrong. But when there's a good model in place, they often go right. That's why villagers in western Uganda recently held a special Mass and a feast to celebrate the first local person to earn a college degree in America.

New dream: Changing the culture

Moreover, Africa will soon have a new asset: a well-trained professional to improve governance. Beatrice plans to earn a master's degree at the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas and then return to Africa to work for an aid group.

Beatrice dreams of working on projects to help women earn and manage money more effectively. Changing that culture won't be easy, Beatrice says, but it can be done.

When people ask how they can help in the fight against poverty, there are a thousand good answers, from sponsoring a child to supporting a grass-roots organization through globalgiving.com.

The challenges of global poverty are vast and complex, and buying a farm animal for a poor family won't solve them. But Beatrice's giddy happiness these days is a reminder that each of us does have the power to make a difference – to transform a girl's life with something as simple and cheap as a little goat.

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