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A Story of Success That Starts With a Goat

* A children's book tells the heartwarming tale of how a Ugandan girl's dream of education came true.

April 06, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Beatrice Biira was 9, she could never have imagined that a single goat could change her life, or that her life story would become a book. She had never owned a book or a goat--and she had never been to school to learn about life's possibilities.

Six years later she is touring the United States, speaks English in bell-like tones and is talking in classrooms and on TV about "Beatrice's Goat" (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2001), a story about an extraordinary change in circumstances.

Beatrice grew up in the rolling hills of western Uganda with her mother and five younger brothers and sisters. Their one-room straw hut had a floor of mud, a leaky straw roof and no furniture. The bathroom was an outdoor hole in the earth. The village had no electricity or water, so Beatrice trudged a few miles to the river at least twice each day. She'd fill a huge jug with water, walk home with it balanced on her head, and the family would use it for drinking, cooking, washing and helping food to grow.

With her baby sister in a cloth cocoon on her back, she spent her days helping her mother tend the children and plant cassava and grind it into flour. It was a hard yet peaceful life, lived as it had been for centuries by people of the region.

Only one thing bothered Beatrice--she wanted to learn to read and write. The school that served surrounding villages cost $60 a year for books and uniforms and Beatrice's mother had never had even a fraction of that amount. Still the girl dreamed of wearing the yellow blouse and blue pinafore that would mark her as a student.

When women in the village formed a crafts-making group to earn extra money, Beatrice's mother joined. Soon the women heard that animals were being given away by a charity in the far-off city of Kampala. They sent word that they would like to apply, and a representative of Heifer Project International came to visit.

The project, based in Little Rock, Ark., is a nonprofit organization funded by religious groups of many denominations, private gifts and grants. The project started 57 years ago by sending 18 heifer cows to a poor area of Puerto Rico, where sickly children had never tasted milk. It has grown to cover the globe, providing livestock and other living things to 5 million needy families in 140 countries. It has earned widespread praise--including recognition from presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

Heifer Project works in the most impoverished areas on Earth. Although it does not give medicine, food, clothes or education, it offers a means for families to earn those things. Depending on which animals will thrive in different climates and cultures, the project provides alpacas, bees, camels, chickens, cows, donkeys, ducks, earthworms, fish, goats, geese, horses, llamas, mules, pigs, rabbits, sheep, silkworms, turkeys, water buffalo and yaks.

In the case of Beatrice's mom, it was a goat. She was one of 10 women in the group to receive one. But first, she was required to learn how to care for it, how to use its manure for fertilizer, how to apportion the milk it would give, so that the family would get healthier and wealthier. Each woman was asked to donate her goat's first-born female to another needy family, a principle called "passing on the gift."

It was a quick course in agriculture and economics--lessons the mother learned well, and then taught to her daughter as they built a goat shed together. Then the mother announced that Beatrice was to be in total charge of the goat. Beatrice was so excited she couldn't sleep. When the goat finally arrived, it was beautiful--and pregnant. It had the sweetest little smile and "chin hairs that curled just so." Beatrice named it Mugisa, which means Luck. Within weeks Mugisa gave birth to two kids--a male and a female. As agreed, they gave the female to another family and they sold the male.

Beatrice started milking her goat twice a day, feeding each family member one-third of a cup of milk each time, and selling the rest. She put the coins into a small fabric pouch she hung at her waist. When the pouch was full, she would give the coins to her mother. The family desperately needed many things, but Beatrice's mother decided the coins would be best spent on school for her daughter.

When Heifer Project International looked in on the area a few months later, all the families with goats had begun to do better. But changes at the Biira house were extraordinary: The children were healthier. The hut had wood furniture painted blue. The new roof was of tin and no longer leaked. And Beatrice had made great progress at school.

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