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How a Goat Led a Girl Up the Path to an Education

The New York Times

January 25, 2004



NORTHFIELD, Mass. - A goat is responsible for Beatrice Biira's arrival from her home village just south of the Equator in Uganda to this frosty New England town, where even thermal underwear, sturdy duck boots and a puffy parka fail to keep the cold from her bones.

Without the goat, Miss Biira would almost certainly never have gone to school or finished filling out applications to 11 American colleges and universities, from Manchester College in Indiana to Harvard.

"I did the applications with all my heart," she said. "But they ask so many questions. Why would someone want to know all that about anyone?"

She is the answer to her own question.

Three years ago, Miss Biira was immortalized in a best-selling children's book published by Simon & Schuster, "Beatrice's Goat," which tells how a goat named Mugisa - a gift from an international charity called Heifer International - helped her get an education.

By selling Mugisa's milk and offspring, Miss Biira's family was able to send her, and later her seven brothers and sisters, to school. "I just want people to understand what a big difference a goat can make in peoples' lives," she said.

For 60 years, Heifer International has provided needy families around the world with livestock ranging from water buffaloes to bees as a stepping stone to self-sufficiency. For most of that time, Heifer toiled away in relative obscurity, but like Miss Biira, who is 19, it is now coming of age.

A decade ago, it was raising $6 million to $7 million a year, largely from church organizations, said Mike Matchett, its marketing director. "Marketing was pretty much a dirty word around here," Mr. Matchett said.

Nowadays, Heifer is championed by celebrities, and last year it raised $56 million. The simplicity of its approach and its track record appeal to many donors.

As Miss Biira explains: "I'm not criticizing people who give 10 sacks of food to the needy, because what they do is necessary. But in one month or two weeks, that food will be finished and the people who received it will again be hungry. An animal like a goat brings immediate help."

Last year, Heifer was incorporated into the script for an episode of "The West Wing," thanks to the support of a cast member, Bradley Whitford. "The Motley Fool," the idiosyncratic investment guide, has hailed Heifer, and in 2002, Miss Biira was a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," because Ms. Winfrey is a Heifer supporter.

In collaboration with Scholastic Inc., the organization has started a school-based program called Read to Feed, in which students raise money for Heifer by getting sponsors to pay them for the books they read. Some $200,000 was raised through the program last year.

"They have to be one of our 10 best-known charities right now," said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, an online charities rating organization.

Charity Navigator, however, gives Heifer only two stars out of a potential four because it regards the organization's fund-raising costs as high. "They're raising a lot of money, but they're spending a lot to do it, nearly 21 cents of every dollar, and this is something that concerns many donors," Mr. Stamp said.

The average for the more than 300 other international relief agencies rated by Charity Navigator is 8 cents, but Mr. Matchett said that large relief organizations, unlike Heifer, often receive big government grants, which lower fund-raising expenses. "We're getting little gifts from the grass roots, and that's more expensive to do," he said.

There is also no way for the organization to count the multiplier effect its gifts have. Every recipient of a Heifer animal is charged with passing it on by giving the first female offspring to someone else in need.

"It becomes a chain," Miss Biira said. "Almost everyone in my village now has a goat."

Mugisa, the Biiras's first goat, is still alive, although she no longer bears kids. Her first offspring, a male named Mulindwa, also remains with the family, which has three other goats.

Heifer has never financed Miss Biira's education, which would fall outside its mission. She showed such promise in primary school, breezing through first, second and third grades in three months each, that Dick Young, the producer of a Heifer film that features Miss Biira as a young girl, helped pay for her to attend what she calls "a fancy girls' school" in Kampala, Uganda.

With a family income of less than $1,000 a year, Miss Biira's education would have stopped right there. Instead, she won a full scholarship for a postgraduate year at Northfield Mount Hermon School, a boarding school here, and some Heifer supporters have put together a "Friends of Beatrice" fund to cover incidentals.

She is hoping her academic record, test scores and story will win her a college scholarship. She favors Brown University but knows that where she goes will largely depend on financial aid.

But her education goes far beyond academics. "It's a culture shock," she said. "Now I'm living here and I'm trying to accept it and, shall I say, adjust."

She is still getting used to how casually Americans treat transportation. In Uganda, she might see a helicopter once a month, and if she needed a lift, she would have to wait on the side of the road two hours or more before a car came by. "Here I don't see anyone walking around," she said. "Everyone is so rich. Everyone has a car. When I go to their homes, I see how rich they are."

Umaru Sule, the program director in Heifer's Philadelphia office, empathized. "She is very lonely," Mr. Sule said. "She has grown up in a community and society where people have helped each other. When you have something to eat and someone else doesn't, you share."

Miss Biira has had only one letter from her family since she arrived. "I think they get my letters, but the mail doesn't seem to come so much from the other way," she said.

What little pocket money she has is spent on phone cards, but even so, she can call home only about once a month because her mother must travel three hours by taxi to reach a town with electricity and telephone reception.

Beyond college, her plans are unclear. "I don't know what trail I will take," she said. "I used to think I would love to do veterinary medicine, but I am not a scientist. Math is hard for me."

Miss Biira expects, however, that she will return to her country. "I want to go back home and work, most likely with Heifer," she said. "I am so attached to my family, and I just want to be near my people."

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