For her, goat was valuable gift

This weekend, former volunteers get to meet a tangible result of their efforts.

August 14, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A dozen goats arrived in a war-ravaged area of western Uganda 11 years ago, a gift from a charity based in Little Rock, Ark., that would quickly provide villagers with milk and income. One goat from that herd helped send a village daughter to college in the United States.

"My family received a goat and that is where my story begins," said Beatrice Biira, 21.

Biira will tell that story as she participates this weekend in a reunion in Carroll County. The gathering honors volunteers for the Heifer Foundation, a humanitarian organization which has, since 1944, helped 7 million families worldwide with gifts of livestock. All it asks of recipients in return is "to pass on the gift."

"I bring a special message as a beneficiary," said Biira, a sophomore at Connecticut College in New London, Conn. "I will remind them how we all appreciate the gifts. I will thank them for changing lives."

The reunion at the Brethren Center in New Windsor has drawn a few "seagoing cowboys" who, decades ago, accompanied livestock from farms across America to the port of Baltimore for shipment overseas.

"This is the core group, many of whom participated from the beginning," said Janet K. Ginn, president of the Heifer Foundation. "To be with these people and to thank them for their legacy is an honor. To have Beatrice here, too, is icing on the cake. She can say how far this gift has brought her."

At the Westminster library's storytime Friday, Biira, a petite woman with a brilliant smile and a soft voice, read Beatrice's Goat to children. After interviewing Biira in Uganda, Page McBrier, a children's author, put her story into words, which Lori Lohstoeter illustrated.

Beatrice's story

The story begins when Biira was 9, the second oldest of six children whose parents had no means to educate them. Birra, who worked in farm fields, often carrying a younger sibling on her back, wondered how "one more thing to take care of" could be a gift. She soon discovered how a dairy goat named Mugisa, which means "good luck," would take care of her.

To prepare for the herd of 10 females and two males, the villagers planted grass and built pens. A dozen families, including the Biiras, signed contracts, promising to donate the first female offspring to a neighbor.

Goats can give as much as four quarts of milk a day and often produce twins or triplets. Mugisa delivered twins soon after her arrival.

"Goats multiply faster than cattle so families can increase production sooner," said Umaru J. Sule, community relations coordinator for the Heifer Foundation's mid-Atlantic region in Philadelphia. "They provide milk and their manure is useful on farm crops."

Nearly 100,000 people worldwide die every day from hunger-related diseases, according to the United Nations. Heifer Foundation provides families with sustainable resources in cattle, rabbits, llamas, honey bees, chickens and even a large rodent known as a grass cutter that is a delicacy in many countries. A $120 donation to the program would provide a needy family overseas with a goat; $150 would mean a llama and for $500, a donor could send a heifer.

"This is all about community development and passing on gifts to create a ripple effect," Ginn said.

Mugisa produced enough milk to sell and to add to the family's daily porridge. Sales of the goat's milk and its offspring - after the first female, which they "passed on" - turned into money for school.

"I was the first to go to school," Biira said. "I was very excited because school was a luxury, especially for a girl in my culture. It was all I ever wanted."

Money for education

Mugisa's milk and offspring paid tuition for all the Biira children and kept on giving throughout 11 years of life. The family, which grew to eight children, owns four of Mugisa's kids and has given away many others in the village of about 1,500.

Beatrice Biira eventually attended secondary school in Kampala, the nation's capital. Along the way, she took part in a Heifer Foundation video that shows her cutting bananas in a red dress with a baby on her back. She joined McBrier on a book tour and her story was featured on 60 Minutes. Four years ago, Oprah Winfrey brought Biira to Chicago, interviewed her on television and then donated 50 more goats to the village.

"Beatrice really is the star in her village," Ginn said. "There are thousands of Beatrices out there who have the same story of lives changed in remarkable ways. And they are changing others' lives."

The reunion continues today with an ecumenical service at Union Bridge Church of the Brethren, tours of the Western Maryland Railway Museum and other sites in Union Bridge and a visit to the Roop family farm, where the cowboys stayed with their livestock.

"For us at the Brethren Center, this weekend is a way to lift up the past and connect it with the present and the future," said Kathleen Campanella, center spokeswoman.

Ginn added, "These cowboys passed on values to the next generations. We would not be here and Beatrice would not be a college student in the U.S. without their compassion for their fellow man."

Information on the Heifer Foundation and the reunion: 410-635-8747.

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