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An African Tale

A small gift from Connecticut not only changed a young woman's life, it also shows how Americans can make a real difference overseas

By Nicholas D. Kristof

OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

This year's college graduates owe their success to many factors. But one of the most remarkable of the new graduates, Beatrice Biira, 23, credits something utterly improbable: a goat. "I am one of the luckiest girls in the world," Biira declared this spring after graduating from Connecticut College in New London.

Biira's story begins in Uganda, where she was born and raised. Her parents couldn't afford to send her to school, so she stayed home to help with the chores. She was on track to become one more illiterate African woman. Meanwhile, the children of the Niantic Community Church in Connecticut decided to buy goats for African villagers through Heifer International, an aid group based in Arkansas. A dairy goat in Heifer's online gift catalogue costs $120.

One of the goats went to Biira's parents and soon produced twins. The children drank the milk and sold the surplus.

With that money, Biira's parents could finally afford to send her to school. She was much older than the other first-graders, but overjoyed to be there.

Page McBrier, an American who visited the school, was so impressed that she wrote a children's book, Beatrice's Goat, which became a bestseller. But now there's a reason for a remarkable sequel.

Biira did so well in school that she won scholarships not only to Uganda's best girls' high school, but also to a prep school in Massachusetts and then Connecticut College.

Foreign assistance doesn't always work, with corruption in developing nations probably the biggest of many problems. "I won't lie to you. Corruption is high in Uganda," Biira acknowledges. Millions of things can go wrong with foreign aid. But when there's a good model in place, like this one, they often go right.

Biira plans to earn a master's degree at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas and then return to Africa to work for an aid group. She hopes to help African women earn and manage money more effectively in a culture where men usually control the cash.

When people ask how they can help fight poverty, there are a thousand good answers. (I've listed some suggestions on my blog, nytimes.com/ontheground and on facebook.com/kristof.)

The challenges of global poverty are complex. But Biira is a reminder that each of us has the power to make a difference—to transform a girl's life with something as simple and cheap as a little goat.