Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2014


Mike LeDuc '14, three-time national champion in track and field, with his teammates. Clockwise from top right: Mike LeDuc '14, botany major from Canton, Conn.; Ian Rathkey '14, East Asian studies major from Old Lyme, Conn.; Ben Bosworth '17, economics major from Dorchester, Mass.; Niall Williams '16, economics major from Niskayuna, N.Y.; Daniel Burns '16, government major from Alexandria, Va.; and Aaron Samuel-Davis '14, classics and dance major from New London, Conn. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

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The road from Kisinga

The road from Kisinga
Beatrice Biira ´08

For Beatrice Biira ´08, the long road to college started 11 years ago with a simple gift - a goat.

by Steven Slosberg

As stories go, this tale of a Ugandan girl and her goat could not have a more scripted or poignant symmetry.

Beatrice Biira, a 20-year-old freshman at Connecticut College, is the Beatrice of The New York Times best-selling children’s book, Beatrice’s Goat, first published in 2001. The hardcover is now in its 12th printing and the paperback, published this year, already in its third.

How someone raised in unschooled, one-dress subsistence in a village in southwestern Uganda ended up at one of this country’s select, private liberal arts colleges is a saga in itself. If there is need for more inspiration, the story has its root, by blind chance and indeed by serendipitous coincidence, at the Niantic Community Church about seven miles from campus.

For 20 years or more, the church has raised and donated money to a charity called Heifer International. It is an Arkansas-based organization that strives to end world hunger by giving food- and income-producing livestock, such as cows and goats, to impoverished families around the world.

One of those goats became Beatrice’s goat, named Mugisa, which in Lukonzo, the language of her village and tribe, means “Luck.” That goat, as Heifer International tells it, ended up being designated as the one purchased through the donations, many from children, of the Niantic Community Church.

Biira, who just completed her mid-term exams at CC, has not yet had a chance to visit the church. However, the church is planning to have her come.

Besides tackling her studies, she’s been busy this first semester with several Heifer speaking engagements, including banquets in Little Rock, Ark., and New York, and at a local NAACP chapter dinner in Groton.

She is trying to limit her outside appearances, which, in recent years, have been on TV on “Oprah” and “Good Morning, America” and in the company of celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, all sponsors of Heifer International. “60 Minutes II” reportedly is about to air a segment on her life.

“It’s not easy at all,” she says of her public life beyond the campus and her studies. “It’s hard to always be pleasant to people, to tolerate different people and to respect and understand them. It’s been hard for me to find a balance this semester, but I wanted to be there for Heifer. Not everyone helped by Heifer turns out like me.”

Not everyone gets accepted by schools such as Middlebury College, Wesleyan University, Mt. Holyoke College and Colorado College. She chose CC not only because of the look and feel of the campus but, even in New England, by the prospect that perhaps it won’t be that cold.

In 1992, a group of women living in Kisinga Village in Uganda and aware of Heifer International made a proposal to receive goats from the organization. The women belonged to a circle that made handcrafts. The village, in the mountainous region near the border of Zaire and Rwanda, is about 380 miles from Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
The next year, a herd of 12 goats arrived in the village. One of them was given to the mother of Beatrice Biira, who was then 9 and the second-oldest of six children. Heifer International says the cost of a goat today is $120. In 1993, the Niantic Community Church contributed $1,673 to the charity.

After the goats arrived, a filmmaker named Dick Young, then living in Connecticut, set about making a video for Heifer International’s 50th anniversary. He visited Kisinga Village and caught a glimpse of Beatrice with her beaming smile and in her red dress with the back torn open so it would continue to fit as she grew.

Her story, with clips of her tilling fields, cutting and hauling bananas and tending to the family goat, became a compelling component of the video. What was particularly moving was the fact that money the family made from selling the goat’s milk and one of the two kids — Mugisa arrived pregnant — enabled Beatrice to go to school. The cost of schooling then, including uniform and books, was $60.

In 1995, Heifer sponsored a study tour in Uganda and among those on the trip were two women from Rowayton, a village in Norwalk, Conn. Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter were neighbors, and though McBrier wrote children’s books and Lohstoeter illustrated them, they’d never worked together on a book. Beatrice’s story, captured on video, became the story for the two women. It took six years, but in 2001, Beatrice’s Goat was published by Atheneum Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. An afterward was written by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’d just published her book, It Takes a Village.
By the time the children’s book was released, Biira had proven herself a top student at a private high school, or secondary school, for girls in Kampala. She came to this country, accompanied by Heifer International people, for a book tour.

Rosalee Sinn, of Plymouth, Mass., was one of those accompanying Biira and has remained a mentor to her. Sinn, who was northeast regional director for Heifer when she retired this June, has a master’s in animal science from the University of Connecticut. She also taught dairy goat management at UConn.

“We were in California on the book tour,” said Sinn from her home in Massachusetts, “when the president of Western University in Pomona heard Beatrice say that she was interested in veterinary medicine and said the university would give her a full scholarship. We started working to get her here for college. One of our Heifer friends was an alum of Northfield Mount Hermon and knew of the school’s program of a transitional year for international students.”

Northfield Mount Hermon, a private boarding school in Massachusetts, gave Biira a full scholarship. She did well academically and, with the help of an adviser at the private school, applied to 11 colleges and universities.

She was accepted by a half-dozen colleges, among them the nation’s best. She chose Connecticut College because she liked her visit here and the financial aid package, and, as Sinn said, because too many people warned her about the cold whenever Middlebury was mentioned.

Dressed in layers of vest jacket and sweaters, and blue jeans, Biira was just another student sitting in the Charles E. Shain Library last week. She is just over 5-feet tall, and speaks in a delicate voice with a finely articulated, British English.

“I’ve changed my mind about veterinary medicine,” she says. “I’m more of an artist than a scientist. I don’t like chemistry. I like economics or international studies.”

On campus, she was selected to sing in the chapel choir, but found she didn’t have the time. She belongs to Umoja, the African/African-American student organization and also participates in the Model U.N. She takes the campus van to New London, mostly to shop. There is another student from Uganda at CC, and Biira has made friends with people in a large Ugandan community in Waltham, Mass.

Biira seems comfortable here, sharing a dorm room with a student from Glastonbury who plays basketball for CC, and anxious to improve her grade in political science. But she’s still finding food a challenge.

“The only food I could eat was pizza,” she says about her first full year here. “I don’t like salad. I don’t like any food that’s cold. I don’t like uncooked food.”

In her village, where she visited this summer, her diet consisted of green bananas and sweet potatoes, mangoes and papayas, pumpkins and spinach, tomatoes and onions, and occasionally beef and chicken. Her father, who had left the family during the time the Heifer video was made, has returned to be with her mother. There are now eight children. Her older sister is studying to be a nurse.

Biira was raised Roman Catholic and remains faithful. Her grandparents are Roman Catholic. “They are strict,” she says. Her last name, Biira, means “second born.” The custom of her tribe is to give each child the surname reflecting their birth: “first born,” “second born” and the like. Biira’s mother, who was married at age 12, is named Evelyn Baluku.

“I look at myself in that video,” says Biira. “It was so long ago. I was afraid of airplanes. Whenever a helicopter came over, I ran under the bed.”

When she returned to visit, village children wanted to touch her blue jeans. They wanted her to eat with utensils rather than with her hands, as is the practice. The village, about 240 families belonging to the Bukonzo tribe, is proud of her.

To attend school in the village today, she says, students must wear shoes. When she first attended, that wasn’t the case.

Her goat, Mugisa, died two years ago, after producing several more sets of kids, a few of them kept by the family.

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