I have always been skeptical, I have to admit, of aid organizations promising to deliver goats, chickens or pigs to people who forego Christmas presents.
You know how it works: at Christmas, international charities urge you to make a donation in someone’s honour – give up a gift and instead use the same money to send an animal to a poor family in Africa.
A few things always struck me upon hearing the idea. Firstly, do the animals get sent from the Toronto headquarters directly to the families in Malawi, Uganda or Rwanda? Secondly, how do they select the people who receive the animals? Thirdly (yes, I’m creating a list here) are people familiar with the animal they’re receiving and would they know how to take care of it? Fourthly, in a place where hunger is prevalent, what would stop a family from simply slaughtering the gift for food?
Two weeks ago, I was working in one of the world’s largest refugee settlements in northern Uganda in a place called Imvepi. More than a 100,000 refugees fleeing South Sudan’s brutal conflict have arrived here in the last year. It is here I saw how the gift of an animal can impact a person’s life.
Need is great in Imvep. Many who arrive carry just a plastic bag of belongings hastily grabbed as they fled brutal attacks on their villages. The new arrivals – who later find out that they are called refugees – are given monthly food rations that are not enough. They have to skip meals to make it last, they tell me grimly.
The upside is that Uganda – in some ways – is on the cutting edge of providing refugees assistance. Each new family who arrives is given a tenth of an acre and the equipment to settle it – machetes to slash the grass, a shovel to dig, along with poles and plastic sheets to create a makeshift home. They are pioneers of sorts. The land is now theirs, free to use as people see fit.
Here, 80-year-old Amelia and her 10-year-old granddaughter Susan are among the thousands scraping out an existence. The pair fled South Sudan together after violent pandemonium broke out in their village. Home alone when the violence sparked, Susan ran to her grandmother’s house during the attack and hid with her until things quieted down enough to risk an escape. For their own protection, they stowed away on a cargo truck and rode with it to Uganda.
Months later, on a cloudy afternoon, Amelia and Susan were among 100 families told to gather at a soccer field in the refugee settlement. The pair had been identified as some of the most in need. They are among a group of other grandparents taking care of children, orphans who live on their own or people with physical disabilities gathered on this field today.
The sound of goats bleating, the heavy rumble of a truck and a cloud of dust heads towards the soccer field.
At the sight of the vehicle, Amelia and Grace, who have been seated, spring to their feet. They join a line. There are 200 goats to be distributed today; a pair for each indentified refugee family.
“These goats will be a very big liberation for us,” Amelia says. “We have been trained on how to look after them, how to feed them and how to spot various sicknesses.”
The distribution of goats is the result of a gift catalogue run by World Vision. In the course of the next week, more than 430 families will receive a pair of goats that were purchased at the nearest livestock market and hauled to the refugee camp. Money offered in lieu of a Christmas gift was wired to Uganda to purchase the animals.
As Susan and Amelia reach the front of the line, they are encouraged to pick out two goats of their choice. Susan looks at the herd for a moment and then points towards two brown ones. She likes the colour. Her grandmother nods in approval.
As the goats are handed over to Susan and Amelia, Susan embraces the animals. She picks one up, then the other.
“We’ve been waiting and imagining how the goats will look like. Finally, they are here. It’s good they’ve come in a rainy season when the grass is young and tender,” Amelia says.
Boniface, a 16-year-old orphan from South Sudan, is among the other people receiving a goat today. He explains that goats are common in South Sudan and that they’re viewed as an investment in the future.
“Next year I am joining secondary school; these goats will have delivered by then. We will sell some of the kids and this will enable me to go to a good school and also buy for me school materials,” says the 16-year-old who wants to become an electrician.
What I’ve learned from Amelia, Susan and Boniface is that this foregone Christmas gift is certainly desired by the people who receive it and its potential realized. The goats are a pathway to self-sufficiency. Goats, and other livestock offered through these programmes, help restore hope among people who have experienced too many hardships. I now realize that there can be no better example of a gift that keeps giving. ◊
~ with files from Moses Mukitale