Thursday, August 27th, 2009
We’re getting a goat!
Not me and my wife—our property isn’t zoned for hooved animals. Probably not horned animals either. Wait, are there any horned animals who don’t have hooves? Horns and paws? Or claws? I know we’re zoned for clawed animals because of the cannibalistic KFC-eating chicken from across the street.
No, we’ll be keeping our goat in Rwanda under the stewardship of my sister Valerie Mukamana, who has made real my 3½-year-old wish to effect positive change in someone’s life through the awesomely powerful gift of livestock.
Those who have read my blog for some length of time may recall posts about my first two Rwandan sisters, here and here. We were matched via Women for Women International, an organization through which I’ve been delighted to discover that, somewhere, my measly monthly contribution of $27 can still be parlayed into something more than three lunches at Baja Fresh.
To recap, on my drive to work one morning in March 2006, I heard an NPR story about a neighborhood association near Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, that functioned as a kind of emotional support and financial aid clinic for women who survived the 1994 genocide. The listener’s window into the story was Nehrama Jambare Alphonsein, who was raped by a machete-wielding Hutu supremacist and contracted HIV as a result. At the time of the NPR story, Nehrama, then 20—she was 9 at the time of the genocide, during which raping prepubescent girls was less a matter of sexual gratification than it was just another weapon of war—was raising three children, all of whom were orphans of the mass slaughter and one of whom was born with HIV.
Compounding those circumstances, many families, including Nehrama’s, mourn openly for sons killed in the genocide yet consider the raping of their daughters a matter of great family shame and therefore a taboo topic, leaving them without healing emotional outlets.
Like many Americans, my primary lens on the genocide was Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, and as with many such nonfiction accounts of chilling, seemingly impossible human violence, I felt impotent on finishing it, like I had little recourse but to shudder and move on.
But that morning I heard Nehrama speak of her daily visits to a neighborhood organization, located an hour’s walk from her home, where women with similar experiences shared amongst themselves without fear of judgment or stigma.
And then she spoke of her goats.
She had six of them, all bred from a source goat the neighborhood association had given her to help raise her family’s standard of living beyond the subsistence they were eking out cultivating beans and potatoes on a rented plot of land. Mind you, Nehrama’s family still lived in a mud hut with no electricity or running water, but I was cheered by her success with animal husbandry—in that NPR-listener way made up of equal parts idealism and guilt, leaving us with a powerful need to believe that, however sad, everything we hear about turns out fine in the end—and I was certain that Nehrama’s growing herd would soon turn her fortunes around.
Ha! Get it? Growing herd? Heh.
How much are goats? I wondered. And how could I buy one for a woman like Nehrama?
I didn’t want to ship a goat, of course—that’s just crazy talk—so when I got to work I set about trying to find an association online like the one discussed, and that’s how I found Women for Women International, an organization dedicated to helping women in war and postwar regions rebuild their lives through a scholarship program addressing basic needs, civil rights education, life and work skills, and community leadership roles. Neato! And best of all, I could sponsor a Rwandan woman directly. I would receive a picture and profile at the beginning of our relationship, as well as a report on how she felt her circumstances had improved at the end of our year together, and in the meantime we could swap letters so that I could hear all about her exciting new life raising goats!
Yeah, well, suck it, NPR idealist. Go sell your goats somewhere else. Your Rwandan sisters had crafts to do.
My first two sisters, in exit interviews at the completion of the yearlong scholarship, both said they had gained much from the program: Each were unemployed at the start but were now self-employed. Each said their general housing conditions and health had improved, and that they had gained self-confidence and knowledge of their civil rights. All of which is GREAT. But both, when asked what skills training they had undertaken, said “Knitting.”
There’s nothing wrong with knitting, of course. Some of my best friends knit (well, one of my online friends anyway, and she’s the partner of someone who might read this, and could probably kick my ass, so I want to make sure I cover it). And because I just started to feel like kind of an asshole for being disappointed in my sisters’ knitting pursuits, I Googled Rwandans and knitting and found an organization called, well, Rwanda Knits, which says of itself, “Our program enables [Rwandan women] to increase their incomes through economically sustainable knitting cooperatives, through which they produce garments for their domestic market and export markets.” Right, like I said, knitting was a very sensible and lucrative pursuit on my sisters’ part. Besides, how can you argue with the mad skills of clinic instructor Faina?
Still, faced with a choice between working with yarn and farm animals, well, I was just hoping they would go for a nice dairy goat who would provide milk and cheese and perhaps even precious hours of amusement for the children. Not that I’m trying to tell anyone what to do with their scholarship opportunities. Or maybe I am a little, but I entered the sisterhood with a mission, and a little over $1,100 later we were still goatless. I just did a quick price check at GoatFinder.com (I know!) and discovered that goat kids start at $65—and that’s for a pedigreed, “show quality” goat sold in American dollars. Here’s a nubian kid from my new favorite site ZooBorns:
Spectacular nubian kids named Polka Dot aside, I reckon random goats bought with Rwandan francs cost a lot less.
However disappointed with the intransigence of the knitters (that just reminded me of the Knitters, the country project by members of X and the Blasters, and I wondered whether their 1985 album Poor Little Critter on the Road had ever been issued on CD, and not only has it, I found, but they put out an album in 2005 that I didn’t even know about; free association rocks!), I shouldered on to be matched with a third sister, which is where Valerie Mukamana comes in.
Valerie said in her entrance interview that she had received no schooling and could neither read nor write more than her name—differing from my other sisters, who had both attended primary school. Each of them had sent me cards and letters during our time together, telling me about their children and husbands, asking me about my children and my husband, and asking, if it’s not too much trouble, could I possibly send a picture? (This latter wish has gone unmet; I’ve been uncomfortable with the idea of revealing my sexual orientation to my sisters, fearing emotional rejection—it is the only part of my life in which I am closeted.)
Valerie, who has a husband and five kids and, like Nehrama, said they all live in a hut with no electricity or running water, also rated her family’s general health as poor and said they rarely can access medical treatment. Of all my sisters so far, Valerie seemed in the direst straits, so I was pleased to be matched with her. But I also consciously put aside my goat obsession for another year, thinking that even if she happened to receive livestock, I wouldn’t hear about it given her inability to correspond with me.
But then, earlier this month, I did receive a letter from Valerie. Had she dictated it to someone? Had she been a superstar in the literacy program? She wasn’t telling. Instead she told me that she had started selling bananas and tomatoes at the local market to help generate income and that she hoped her family could soon upgrade from their hut to an iron-sheeted house. She said that they had not been receiving many rains and asked whether we had been receiving any here. And, of course, she wondered about my own family and asked, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could I please send a picture?
She also wrote this: “I am hoping to buy a goat and other domestic animals so that I can fight against poverty.” (!)
I would go to Rwanda right now to help Valerie pick it out, but I just checked Travelocity and it looks like flights to Kigali start at $2,500—that’s with three stops and two plane changes. As much as I’d like to meet Valerie and her new goat, it seems criminal to spend potential seed money for 38 goats to do so.
Plus, my wife just told me that if she’s going to the African continent, there are a couple, three countries, maybe 10, that would be higher on her list of must-visits than Rwanda. Go ahead, try to tell her Botswana can’t possibly be as entertaining as it seems in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (but, OMG, if you haven’t watched the HBO series, Netflix it now).
So, instead of sending myself, I’m going to have to be content with sending a letter, telling Valerie that we haven’t been receiving many rains in Southern California either. Perhaps I’ll disclose to this third sister that I have no children, but that I gained a wife last year when I married my partner of 14 years; maybe I’ll even enclose a picture of myself, and ask, if it’s not too much trouble, could she possibly send goat pics in return?