Goats … an anti-viral agent.

If you’re a woman in Rwanda, you’re almost twice as likely to be infected with HIV as a man. That seems hideously unfair, particularly after rape was used as a weapon during the genocide of 1994, resulting in a huge swell in the numbers of infected women. Still, even today it is a reality.

Cluadine Uwamaiya, mother of six and HIV+ in Kibungo.

So Heifer International has teamed up with my second most favorite organization, Partners in Health, to improve the health, nutrition and income of people living with HIV/AIDS in the Eastern Province, who make up 2.5% of the population there.

Partners in Health, which grew out of Dr. Paul Farmer’s pioneering community health work in Haiti in the 1980s, is the first responder. Since 2005, PIH has been providing crucial medicine and health care to HIV patients, as well as food packages for 10 months, in order to strengthen and stabilize these weak, poor and malnourished folks and get them on the road to recovery. But after that immediate intervention, patients still needed a way to provide themselves and their families with sustainable income and food security. And that’s where goats (and Heifer) come in.

Goats are quick to reproduce (they can be bred in the first year), their milk is highly nutritious (reportedly it really helps bolster one’s white blood cells that fight off infection) and with easily available forage (old banana peels, kitchen waste and some grasses) goats will produce a lot of poop to fertilize vegetable gardens that the people are encouraged and trained to plant. So Heifer has given away hundreds of South African dairy goats to people like Charlotte, who has used that gift to transform her life.

Charlotte found out she was HIV+ in 2003, after she had four heartbreaking miscarriages in a row and went in for a test. But her husband, from whom she got the infection, argued that she was not infected and so she got thinner and sicker until 2005, when she visited PIH (or Inshuti Mu Buzima as it’s known in Kinyarwanda) and was put on life-saving medications. In 2009,  Charlotte received a goat from Heifer, passed on its first female offspring to another family, and now has two more female offspring that provide her with so much milk, she has plenty to sell.

Nobody in Rwanda would ever drink goat milk before .. but they love it now!

With her goat milk income, Charlotte bought a pig that is now pregnant, and she can sell those piglets for about $120/each (if healthy and fat, a pig can have two litters a year of about 8-12 piglets each). Charlotte also bought a heifer and is eager to raise more goats, sell more milk, plant more vegetables and bananas, and buy more land. In a big kitchen garden that surrounds her house, she also grows carrots, beets, and maize that she sells, but she’s really famous for her excellent bananas (thanks to copious amounts of manure).  

Her 13-year old son is tall and handsome, and she’ll have the money to send him to the best secondary school –although in Rwanda it’s considered quite a tragedy to have just one child (a fact my only-child Lulu found ironic). When she talked about her four missing children, Charlotte looked bereft, but she quickly said, “I don’t think about being sick, I think about the future. It’s only when I talk about being sick that I get sad.”

Leaving Kibungo…

As we pulled away from her house, I was thinking of how Charlotte had stood up in front of the whole town meeting and told her story, and the courage that must have taken. Then I thought of the song the people were singing at the meeting (it only rhymes in Kinyarwanda, folks): “People say if you have HIV/AIDS you are going to die, but we are not prepared to die… We are going to live!”

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Photography, Rwanda, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

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29 thoughts on “Goats … an anti-viral agent.

  1. Amanda

    so beautiful

  2. MEN !!!

    So where is her jerk husband while she’s doing all this Betty ? Don’t get me wrong, I think that what Heifer is doing to remediate Charlotte’s situation is wonderful Betty. I just get pissed off that he gave her HIV and doesn’t even acknowledge what he did.

    Negatively yours.


    • Amanda

      agreed!!!; I’m just so awed by the grace and courage of such women…

    • Well, I certainly can share your angst, Sybil, as it was unbelievable to me that the women married to the guys who gave them AIDS were still living with them, raising children with them, and even having babies with them (although that’s really NOT supposed to be happening). But — divorce is almost unheard of in that rural culture, and would probably leave the woman in an even worse position. The husbands WERE involved in the farming, though, helping to raise the animals, and working hard — I can say that in the two families we visited, at least. But about arguing that she not go to the doctor … yeah. Pretty damn awful.

  3. Martha Radatz

    I love that you always find the silver lining (even though sometimes it’s only a sliver), and that Heifer is providing a good share of that hope. I have followed Partners in Health for some time, and am glad to know they are partnering with Heifer. What a combo!!
    In a country suffering from so many problems, how does one change the mindset that only having one child is a tragedy?

    • Martha, I too was really upset last October when I first saw what huge families people in Uganda have (and they’re almost equally large in Rwanda) but the fact is, the minute you start educating girls past primary school, the birth rate drops like a stone. Preaching to Africans that they should have smaller families (no matter how logical the message) can come off as racist and colonial …and it certainly goes against their cultural norms … but I’ve read over and over again: the answer is educating girls. Which is a win/win/win on every front, right?? Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!!

  4. Renita

    As usual, thanks for a wonderful blog entry. We continue to learn from you and are grateful. In a week I will be taking you into the classroom with me as I teach the Heifer curriculum to my students…thanks again!

    • Oh, Renita — that is such great news, as I do think the blog could be a good learning tool for geography, history, and just a general appreciation for the world around us! Please know that if the kids write me comments, I’m HAPPY to reply and would love that! You made my day ….

  5. Sadly, a story which occurs throughout Africa. Encouraging though that people can turn their lives around with a little help from organizations such as Heifer.

    What experiences you’re having this year! 🙂

    • Wow, you are so right — I can’t believe all the stories I’ve heard, places I’ve been and things I’ve seen.
      It is powerful when you see what one animal can contribute to a family — with the right training and support — but it’s also changing a whole community’s outlook — whether it’s that shame and guilt are not useful emotions when it comes to facing HIV/AIDS — or that goat milk, previously shunned, can be a lifesaver in providing nutrition, calories and boosting white blood cells…. plus it tastes really GOOD. But the good news is, people can change and so can bad situations … and that gives me so much hope!

  6. Oh, Bettty, I, too, am a HUGE fan of Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. Sara visited their compound in Haiti’s central plateau, and “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is one of my all-time favorite books! I would LOVE to meet that man! Wouldn’t you?

    Happy Thursday, my friend!


  7. Kathryn — I am a TOTAL Paul Farmer groupie and I am SO glad you mentioned “Mountains Beyond Mountains” because I wanted to share a link to that, because it’s one of MY favorite books, too … but I felt like it was coming out of left field. I saw PIH’s new hospital in Mirebalais when I was in Haiti in February (it’s probably open now) and it’s a sight to behold. He has just done SO much to alter the lives of so many people in Africa, Russia, Haiti — what a champion. I’m always trying to figure out how I can “bump” into him — he lives in Rwanda, you know. Someday ….. xooxox b

  8. Betty, I can hardly stand it that you’re already half thru the year! So much that you have learned and shared with us — deserves a book!! Thank you for all the eye-opening observations and for ‘telling it the way you see it’ !!

    • Meredith — I’m 2/3 of the way through my year! It is making me so sad to think I’ve only got four/five more countries to go!! Jeez, I don’t know what I’ll do to top this next year — but I really appreciate you being a reader & hope you’ll stay along for the rest of the journey!!!

  9. Fabulous post. I LOVE Paul Farmer’s work and read his book of course about Haiti. I’ve been working as a volunteer/activist with RESULTS as well as the UN FOundation Shot@Life, two NGO’s that recommended his book. Would love to hear him speak some day. Wow, what an amazing experience you are having!!! Loving following your blog.

    • Thanks, TEM, and I totally agree — what an amazing experience this has been for me — so much so, that I don’t even think I can fully take it in sometimes! I’m a fellow Paul Farmer super-fan, and someday, I AM going to meet him. It’s just got to happen!

      • I look forward to all your next posts….I need to find the time to go back and read from the beginning to see what inspired you to do this and how you found out about it. So amazing the possibilities to do good things in this world! 🙂 Nicole

  10. It sounds simple- just educate the girls, bring in people like Heifer with their goats and Paul Farmer (didn’t know that he lives in Rwanda) to help re the HIV/AIDS epidemic – but it’s not. It takes many people hours, and much hard work to make each small step….

    To illustrate: I’ve tried to drink goat milk. Yuk. It tastes of goat. How does one even begin to get a village to drink it?

    • Amanda

      just for the record, my son loves goat milk. He could not tolerate cow’s milk (like his grandfather) so they both drank goat’s. Goat’s milk is much more easily digested and more of the valuable nutrients can be absorbed by our bodies. If you start babies (after they are weaned), they don’t no the difference!

      • Thanks for telling me about your son Amanda. I’m sure if cow’s milk made me *ILL* I’d learn to drink goat milk. I’m just a spoiled American with too many choices.

      • I love this information, Amanda! I did know that goat’s milk is more easily digested, but I really didn’t know (until Rwanda) that the nutrients are more easily absorbed — that must have something to do with its effect on white blood cells. Good to know!!

  11. Dearest Rosie — I hope I never make it sound simple, because that would be such a thoughtless portrayal of what causes poverty and hunger to be so chronic and entrenched. First of all, even in one province in Rwanda (which is a small country about the size of Maryland) there are thousands of people afflicted with AIDS, and girls 15-24 are twice as likely as boys to be infected. Every one of those people needs medication, health intervention and better nutrition — and they also need to not have children, since that really weakens your system further. BUT — that requires people to change social mores and attitudes, which is super difficult. And even the Heifer project has had to be refined and changed, since originally people were going to be given 1 dairy goat and 2 meat goats — but the people couldn’t handle taking care of and feeding 3 goats (their plots of land are REALLY small) and only wanted the 1 dairy goat. Getting people to drink goat milk — well, that was really a function of how effective it has been in increasing their white blood cell count — and they are very savvy about what that means to their health and survival. Plus, when we were served it (yeah, I was treated to it, too) I found it to be really delicious, even though I’m lactose intolerant. And the kids are now growing up drinking it, which is great for them nutritionally, so you have a new generation that is used to it and loves it. You know, Rwanda is VERY progressive and the government is totally focused on helping to lift the people out of poverty and it seemed to me that kind of commitment from the top down was really powerful. Something perhaps we should think about in OUR country??

    • Thank you for explaining all this dearest Betty. Believe me I know how hard it is to change the way people eat, or drink, or whether they educate their daughters. You have never made it sound simple. And I said “though it sounds simple its not. It takes many people hours, and much hard work to make each small step…. “

      or to put it another way, someone who doesn’t know how hard it is can think that a worker from Heifer International just comes along and says “Here’s a goat. You have to drink goat milk now…” and the people drop everything and obey. Change does NOT happen overnight.

      I didn’t know
      – that girls are twice as likely as boys to be infected with AIDS. Sheesh.
      – much about Rwanda other than the genocide. So happy to hear that “the government is totally focused on helping lift the people out of poverty”

  12. p.s. Rosie — Educating girls is the solution to overpopulation, by many people’s reckoning, but it is NOT simple to achieve either. It requires income (to pay secondary school fees); access to safe water (so the girls don’t end up carrying water all day; willingness (to change cultural norms that say girls don’t need an education, as in Heifer’s gender trainings); birth control; and bigger schools. Those are not easy things to accomplish — and the more new babies there are, the greater the challenge. So … yeah.

  13. I guess if Charlotte’s husband had acknowledged infecting his wife with HIV, he would have had to explain how he contracted it in the first place. Easier to deny.

    Wonderful post, Betty. Always, the smiles and eyes are so luminous and alive. It reminds me that I have little to complain about.

  14. It makes me so mad to even think about this, I can’t even go there — which is why I just try to focus on the beautiful spirit of these women who are trying so hard to live healthy, productive lives despite having the disease. Charlotte was really a powerful woman — (and that was her singing in my first post about passing on the gift!)

  15. I enjoy that your stories are not just “feel-good” but emphasize the level of help being provided. Heifer is helping to build foundations that can and do allow others to achieve greatness.

    Thanks as always for the inspiration Betty.

  16. I can’t imagine how this is impacting your life!! xoxoxo

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