Beatrice Biira learned math by counting sticks in the dirt. In her rural village in Uganda, she had no books, no chalkboards, no electricity. School was an impossible dream.
Now she has a graduate degree and an apartment in New York City. This afternoon, she’s introducing Hillary Clinton to the audience at the Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center. “It’s very scary,” she says with a laugh. “Every time it crosses my mind, my heart skips a beat.” Her journey from extreme poverty to the world stage is nothing short of astounding. And it began with a goat.
Biira, now 30, grew up with six siblings in the remote village of Kisinga, where children spent their days doing chores, fetching water, weeding the garden. Meals were pretty much the same every day—potatoes, cassava, vegetable soup. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to school, so her grandfather, a former teacher, helped teach her each day after chores. “He would say, ‘What is five plus four?’ I would clear a patch in the dirt, get five sticks, add four, then count them,” she says. “When we got to bigger numbers—like 10 plus 15—it was really difficult.”
When she was nine years old, a gift of a dairy goat arrived, thanks to the charity Heifer International, which provides farm animals and training to families in need. The goat’s name: Mugisa, or “Good Luck.” The animal lived up to that name. The family began selling the milk, which was in hot demand. “You would milk the goat and someone would be there waiting to buy it,” she says. Since there was no refrigeration, that was a good thing. That year, her family raised enough money to send her to school, which cost about $20 a semester at the time. And so at age nine, she started the first grade.
“I felt like my journey to fulfilling my dream had started,” she says. “There was no going back.” She aced her studies and later transferred to a private school in the capital city, Kampala, with the help of Heifer donors. She also became the star of a children’s book, Beatrice’s Goat, when writer Page McBrier caught wind of her story.
At age 14, Biira scored a trip to America when Heifer invited her to speak at a hunger conference in Arkansas. “It was my first speech. I went from speaking to zero people to an audience of 1,500 people,” she says. She was handed a script but vetoed it: “I didn’t want to read the written speech. There were words I didn’t even understand. I wanted to tell my story in my own words.”
The trip was a culture shock. “We landed in a snowstorm. It was the most foreign thing I had ever seen,” she says. “I couldn’t believe humans could live in such cold. I was wearing flip-flops.” Another surprise, the roads: “I couldn’t believe how smooth the roads were, and the amount of cars on the roads. No people were out walking. In my village, almost everyone is on foot.”
At the grocery store, she felt “a bit emotional,” she says. “I was overwhelmed. Everything was so organized, so efficient. There’s meat here, there’s cheese here. There was so much of everything. I didn’t understand how one part of the world had so much, and another had so little.” She adds, “There’s not just one kind of toilet paper, there are 20 kinds—one is thin, one is thick.”
After high school in Uganda, friends in the U.S. helped her get to a college-prep school in Massachusetts. In her new world, she discovered things like cake, pies, and ice cream. “I didn’t grow up eating sweets—no candy bars, no chocolate. In the village, we would eat mangoes for snacks, picking them directly from the tree,” she says. “My host mother in America said, ‘You have the most perfect teeth in the world.’” The beach brought some cultural shockers too, with people wearing revealing bikinis. Says Biira, “I was used to covering up.”
A list of successes followed. She graduated from Connecticut College, worked as an intern for Hillary Clinton in the Senate, and earned a Master of Public Service degree from the Clinton School of Public Service in Arkansas. And then she put her experience to work, helping to combat poverty. She got a job with the Millennium Promise, the group cofounded by Jeffrey Sachs, the renowned economics professor and expert in sustainable development. Today, she is a community engagement coordinator with Heifer International, based in New York. She is helping get goats to families like her own.
A world away from her tiny village, she says she likes the big city because of “the diversity, the people, the food.” She travels home every year or two to see her family. “It’s hard to explain what my life is like to people back home in the village,” she says. Her mother still lives in the village, while her father lives in the capital city, Kampala. “My dad watches CNN and tells me about news in New York. He’ll say, ‘I see a snowstorm coming through,’” she says. In the village, there is still no electricity, but running water has arrived. “When I go home,” she says, “I see two very different perspectives.”