Many struggling farming communities around the world have been able to rebuild due to a program that donates cows and agricultural assistance to the poor. A group called Heifer International, winner of this year's Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Award, is doing its part to eradicate hunger by donating animals instead of relief aid.
Umaru Sule survived the 1986 Lake Nyos natural disaster in Cameroon, in which a cloud of toxic carbon dioxide gas escaped from a volcanic lake and killed everyone within a 25 kilometer radius while they slept. A total of 1700 people and an estimated 4000 cattle died.
Mr. Sule, who was 24 at the time, remembers how it was for surviving members of his tribe in the aftermath. They lived through the tragedy, but lost their livelihood, the cattle.
"It was very difficult," he says. "They did not have any skills. They have never had education, and losing their cattle was just like the end of the world."
Surviving off humanitarian aid, the refugees of the Lake Nyos disaster wondered what kind of life lay ahead. Then, a relief group called Heifer International brought dairy cows from the United States to crossbreed with the cows that remained in Cameroon.
Mr. Sule was the only person in his tribe who spoke English, so he immediately began working for Heifer as an interpreter. The breeding effort helped replenish the number of livestock in the affected regions and, Mr. Sule says, revitalized the spirit of the villagers.
"What actually came to be was giving them back their community sense, as well as belonging to the tribe," he recalls.
Heifer International was started 60 years ago by an American farmer named Dan West, who had volunteered to help feed the hungry during the Spanish Civil War. While ladling out bowls of milk to needy children, he decided that a better way to help would be to get cows to the people, so they could produce their own milk over a longer period of time.
Since then, Heifer says it has helped some 4.5 million families around the world by donating cows, goats and other animals, and helping villagers rebuild their lives.
One of its many success stories is a Ugandan woman, named Beatrice Bira. Her family was desperately poor until, it became one of several families in the village to receive a dairy goat from Heifer International. Ms. Bira told her story to hundreds of people who gathered in New York City to honor Heifer International, as it received the $1 million Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Award.
"I was very hopeless when I grew up," she says. "I grew up doing so much work, digging and helping my parents. But I really wanted a chance to go to school. I wanted to become a doctor, a pilot, everything a child would wish to become. But I knew I couldn't get there unless I went to school and got some skills. Not until, through the Heifer International, the women's group in our village received some dairy goats. And my mother came to me and told me we had received this wonderful gift from the Heifer International of a dairy goat. And I was very frustrated. I told her 'What is this goat going to do for me?' And she said 'Watch this. We are going to get very wonderful things from this goat. It is exotic. It is a dairy goat.'"
Ms. Bira's village did not have goats that produced milk, only goats that were bred for their meat. So the goat her family received earned them enough money to make a decent living and, eventually, send her to school. She is now a freshman at Connecticut College in the northeastern United States.
Ms. Bira's family bred their goat, and gave its offspring to other needy families. All those who receive an animal from Heifer must do this, before they can truly call the animal their own. The sharing process perpetuates growth in the community, and spreads food and resources to everyone.
The head of Heifer International, Jo Luck, says the families who receive animals are the true inspiration for her work.
"They build peace in the face of ignorance, conflict and chaos," she says. "They receive and they pass on the gift to others. They are, in a very real sense, heroes and role models for all of us. At Heifer International, we are continually inspired by what small farmers around the world teach us about cooperation, dignity, respect, hope and compassion."
Ms. Luck says Heifer International is currently operating in 50 countries around the world. Previous winners of the Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Award include Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee.