"What do your children dream about?"
That question is put to the parents committee in Uganda's eastern Pallisa district. After a puzzled silence, a young father stands up and says, tentatively: "To have corrugated sheets of iron on the roof?"
Dreams are modest here, where despite an economic upturn in the past 15 years, these villagers - like 40 percent of Uganda's 22 million people - are barely surviving on less than $1 a day, below the poverty line.
Food is meager, homes are crowded and flimsy, clothes are dirty.
The men and women here - small farmers with big families, tiny mud huts, and no savings - are just trying to get themselves and their children through the day. With a little help, that could be easier.
And help has arrived, in the form of a cow.
The Heifer Project, run by the Richmond, Va.-based nongovernmental organization Christian Children's Fund (CCF), has, since its inception in 1998, been handing out female cows to needy families in Uganda.
While there are other cow-donation projects at work in Africa - notably Heifer Project International, a Little Rock, Ark.-based charity which has provided farm animals to needy families worldwide for more than 50 years - the CCF project has given an economic boost to more than 5,000 families in Uganda and is increasing the pool of recipients by 500 each year.
What started as a small pilot program in one district is now running in 30 communities, and being copied by both the Ugandan government and by several African countries nearby.
A goat-giving spin-off project has also just begun.
Alloys Omolo, an African agricultural- development expert, consultant, and regional coordinator for CARE Kenya, says programs like this are costly to start up and take a long time to help significant numbers of people.
But, Mr. Omolo adds that "once these families are given the leg-up, it will be hard for them to slip backwards. You are giving them the means to better their condition, and because they know what it is like to have nothing, they will never loosen their grip on those means."
CCF's program is run on a community- based lottery basis - with winners given one heifer, which they receive for a price of between $10 and $15, paid in installments. The heifers, which are procured within Uganda, actually cost between $60 and $120 and are funded by sponsors primarily from the United States.
The family keeps the heifer and receives a crash course in tick control, milking techniques, and other cow essentials. And the animal is regularly checked out by a veterinarian.
As part of the agreement with CCF, each recipient family is required to give back to the program a female calf - which, in turn, is given to the next needy family on the list and helps the program grow.
If the original heifer happens to give birth to a male cow - the offspring is sold and the money is given to the program to purchase more females.
All offspring after the first-born are kept by the recipient family.
Edison Ntumbu's family was one of the first CCF heifer recipients. Today, after having given back a calf to CCF, this father of three has three more cows as well as six goats.
"Its wonderful," he says, adding that each cow produces four liters of milk a day and that he is both able to feed his family and to sell the leftover milk. With the money he brings in, he buys food, clothes and schoolbooks for his children. If they get sick, he can afford to take them to the clinic. Their childhood, says Ntumbu, is going to be much better than his own. "I never had shoes," he says softly. "And I had to leave school too early."
"Now I know that I now have something to fall back on," says Bukuyi Kaledia, another heifer project recipient, trying to convey the importance of a cow in this society. "I will be able to support my family in the long run. It is much better than money. We get assets, and the benefits will go on forever."
Besides providing milk, the cow's dung is used for fertilizer, and is smeared on the outside of homes to keep away mosquitoes.
Mr. Kaledia is beginning to think big. "When I get a little more (money)," he says, pulling his five children, his cow, and one young calf around him and smiling broadly. "I will buy bed sheets and mosquito netting for children."
"This is what sustainable development is all about," says CCF's Uganda director James Ameda. "There were those who argued this project was going too slowly and that the cost per beneficiary ... was too high," he says. "I say these families we are helping will not go backwards and as such, we have truly helped them."
"What do you dream of?" Evelyn, Kaledia's 10-year-old daughter, is asked.
"Before 'Project' [the name of the family's heifer] arrived, I dream of that cow," she says. "Now I have some other ideas.... like a little turkey or a baby goat.
"Or maybe," she continues, shooting a glance sideways at her father, "some coloring pencils. That would be nice."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor