n all the world there was nothing as beautiful as a goat. As she sat among them on the steep wooded slopes of the Valle di Felice, watching them tussle and shimmy in the tall weeds, Agitu Gudeta rejoiced in their long shoulders and strong legs, their compactness and the grace of their horns, curving back like swords. When they came close, for they loved crowding round, she fondled their ears and kissed their noses, stroked their fine hair and basked in the sight of their faces gazing down on her against the clear Italian sky.Listen to this story
These were not just any goats, but Pezzata Mochena, the ancient piebald race of the high Alpine region near the Austrian border. They came in all goat-colours, but mostly streaked and patched with black or warm red-brown. In 2010, when she bought 15, they were almost extinct; within a decade she had 180, and knew the names and characters of every one of them. So she would chide Cinnamon, as she gently cleaned her udder, for sitting in muck again, and rebuke Kay for trying to climb into her car, and as she led them all out to pasture she would shush them like a congregation of children, blithely twirling her stick in her slim black hands.
Yes, she was black. The goats did not notice, as they also paid no attention to her tall African hat. But people certainly did. The Mochena region was a closed place, still inhabited by descendants of Bavarians who ate dumplings, lived in chalets and spoke a dialect of German. They distrusted all strangers, including the regular pedlars who sold fabric out of their vans. And they had never seen a black face except on Shrove Tuesday, when carnival was led by the betscho and betscha, one in a skirt, one with a tall goatskin hat and a false hump made of straw, both in blackface, who clowned to bring prosperity. Now here among them was a real black woman, an Ethiopian refugee, living in the mountains alone with her goats.
Well, she thought as she worked away, herding and milking and scrubbing, she could bring in prosperity too. Her parents had gone to California; she had come here. She had fled from Ethiopia in 2010 with nothing, determined to leave nostalgia behind and reinvent herself. Her work back there, menaced by trigger-happy police and a warrant for her arrest, had been to defend nomadic herders whose grazing lands were being grabbed and leased to corporations by the government. Neo-colonialism, in a word. But in Italy too land was being squandered, good green land, as people left. So she did what her herding grandparents would have done: put her goats on communal pastures that had been abandoned, and let their munching and manuring gradually restore them.
The Mochena breed were not abundant milkers, but she soon had milk and yogurt to sell. Then came cheese, eventually 15 different kinds adapted to local tastes—of which her special treasures were the primo sale, the first fresh salted ones, which tasted completely different in a week. Her dairy in Frassilongo, the nearest village, was in a building once intended as a primary school when there were still enough children in the valley. There she stirred the big vats of curds just as joyfully as she led her goats up the valley, and taught local girls to make cheese as she had learned it on courses in France. Nothing pleased her more than hearing people say her cheese was good. It won prizes. In Trento, the main town of the region, she ran a stall on market day and in 2020 opened a shop called La Capra Felice, the Happy Goat, which served Ethiopian coffee alongside all the dairy stuff. Happiness was her watchword: happy goats, happy customers, a happy place filled with local activity. She called it her philosophy of community.
It was a crazy life, up at 6am to milk, then to the dairy or the shop, then up to the pasture, milking again, dairy again, paperwork, bed. It used all her strength, she adored it, and her sheer energy won the locals over. Journalists from around the world came to see her in her jeans, cami-top and Ethiopian hat, a symbol of integration for all of Italy. For the first eight years she could tell them, with her joyous smile, that there had never been any trouble. Suspicion, yes, at first. But actual trouble, no. And she had been lucky. After high school she had studied sociology in Rome and Trento on a scholarship, so she already spoke good Italian, and though she had returned to Ethiopia afterwards her Italian residency papers were still in order. In Trento, she still had friends. During last year’s lockdown friends old and new passed word that she had a lot of perishable stock to clear, and everything was sold.
Yet there had always been more difficult neighbours: bears and wolves, which she scared away with bangers, and a few thugs, fans of hard-right politicians, who rode motorbikes among the goats or set their dogs on them. In 2018 a man came into the barn as she cleaned the milking machine, seized her by the shoulder and told her to go back home. Another sliced the udder from one of her loveliest pure-white goats. She had blamed wolves at first. It felt safer now to move down from her secluded mountain shelter to Plankerhof, a hamlet near Frassilongo, to a flat beside the church.
The intruders said her goats had damaged their property. They also objected to the African refugees and migrants she took on to help when she was busiest. That was her latest project, to use a fine resource that was being wasted, just like the land. She would find young men with permission to stay, but no work, and teach them to look after goats. Naturally they could handle it; they were refugees. Local jobless lads might want to join in too, and they could even form co-operatives—her teeming mind running ahead of itself, as usual. She began by taking on one young man at a time, from Ghana or Mali, hoping to transform them into goat-lovers as fervent as herself. From the start, as they climbed up to pasture, she would ask them: “Are you happy?” They had to be, she felt. But it was not so for Suleiman from Ghana, who just after Christmas argued with her about unpaid wages, and ended by killing her.
Evading the police, he fled up to the barn and tried to lose himself among the goats. But they were hungry and agitated by the absence of their mistress, and did not welcome him. Once he was taken away, the good neighbours of Frassilongo trudged through the snow to feed them. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “The milk of human kindness”