A decade ago, after years of witnessing firsthand the financial waste, misguided focus, and shortsighted vision of large organizations working in African conflict zones, Montecito residents and longtime humanitarian professionals Linda and Tom Cole founded the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa, or CAFWA. “We were seeing that the most vulnerable and in-need weren’t getting the support they needed,” said Linda, who was raised in Sweden and worked in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda, and Mozambique, where she met Tom, a Santa Barbara native. “We wanted to change that.”
Today, based largely on funding from the Santa Barbara community, CAFWA stretches its $500,000 annual budget to work with 3,700 people in the post-conflict lands of Northern Uganda — which was ravaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army throughout the 1990s and early 2000s — and employs a staff of 85 in-country workers. Their strategy, which usually requires three to five years of engagement with each woman, is threefold: They issue microfinance loans to allow women to start businesses, from bike repair shops to clothing stores; they develop and enhance agricultural activities, both for staple crops and diversely planted “permagardens” that can take families through the region’s regular hunger periods; and they run 33 literacy centers around the remote region, where, Linda explained, “It’s not just about being able to read and write.” Said Tom, “It’s about building the capacity for people to retain their rights, to realize their potential, and to be active, engaged citizens.”
The evidence that it’s working came most recently during the country’s elections, when more than 50 CAFWA staff members and clients ran for regional offices. “Thirty-four won,” said Tom, who’s been doing this sort of work in Africa since the early 1990s. “That’s pretty profound.”
For their annual fundraiser, CAFWA is hosting an under-the-stars screening of Out of Africa on Saturday, September 10. Tickets range from $50-$250 (which includes food, drink, and more); it’s free for children younger than 7. See cafwa.org/movie-night-stars.