Editor’s Note: For International Women’s Day, the Santa Barbara Independent is highlighting this story from December 2018 about Linda Cole’s Santa Barbara–based nonprofit African Women Rising.
How did an aspiring Swedish actress wind up running a Northern Uganda–focused nonprofit out of a humble cottage tucked into the hills of Montecito?
Credit a blunt mentor.
When Linda Cole was a teenager in Sweden, she was a theater kid. She was good, good enough that she was planning to start acting school and devote her life to the craft. Then, “my mentor told me that I was a baby who didn’t know anything and I better go and learn a little bit about life if I really wanted to do theater,” Cole tells me, with a grin, from the couch on which she’s convalescing from her latest bout of malaria, Skyping with her Africa-based employees, and waiting for the mechanic to call about her broken-down car. “So, I saw an ad in the paper about volunteering in Africa and I figured, ‘Okay — this!’”
Life experience, you say? Check.
She wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the work. But she did. The one-year program with Development Aid became several; she went from volunteer to employee, from Guinea-Bissau to Mozambique. And thus, The Detour became The Way. (As it does.)
Nor was she expecting to fall in love with a man. But she did. She met Tom Cole, a Santa Barbara native who’d spent some of his childhood in Mozambique (his father taught African art at UCSB), where he was running ag development programs and teaching small-scale farming. In 1996, they married and moved to Santa Barbara, despite the fact that she’d never really had an interest in visiting, let alone living in, the U.S. She studied global and international development at UCSB, eventually punctuated with a master’s in humanitarian assistance from Tufts.
In 2006, with two children in tow, the Coles returned to Africa, thanks to Tom’s position as an advisor for Save the Children in Uganda. Meanwhile Linda traveled the areas ravaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army, where she found beautiful land and beautiful people trying to recover from unimaginable ugliness. She met widows, orphans, refugees, abductees, mamas and grandmas and aunties raising 7, 12, 14 children at a time. And she listened.
The couple had long wished to start an organization that could put their knowledge and experience to genuinely good, productive use. But Linda’s instinct told her that, despite their shared expertise, the most effective way to help would be to listen to what the people they aimed to help had to say.
“I had all these great ideas about what I thought was needed, but I’m not a farmer living in Northern Uganda recovering from war,” she said. “I’m a pretty privileged white woman. Part of the whole reason for starting the organization was not to come in and say ‘This is what you’re going to do,’ but to create something that could change and be flexible depending on the needs of the people that we work with.”
Initially, Linda hoped to focus on formerly abducted women and children. But she realized that in so doing, “I would make their situation worse because they’d be outed as abductees, so we broadened the scope to vulnerable women.” And in 2006, she and Tom founded the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa — since renamed African Women Rising (AWR) — an organization focused on empowering women to rebuild their lives after war, of which Linda is the executive director.
The emphasis on women is both by design and reflective of the reality that, in aiming to reach the most vulnerable, more often than not, you’ll be working with women.
“Women have less access to resources,” Linda explained. “They’re less likely to be reached by aid organizations; women aren’t seen as viable for development aid because they’re small-scale, subsistence farmers; they often can’t read and write, so they don’t get the information on how to be part of programs.”
AWR tackles those issues head-on, focusing on microfinance, agro-ecology (both helping develop family permagardens and fostering field-crop farming for revenue), girls’ education, and adult literacy, because access to capital and agricultural skills can only take you so far if you can’t read and write.
The latter two focuses represent impressive scaling and evolution on AWR’s part: The organization is now the largest provider of adult literacy education in Northern Uganda, and the focus on girls’ education is a development born of the realization that, in many communities where AWR is active, not a single girl was continuing to secondary school.
When the household’s matriarch is sick or needs help in the field or at home, a girl is expected to stay home. A day here, a day there, plus days missed due to menstruation — it adds up. Girls fall behind, fail exams, repeat grades, miss days, fall further behind. To address this, AWR educates parents, trains school mentors to track attendance as well as academic performance, and provides reusable sanitary pads. Perhaps most importantly, they also organize field trips in which girls visit secondary schools, meet other girls like themselves, and realize that they, too, can do it—and that they’ll fit in, no matter how old, poor, or otherwise different they might feel.
Field visits, so straightforward as to be almost sneaky in their effectiveness, are a key component of the agro-ecological programs, as well. It’s far easier to convince a farmer — who is likely cultivating the way she always has, the only way she knows, and whose life and livelihood depends on her yield (however meager) — to try a new method if she sees another woman doing so, and enjoying increased yields as a result.
The initiatives are of the slow-and-steady variety: Everything is geared toward building the capacity of the communities — to that end, almost all of AWR’s 170-person staff is from Northern Uganda; many live in the communities in which the organization works. (Doubly important when you consider how remote these communities are.)
And in fact, the sense of community itself might be one of the most critical returns. In notes from Cole’s most recent visit, woman after woman recounts dire stories: They’ve lost children, husbands. Survived war, violence. And while they are, of course, incredibly grateful for the tangible benefits, they all mention how developing friendships with the other women in the program has allowed them to tap some hidden reserve of strength, and of joy.
At the beginning, AWR worked with 150 women; today they number closer to 15,000, of which 6,500 are refugee families from South Sudan living in settlement camps in or near the communities in Northern Uganda upon which AWR focuses, another reality Linda hadn’t planned on.
When it comes to the unexpected, life can always be counted on. She gazes out the window at the fall sun filtering through the oaks and muses at the uncanny sense of déjà vu she experienced last year, when she and Tom found themselves putting their disaster-response expertise to use in their proverbial backyard after the Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flow as cofounders of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade.
When I ask if she ever gets frustrated, Cole laughs. (Despite spending her days facing off against Goliaths like entrenched poverty and the hangover of war with a steeliness that belies her slight size, she is quick to laugh.) She rattles off the reasons: The banks! The distance! The time difference! Fundraising and worrying about financial waste, and making payroll, and fundraising, and did I mention fundraising? What she doesn’t mention: despair, disillusionment, personal inconvenience, overwhelm at the scope of the problems at which she’s been chipping away for years.
While the brass ring would be working herself out of the gig entirely, until then, Cole relishes the successes she sees. When flourishing gardens eliminate the once-standard pre-harvest hunger periods. When women can afford to send all their children to school, access health care, invest in assets like bicycles, mattresses, cooking pans.
And when she sees the clearest evidence of all that things are going well: “When everything is taken care of, they’ll start doing their hair. You’re not gonna spend money on that if your kids don’t have food, so I know a group is really successful when the women start getting their hair done. I love that.”