Linda Cole

Posted online: December 2010

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By JOAN TAPPER  Photograph by BRIAN HODGES

The view outside her cottage window may currently take in Montecito’s oaks and aloes, but ask Linda Cole what northern Uganda looks like, and she’ll tell you, “It’s beautiful, with two rainy seasons, tropical, flat with mountains in the distance,” and fertile enough to produce good crops of millet and cassava. It’s also a place where civil unrest spawned by the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army has forced some 2,000,000 civilians into refugee camps since the 1980s. Working with the women who live in these conflict and post-conflict areas is the focus of the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa (CAFWA), the grassroots nonprofit that Linda and her husband, Tom, founded in 2006.

It’s a life path she never would have envisioned 20 years ago when she decided to forgo university studies to try a gap year volunteering for Development Aid from People to People in Guinea-Bissau. The West African country “was completely different from anything I’d experienced,” remembers Linda, who hails from a small village in northern Sweden. “I fell in love with it,” she says, and realized she wanted to “work with people and be part of their lives.“

Her volunteer stint turned into a five-year job and eventually took her to Mozambique. There she met Tom, who had lived in Africa as a boy when his father was a professor of African and Oceanic art at UC Santa Barbara. Tom was also working for Development Aid, running agricultural development programs and helping farmers with small-scale food production. When his contract was up in 1996, the couple married and moved near Tom’s extended family in Santa Barbara. But even in those early days, they talked about starting something like CAFWA. “We had seen good organizations and bad,” says Linda. “We’d seen people who were passionate and wanted to do good but didn’t know how. We wanted to create something from our experiences and knowledge that would be better.” They kept their plans on hold, however, for the next eight years, as Linda earned a BA in global and international development at UCSB, Tom started a business designing and installing organic vegetable gardens, and their children were born: Alexandra in 1999, and Tobias in 2001.

Cole at Oroko camp in northern Uganda, where she met with groups of women who work with CAFWA.

Cole at Oroko camp in northern Uganda, where she met with groups of women who work with CAFWA.

When the family had a chance to go back to Africa in 2005, they began to turn their project into reality. “The key is talking with people to find out what their needs are,” Linda emphasizes. So from their home base in Kampala, Uganda, where Tom worked for Save the Children, Linda spent a year traveling in the north of the country. She met women who had lived in refugee camps for 22 years, HIV-positive women, and women who had no access to development aid because organizations didn’t have time or resources to find them. She particularly wanted to reach those who are responsible for the lives of others—the grandmothers and girls taking care of younger children.

Once CAFWA was established, it was fortunate to receive a $100,000 grant from the California Community Foundation to help kick off its work, which includes literacy programs, agricultural production, microfinancing, and tree planting. When it comes to development and aid, everything is connected, as Linda points out: “Water, health, anything you look at…. It leads to something else.”

The Coles returned to Santa Barbara in 2009, but Linda travels to Uganda several times a year to work with her staff, visit refugee camps and villages, and talk with some of the 1,400 women whose lives CAFWA touches. Each of them in turn may care for five or six others. “Everything we are doing, these women are already doing,” notes Linda, “but we help them to be more successful.”

Take microfinancing: Up to now, the money available has been tiny amounts “and things go slow, slow, slow,” Linda says. “With $250, things can go forward at a different pace. Most women can’t read or write; CAFWA teaches them to keep records using stamps. A big part is having someone from outside to be there and be encouraging—someone who cares.“

CAFWA recently issued a video that explains its work and includes narration by Oprah Winfrey, whose foundation also gave the group a grant in 2008. “I believe if you change one woman’s life, it will have a ripple effect more powerful than anything you can imagine,” notes Winfrey. “CAFWA is working to make a difference within the communities of Uganda one woman at a time.”

Linda plans to use the video to help with fund-raising. That’s a “high priority,” she says. “If I had more funding, I could do so much more. It sounds corny, but I believe that what I do makes a difference. It’s great to see the women healthier and their kids going to school. We’re not giving handouts to women. They’re involved in their own develop-ment. We give them the tools, but they’re creating change.”

For more information about the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa, go to CAFWAAfrica.org.

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2 Comments


  1. Patricia Mitchell

    Dear Heart, I greatly admire your program and am forwarding to friends. This is my second attemp to send a comment, as you ask for a mail address above but the computer rejected my forward and ask for a correct email address, which I have now provided. Perhaps it would be best to specify which address you actually want.
    Cheers, Pat

    January 25th, 2011 at 12:25 am (Reply)


  2. Linda Chase

    What a wonderful program and worthy cause. I would like to know
    more and will visit CAFWAAAfrica.org. It is heartwarming to know
    there are people like you and your family doing so much for those with so little. best, Linda

    June 5th, 2011 at 11:00 pm (Reply)

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