"It would be easy to be pessimistic, but pessimism has never changed the world": Life lessons from a global poverty hero

"My work is not about busting through Westernized glass ceilings; it’s about survival," says BOMA's Kathleen Colson

Published March 1, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

Kathleen Colson    (David duChemin)
Kathleen Colson (David duChemin)

Kathleen Colson and I met because we both live in rural Vermont, though she has called me from a house she’s renting in Nanyuki, Kenya, where there are metal bars on the windows and the temperature clocks in at the mid-80s, a stark contrast to the feet of snow on the ground at home in New England.  In a few days she’ll travel via Land Cruiser to Korr, where she’ll take up residence in a hut made of branches, skins, cardboard and pieces of scrap metal.  She’ll sleep on a bedframe made of lashed sticks, and catch a breeze through windows covered in chicken wire.

“You want to keep your things off the ground,” she adds, “because of the scorpions.”

In the days of armchair activism, where many get their activism fix by “liking” a progressive Facebook post, I’m fascinated by people like Kathleen who move beyond the safety of their computers and get their hands dirty in the world’s problems. Ten years ago Kathleen started a non-profit organization, The BOMA Project, after witnessing extreme poverty in northern Kenya. BOMA provides small grants to women so they can start small businesses in the drylands of Africa, where some of the continent’s most vulnerable residents face the challenges of climate change brought on by extreme drought. Since 2009, BOMA has helped change the lives of nearly 45,000 women and children.

It’s Kathleen’s passion that has her calculating the liters of petrol she’ll need to make it from Nanyuki to Loglogo and beyond, as BOMA covers an area larger than the country of Ireland. Kathleen likes to drive – she actually insists on it. “The drive to Korr is a challenging drive that used to take 10 hours, but has now been cut to six after a newly paved road for about half of the drive,” she explains. She’ll cross dry riverbeds and grasslands. “The hardest part,” she says, “is driving on what we call corrugation. It’s bone-shattering. It’s like driving on marbles and shakes everything loose in the vehicle. Every few hours you have to stop and tighten up.”

Only upon my prompting will she acknowledge the dangers of such travel: bandits, roving groups of cattle raiders and certain stretches of road where they must call ahead to check with scouts to make sure there are no conflicts erupting along the route. She always travels with a security guard with an AK-47, but she’d rather not talk about that part.

“We do a lot of night driving because it’s safer,” she says.

When in residence at Korr, Kathleen usually sits outside her hut to jot down notes for the day, writing in her journal about the women she works with. She calls this process “catalyzing” – and I get the sense that she works hard to remain grounded in reality, jotting down images, feedback and insights from the field that will stay with her when she’s stateside and behind a desk.

Kathleen often finds she has an audience of northern Kenyans watching her in Korr. “I used to be more unusual,” she explains, “but now they’re pretty used to seeing me.”

She’s known throughout northern Kenya as “Mama Rungu.” A rungu is a traditional wooden throwing club carried by pastoralist warriors.  Kathleen carries one, too. “With that name, people expect me to be seven feet tall with two heads,” she says, laughing.

Every time I talk with Kathleen, I’m reminded of women like Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen – women who could be equally at home in intellectual dinner-table conversation and on the back of a horse galloping across arid grasslands. Kathleen can talk economics, AK-47s and latrines, but what always strikes me is her humility, courage and informed passion. You’ll find no savior complex here – just a doggedly realistic and optimistic activist with the mindset of a global citizen and an honest desire to strip away the red tape and help others, particularly women and children.

“Our work is not about charity,” Kathleen is quick to clarify. “It’s about solving problems alongside the people we work with in ways that don’t rob them of their culture or dignity.”

What moved you into the field? What was the turning point that pushed you from awareness of a problem to action?

I have a long history with Africa, starting from attending university in Nairobi and the safari business. I got involved in lots of projects over the years, and I guess, like many people, found it rather disheartening to see so many projects fail despite good intentions. I don’t think it’s the fault of the recipients. Sometimes it feels like Africa is drowning in our good intentions – the aid is often more about the donor than the recipients.

I’ve traveled through 11 African countries, helped dig wells, build orphanages and schools – but when I came to Northern Kenya in 2005, at the end of a really terrible drought, I had never seen such suffering: malnutritioned babies, mothers nursing older children because there was no food, elderly people who could hardly stand, livestock carcasses rotting everywhere – you had to cover your nose because of the smell.

In the midst of this devastation was food aid – which is very much a short-term solution. I thought: there’s got to be a better solution than food aid.

I decided to spend the next two years making extended trips to the region. I would drive around with my eventual co-founder Kura Omar in this beat-up old Land Rover with two other men, Omar, our helper/cook and Semeji, our security guard. I spent a lot of time listening.

We’d come into the village and I’d go under the thorn tree and listen to the women. Over time, a better solution emerged, which was empowering the women through grants and the establishment of small businesses, leading them out of extreme poverty in a sustainable way. When you realize there’s a solution out there, and that it’s possible, you don’t have a choice. You have to do it.

One day Kura and I wanted to visit 15 rural villages that surrounded a larger town and we wanted to visit with the women in each village in one day because we were short of time. It was the middle of the day and we’d already hit six villages. It was 100-plus degrees in the shade. Already I’d seen too many women and children who were vulnerable, unimaginably poor, and suffering. And I just completely lost it. I broke down.

Kura pulled the Land Rover under the thorn tree and let me cry. He said something amazing to me. He said, “Mama Rungu, now you are seeing the world through God’s eyes.”

I didn’t take it in a religious sense, but the comment affected me deeply. I knew I had to keep going.

Why focus your efforts on women? 

In all those journeys, what became really obvious is that women, children and the elderly were the most vulnerable. They were the ones that suffered the most. As climate change has started to devastate the arid lands of Africa, you see men leaving their home villages with the livestock, taking them to distant grazing lands. The women and children used to travel with the men, but it’s become too dangerous as the grazing lands and water disappear. Dwindling resources means more conflict.

The women are left to survive without livestock or money. The livestock could be 60 percent of their caloric intake. Women and children are extremely vulnerable during drought.

In some places, the nomadic pastoralists in the drylands of Africa are now settling – because of ethnic conflict, but also because they want to send their children to school and to be eligible for food aid. Settling is a coping strategy – a survival strategy – to have access to medical care and food.

We focus on women because they’re the most vulnerable during droughts, as well as their children. These women will only be able to survive if they can earn money to feed their children.

What do you wish the average person knew about life as a woman in northern Kenya? 

These women survive despite incredible hardships. It is the most humbling thing to see the courageous nature of these women, how they live their daily lives. It’s inspiring.

I wish people knew how hard they work. They’re like mothers everywhere. They cry when their kids get sick. They dance and sing with their children when life is good. They get up before dawn to cook for their children. They carry firewood and water for their families.

They have extraordinarily big hearts. They are incredibly generous.

Now that I’ve been a practitioner in the field of global poverty, I know this: There are no people more generous than those who live in extreme poverty. People share no matter what. They care for others even though they have very little for themselves.

When you are a witness to extreme poverty, you start to learn about what’s important.

I wish more people could be with me in the moment when a woman realizes the aspirations she has for herself and her children are possible.

If we bring change to women, we drive change to the next generation.

When you go into a village, and see all these naked children covered in dirt – they have so little – I always think, what if one of those children was the next Nelson Mandela or the next Albert Einstein? What would be the loss to our world? What if that child is in that village? I do think there is another Nelson Mandela in these villages. Another extraordinary agent of change. It’s our loss if we don’t help them realize their destiny.

In the face of climate change, the solutions are going to come from the people. These women have to raise healthy children because they’re the ones who are going to solve this problem.

This is happening to people all over the world. We have to listen to the people who live here. In the future I believe we will face mass migrations due to climate change. How are we going to handle this? How are these climate change refugees going to make new lives for themselves?

What does "impact" really look like, versus what the average Westerner might expect?

I’ve encountered a fair number of Western donors who want to see success in first-world terms. They want to see a woman who gets an education and starts a business and employs 100 other women, and then becomes an amazing, poster-worthy agent of social change. My work is not about busting through Westernized glass ceilings; it’s about survival.

Success, to me, is when a radically impoverished mother can feed her children.

I have a picture on my desk I look at every day. A picture of a woman holding her baby. She’s beautifully dressed in clean clothes. And she’s holding a plump, chubby baby who is sound asleep in her arms. That’s success. That baby is cared for, loved and well-fed. The mother is adjusted and happy. She’s not suffering.

My translator interviews the women we work with, and they often describe they way they felt before BOMA, and it’s something like this: “My intestines were hot. Every day I would wake up and worry about how I am going to feed my children.” A woman recently told me, “Now I just have to look to myself and I know my children are going to be fed.”

BOMA participants go through a two-year program that helps them learn new skills through mentoring and training. Adapting and changing your behavior is hard. It’s not easy, for anybody in any context. But that is how we talk about impact – one of our criteria for graduation is sending your children to school. We collect data on every person in our program and we measure for change – in food security, sustainable livelihood, shock preparedness and human capital investment. All of the data we collect determines success. And we see success every day.

I appreciate your frankness about climate change’s impact on life in Africa. In what ways do you see these forces influencing your work in Kenya? 

I want people to have the right picture in their minds when they think about places in Africa that experience extreme drought and famine. It isn’t just desert. It’s grasslands, mountains, cedar forests, lakes – the largest desert lake in the world, volcanic mountains – we’re talking about dramatic landscapes. Northern Kenya is incredibly beautiful. And it is in this extraordinary context that the human and environmental stakes are very high.

Sometimes, when I’m explaining the impact of climate change to Western donors, people say to me “why don’t they just move?”

Ending poverty is about people being able to make good decisions. If people have to adapt, and have to change, they are most likely to have success if they’re able to make those behavior changes surrounded by their culture, family and traditions.

We hear a lot of talk about “climate change refugees.” Charity isn’t going to solve these problems, so I have an incredible sense of urgency to reach as many people as possible before the next drought. And so I sometimes drive my staff crazy. Most of them – not the field staff, but the staff that work on finance and HR and grant-writing – have never been through a drought. When you have pictures in your head of cholera-stricken villages, of women, children and the elderly suffering – and if you’ve worked in a cholera clinic watching volunteers try to find a vein in a dehydrated baby’s skull – those images don’t go away.

You've had to witness acute suffering and poverty in Northern Kenya, and you've endured your own illnesses while in the field, far from Western medicine. Can you describe some of these harrowing situations, and what gives you the courage and determination to press on?

It’s hard. Dozens of times I’ve found myself vomiting in a latrine and there are bugs crawling over me – it’s 110 degrees – and I think: Kathleen, what are you doing here? There are days when this work is very hard.

By far, the hardest thing, because of the inherent dangers of my work, is the letter that I write my children each time I leave: “If something should happen to me.” No mother wants to write that letter.

What drives me is this moral compass borne out of years of seeing extreme poverty and drought. When I connect with that moral compass, it helps me make better decisions. Decisions we have to make. I believe we have to use our capabilities to help those who don’t have the same opportunities, to make sure that there are people who can function fully and contribute to our societies.

It would be easy to be pessimistic, but pessimism has never changed the world. If you’re cynical, you shouldn’t be in this business.

I believe in social justice. I believe in peace and forgiveness and the virtues of mercy. I am an optimist about everything Kenyan and African. I really believe in these people.  I believe the 21st century is Africa’s century. I see so many women suffering and I really don’t have a choice.

Lately there has been media attention on flawed charitable efforts in Africa (such as the Joyce Banda war of words with Madonna) and civil wars, famines, corrupt officials often keep the flow of aid dollars from achieving maximum impact. How do you keep BOMA on mission? 

It’s a challenge, especially since we’ve grown so fast. But we try and stay in touch with our founding principles that includes the fact that we challenge traditional development thinking. We focus on women being able to generate their own income and on local leadership. The solutions are not found in development practice classrooms. The solutions are found on the ground, with the people. I am always pushing my staff to check in with our field staff – what do they think? Will this work with this community? We need to spend more time listening than telling people what to do.

The only thing that ends poverty is when people can earn their own income. While there are noble and important efforts, like building wells or schools, it will not end poverty. It is only when women can earn an income that poverty starts to change. And what follows is what has happened throughout human history. Women start earning an income and they start to have choices. And that is followed by freedom and choice and then, as empowered citizens, they start to demand the services that they are entitled to as citizens of their country – and that includes water and schooling. We believe that the women we work with can become important catalysts for change in their lives and the lives of their children.

We also believe firmly in community consultation. I’ve had people say to me, “I’ve got a great idea that’s going to save Africa.”

And I always ask them – did you ask the Africans?

I know people want to build a résumé for college, or have a midlife crisis and need to feel that they’re doing something valuable with their lives. But overall, I think donors need to be more accountable for unintended consequences.

BOMA focuses on ending extreme poverty for women and children. Our programs are simple and inexpensive. Extreme poverty, such as that in Northern Kenya, is not as complex as poverty in America. People need an income so they can care for themselves. With that comes dignity and the ability to continue to climb out of poverty. It is that vision that drives my donors, staff and board.

You've just left home in order to spend time in the field. Why is field work important to you? 

I believe the solutions are in the people in the communities where we work.

Solutions will only work if they are led by local people who understand the customs and traditions of the communities. As we design interventions, we always go back to the field and test them. We look at what’s working and what’s not. I am constantly asking myself – what does Kura think? We can’t afford to work in a bubble.

For example, some people have tried to make solar ovens work in Africa. Look, that’s not going to happen. It’s hot. People don’t eat much during the day. I see those solar ovens littered everywhere around northern Kenya.

Going to the field is where I get my inspiration and best ideas. I can see what works and what doesn’t. If something isn’t working, I don’t blame the people. We can’t force solutions on them. You have to be realistic about what behavior changes you can expect.

Like keeping business records. It’s a constant debate – we want the women we work with to learn how to keep written records. But they want to keep the information inside their heads, and they’re reliable. I want to get in the field and understand that. I’m not going to solve this challenge with advice from development experts.

We struggle, but we struggle alongside the communities we respect.

Many aid organizations use microfinance – providing small loans to individuals without traditional access to financial resources. BOMA uses grants. Why?   

There are no large employers here. When women start their own businesses, they are subsistence entrepreneurs. Think of a tiny mini-mart with tea, sugar, ground maize, batteries, lollipops, beads for warriors, clothes. The women start to diversify once they have experience. One of the most popular products right now is bike shorts. The women like wearing them under their dresses, and they have zipper pockets for money.

Early on, no micro-lending partners would partner with us. We tried. But we were aiming to serve the literal bottom of the poverty pyramid. Microfinance works when you have some experience or skills, but for people who live in extreme poverty, paying off a loan is difficult. We realized that it’s so much easier to give the women the money to start a business.

Micro-finance interest rates can be 30-40% per annum. That’s expensive, and there are heavy administrative costs to collect those payments. We find it easier to give the women the money. We can get a business up and running, earning profit and savings in just two months. In that way, the women focus on earning an income and feeding their children. Not on paying off a loan. The women see success early on and then the magic happens: they start to believe in themselves.

There is a fundamental belief that you can’t give poor people money. In my opinion, it’s ethically wrong to think poor people can’t handle money or are going to use it for alcohol, drugs, or other vices. That’s not what we see. We see women who take this money and double their income in two years. Ninety-seven percent of our businesses are still in operation three years later.

Poor people are a very good investment. These women are a good bet. It’s one of the best decisions we’ve made.

Where do you see BOMA in 10 years?  

I hope that we’ll be working in three or four African countries and that the governments will have adopted our model as a national poverty-reduction strategy. BOMA’s model is proven and it works; it lifts the most vulnerable citizens out of poverty. I would like to see us partner with more African governments.

When you return home after six months in the field in Kenya, what does home feel like? What comforts are you most aware of, and what do you miss?

Right now, in Africa, I’m missing snow; I love winter in Vermont.  I miss my family, children and dog.

Living in rural Vermont, I’m struck by the fact that I live in one of the safest places on the planet. You can go to the post office, leave the keys in the ignition and your purse on the passenger seat.

When my husband picks me up at the airport after I’ve been in Africa for a while, my radar is still on. There’s a reality about operating in a place where there’s a lot of poverty. I’m often sick and need Saltines and water. We get out of the car at a gas station and I have the urge to think about who is watching the vehicle. It takes me a while to wind down.

That sense of complete safety in Vermont is very nice. So is having electricity that’s on all the time.

When I’m in Vermont I miss the pace of life in Africa. The sing-song voices. The smiles – everybody smiles, especially Kenyans. They are some of the most extraordinary people on the planet. Everything is about touching people, laughing together, shaking hands. I feel that there’s a rhythm here. I feel that I belong here. Look, I know I’m a visitor; I don’t presume to truly belong – but I feel more comfortable here. I’m uncomfortable when I’m surrounded by too much privilege.

Leaving Africa after six months will be hard. But I have an extraordinary husband and three extraordinary children, and I don’t want to live on a different continent away from them. I’m a mother first.

By Megan Mayhew Bergman

Megan Mayhew Bergman is the author of the story collection "Birds of a Lesser Paradise"

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Africa Boma Kathleen Colson Poverty