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Katie Nelson talks with children in Kenya.

Katie Nelson talks with children in Kenya

One village at a time

U student Katie Nelson establishes a foundation to help Kenyan families

By Kristi Goldade

April 22, 2008

The Bukusu children in Kenya are often named for the conditions in which they are born. If a child arrived during the dry season, for example, he or she would be called "came in the drought." It was on a rainy evening that University student Kathryn Nelson and Kenyan pastor Daniel Makecho created the Nafula Foundation, meaning in Swahili, "came in the rain."

Nelson, a global studies major with minors in journalism and Spanish, often repeats the proverb, "A little rain each day and the river becomes overflowing." She sees her newfound Nafula Foundation not as a grand continent-saving effort, but as one project to help a single Kenyan village.

This micro approach is how she convinced her friends to spare a few hundred dollars to buy $2 mosquito nets. The nets, which offer malaria protection, can save four lives--the number of people who can fit underneath each one during the night.

And it is how she persuaded people in her Minneapolis Tangletown neighborhood to donate goods for a garage sale, with proceeds going to the foundation.

"One country, one village, one project," she reminds herself, mantra-like, under her breath.

She sees her newfound Nafula Foundation not as a grand continent-saving effort, but as one project to help a single Kenyan village.

Nelson's involvement with Kenya began with a stint at a large NGO (non-governmental organization). Nelson was on health duty and she and other volunteers would conduct "sweeps." They'd walk across an area, knocking on doors, and ask if everybody inside was healthy or in need of food or medicine. But, Nelson felt, the terms of the sweeps were determined by the organization, and not by the people it served.

At the time, she was living in a village called Chebukwa with Makecho's family. He was working to raise funds to develop Chebukwa into a healthy, safe, and educated community. Nelson's favorite tactic was Makecho's dress rental business--he rented dresses to brides and used the money to send local youth to school. Nelson and Makecho decided to conduct their own sweep to learn what the people really needed.

They walked door to door, asking people what they could use. The conversations would be lengthy--Nelson asking, Makecho interpreting--and would last well into the afternoon. "On a good day," Nelson says, "we would visit three homes." They would be served many meals in the process.

They learned that the villagers needed more than vaccinations and food stipends--they wanted to be self-sustainable. This required crops, livestock, and clean water. And, if ever the cycle of poverty was to be broken, their children needed education and Chebukwa's many orphans needed homes.

And so she and Makecho established the Nafula Foundation and brainstormed several projects. Each initiative was straightforward, relatively inexpensive, and sustainable:

For example, one project is a women's knitting circle. The idea of the circle is not only to build good relationships between village women, but also to provide them with a product that they can sell in the market.

To raise funds, Nelson speaks in local Minneapolis schools and on radio programs, telling the story of Nafula and gaining support. "I'll talk to anyone who'll listen," she says.

Too, there's the whole business of running a foundation. "Right now, the bane of my existence is waiting for non-profit status," says Nelson.

Still, she has support. Rebecca Mitchell, U graduate, Student Project Africa Network (SPAN) founder, and current Fulbright scholar acts as Nelson's advisor. "I call her up whenever I have a question," says Nelson. "I'm so lucky to have such an amazing woman as my mentor." Mitchell, whose SPAN organization functions to connect global volunteers with opportunities, helps Nelson with the logistics of being a first-time foundation founder.

Today, Nelson can be found studying--she graduates next December--student reporting for the Star Tribune, and managing the Nafula Foundation. Despite the political turmoil in Kenya, she hopes to return this summer, to continue the work of "one country, one village, one project."