Kathryn Nelson doesn't cut the figure of a typical aid worker. No Toyota Land Cruiser, no frumpy safari vest, and way, way under 50. But hand-in-hand with a pastor from rural Kenya, the Tangletown resident is helping 2,000 or so people improve the basic conditions of their lives.
Until late 2011, Kathryn Nelson was a freelance writer reporting for several Patch sites in the Twin Cities, including Southwest Minneapolis Patch.
Five years ago, the young 20-something—not yet out of college—was living in western Kenya, working in a refugee camp near the country's border with Uganda.
"There's really nothing there in terms of infrastructure," she said of the area around the area of Chebukwa, where she was staying. "My host family asked me one day 'Do you think Americans would be interested in giving us a leg up?'"
That small question—born, she said, out of a casual discussion of her work at the nearby refugee camp—planted a seed in her mind. When she returned to the United States to finish her last semesters at the University of Minnesota, Nelson was taken by surprise by her friends and family. Suddenly, she was being sought out as a conduit to help alleviate some of the poverty she had witnessed.
"People were really excited to connect personally with folks" who had a direct connection to the area, Nelson said.
Along with Dan Makecho, a community organizer and pastor at a church in Chebukwa, she started a nonprofit to channel this surge of interest into donations that could help residents of the village. The group that emerged, called the Nafula Foundation, is no OxFam or Medcines sans Frontieres—Nelson and Makecho are excited when they get to spend $2,500 on a cistern and rainwater collection system—but in some ways, they are doing something more significant.
For all the time Nelson volunteers to administer Nafula's small budget and gather donations, her role is largely a sideshow. Much of the action takes place on the ground in Kenya, where Makecho and other Chebukwa residents decide what kinds of infrastructure they want to spend money on, and where they and their neighbors are hired to install the projects themselves.
"Dan is the key person," Nelson said. "I'm just helping him get legs on what he's been doing for 10 years."
Maybe it's the result of regularly living, breathing, and researching the failures of so many misguided Western development efforts, but Nelson betrays a wisdom and maturity beyond her years. With ease, she jumps from outlining a rainwater collection system Nafula just installed next to the Chebukwa school to the complex trade-offs and tensions inherent in any development work. How do you make sure you don't take the place of the legitimate but over-stretched local government while making sure people get what they need? How do you keep donors engaged while making sure their priorities don't override the sometimes-conflicting needs of people on the ground?
"People might come to me and say 'I want to sponsor one orphan kid,'" Nelson said, "but I can't pick one of 300 orphans and say 'you deserve more.' I try to explain that we're community-driven, but it's so much more complicated than an elevator speech where I outline some kind of $1 equals this many kids saved."
For now, Nelson is continuing her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, returning to Kenya once a year to meet with Makecho and Chebukwa residents about the next year's projects. After that, her plans aren't firm.
"I know one village in Kenya," she said, "and my co-founder and I are going to work for those people as hard as we can."