Women’s History Month story series | Rebuilding at 61: Kumba’s story
“I wasn’t alone, which was the most powerful feeling. My mentor kept encouraging me to dream bigger.” -Kumba, grandmother and small business owner
BY BRAC USA
Editor’s note: This story is the second in a series of stories celebrating the incredible triumphs of women that will be published throughout Women’s History Month. This month, we will feature four inspiring stories of women from Liberia that were photographed by Alison Wright in 2022. Alison Wright was an acclaimed documentary photographer, author, and speaker, and a dear friend of BRAC. An inspiring woman herself, she was a champion for women’s rights and opportunities around the world. This series is dedicated to her memory.
After Kumba’s husband died in 2009, she had kept herself busy helping out in her son’s small business, and he provided her with money for food and rent. But when Kumba’s son and daughter-in-law passed away from Ebola in 2015, she was left homeless, unemployed, and charged with caring for her grandchildren as a 61-year-old widow.
Without a job or any savings, Kumba had little time to mourn. She was suddenly a single caregiver for her eight grandchildren. The youngest was just eight months old, and the oldest was 15.
Her landlord told her to leave the home she had been renting. After being evicted, her family was homeless for five years, staying with neighbors and friends when possible and struggling to meet their basic needs.
Kumba and her family were once homeless. Today, Kumba runs multiple businesses and her grandchildren are pursuing an education.
One day, a distant relative asked Kumba to take care of a small shelter he owned that was sitting empty. It had previously been used to store charcoal, and didn’t have any windows, doors, clean water, or a latrine. Kumba took him up on the offer, and after deep cleaning the black soot and charcoal residue, she and her family moved in. A small amount of cassava was often their sole source of food. They earned income by collecting and selling firewood in local markets, which required walking several miles every day.
“I vividly remember one day when we had all worked so hard to gather wood, and no one bought it,” Kumba told us. “I went to a cassava garden nearby to beg for a leaf or a cassava root. There was no one there. Faced with the prospect of returning empty-handed to eight children, I felt that my life was meaningless.”
Although she was always searching for opportunities, Kumba’s options were limited, given her age and the eight children she had to look after. But when she heard about a BRAC program in her community that would equip her with the tools to start a business and a stipend to support her family while she got her business off the ground, she took a leap of faith.
Kumba displays some of the goods she sells in her store.
Through BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation program, Kumba built upon her past experience helping to run a small business and gained valuable training and support to start a business of her own, a small store where she sells a range of food goods, clothing, and household items.
“I wasn’t alone, which was the most powerful feeling. My mentor kept encouraging me to dream bigger. I kept multiplying my sources of income slowly and steadily, to the point where I could completely sustain myself and my grandchildren.”
She gained respect from community leaders and started a cassava garden on community land with their permission. The garden now employs several people in the community. With the help of her grandkids, Kumba also grows potatoes and okra in her backyard vegetable garden and sells them at the local market.
“On quiet days, my mind sometimes drifts back to that day I was starving and homeless and begging in someone else’s cassava garden,” Kumba said. “I rebuilt my life, piece by piece, single-handedly. I began with begging, and now I own multiple businesses that support my grandchildren—including my own cassava garden.”
Kumba works in her cassava garden.
Kumba has also put some of her earnings aside in a local community savings association. She has also invested in her home, arranging a contract with the owner and investing in concrete floors, a new roof, and furniture. She is also building a well and a latrine on the property.
All of Kumba’s grandchildren are now in school. The eldest are in Monrovia and preparing to graduate. She can cover all the youngest children’s school fees; buy their uniforms, shoes, books, and supplies; and provide them with healthy food and medical care.
“My favorite sight is seeing my grandchildren getting ready to go to school every morning in their clean uniforms and shoes,” said Kumba. “These moments give me so much pride.”
“I know my time is limited, but I don’t intend to slow down yet,” she added. Kumba wants to move to Monrovia, start a bigger business in the city, buy a home for her family, and send her grandchildren to the top schools and universities in Liberia.
“I want to do more good, even if that is just through supporting the people around me,” said Kumba. “I hope, through my example, my grandchildren can see it is never too late to turn your life around. Even if life throws everything at you, at 61, it is possible to find a way.”
Equipped with opportunities, support, and hope, women like Kumba can overcome great challenges. In honor of Women’s History Month, consider making a gift to support women like Kumba to forge better futures for themselves, their families, and their communities. All donations are doubled this month only.