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This is my final dispatch from Zimbabwe — at least until I return. When you first begin to people-watch here, one thing you quickly notice is the attention to fashion. The results, though, differ a bit for men and women.

For men, the style is more “business casual” — lots of button-down dress shirts, usually long-sleeve, with slacks and nice shoes. This is a school principal near Nyanga. (I think it should be a rule that all school principals wear colorful vests.):

I saw these blokes on the streets of Masvingo. I quite like the purple sport coat:

For women, fashion can have a different orientation — lots of vivid colors and flowy skirts. These women hail from the town of Mapanzure:

And this is how you carry your toddler around with you, which seems rather sensible to me:

My traveling companions — (from left) Wilson, Joseph, and Chipo — pose by a sign for Zimbabwe’s largest dam.

So what’s going on here? Why do men and women have these different styles?

To answer that, let me defer to the African history class (AF16) I took in college in 2004. I went back to my notes, and it turns out they do a much better job of explaining all this than I can. With the giant disclaimer that it’s a bit silly to generalize an entire continent, here are the professor’s comments from the class on “Family and Farming Structure”:

“Post-colonial, men begin dressing in fairly standard, European ways. Women, however, began dressing differently, and common women began to buy cloth that they couldn’t buy pre-colonial. These cloths and new fashions were imported both from Europe and from other parts of Africa, such as Senegal. The women developed outfits that didn’t match either European outfits or pre-colonial outfits, and this is what we see today: bright, flowy garb.”

“Men, to hold their position in the colonial society, had to dress according to European ideals, while women, with income to spend and less need to match into the hierarchy (their less prestigious jobs didn’t require such rigid forms of dress) could and would do more to express themselves and the power that they bring to their lives.”

Here is a well-dressed man who would seem to know all about keeping one’s elevated seat in society:

There’s a third sartorial category, the animals one sees on safari, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t applaud their practical use of patterns and stripes.

As for my own fashion, I am just a typical example of “REI Chic” — all extra pockets and polyester. See past posts for examples.

Well, that’s all from Zimbabwe. I’m sad to leave. It’s been great.

With the focus groups done, it’s time to wind down my stay in Zimbabwe.

OK, so funny story. You know the incredibly impressive medieval ruins known as Great Zimbabwe, the ones that the colonial powers occupying Zimbabwe a century ago said couldn’t possibly have been built by actual Africans and must have been the work of foreigners (read: whites)?

Well, you’ll never believe this. Turns out that Africans really DID build it. (I know, right?) From the 12th to the 15th centuries, it was the seat of power and trade for the whole region. Pottery and coins from as far away as China have been found at the site.

When I learned all this, I couldn’t help but (1) silently curse colonialism for the 16th time this week, (2) be impressed, and (3) be reminded of an hilarious article from the government’s newspaper 2 days ago:

“China Denies Exporting Inferior Products to Zimbabwe”

It’s funny because the gist of the article is China saying, “Well, you get what you pay for.”

That said, the 15th century Chinese coins in the Great Zimbabwe museum looked pretty well-made to me. Perhaps standards have fallen as of late.

Great Zim was oodles of fun — and adventurers, take note. Only about 50 people visit per day, so no pesky tourists to mar your new Facebook photo album, “Great Zimbabwe, Batman!”

Act now and you’ll also get this charming sign to beware of falling rocks. If falling rocks are indeed about to hit you, please be sure to keep (1) calm and (2) your driving cap on.

Wilson, my partner in crime, and I take a break at the top of the mountain (outfit coordination not intentional).

I’m now in Masvingo (pronounced Mah-SHEEN-go), in the middle of the country. Something like the St. Louis of Zimbabwe. Yesterday and today I met with another 31 cluster facilitators, as well as the staff in the NGO’s office here who orchestrates the whole village savings and loan shabang.

I feel like “Village Savings and Loan” is the huge secret the world hasn’t heard about yet. Last week I spoke with 3 Emory students about their interest in getting into microfinance, and most of what they know is just Grameen and Kiva. If it hasn’t been heavily publicized, folks just don’t hear about it.

VS&L is a model of group-run savings and loan projects; the members (anywhere from 7 to 25 per group) invest savings every week into the group, and then any of them can borrow from the group at about 20% interest — per MONTH. (It’s 20% in Zimbabwe, 10 to 30% elsewhere.) But when they pay it back, does the profit go to a foreign bank or microfinance institution worth millions (cf. Compartamos)? No. It goes back into the group, becoming more money for it to lend out or use to buy stuff for the whole group, like groceries, kitchen utensils, or school fees.

As I began to think about it, I realized that using a bank just means paying them a bit for their help. My savings is money they can use to lend out and make money, and any loans earn them interest. I get the service, they earn off of me. What the poor lack in money, they often make up for in time, and so they can spend the extra hours sitting under a tree out of the hot sun, collecting savings from each other and loaning out, operating their own mini-bank. (And honestly, it doesn’t take that much time, perhaps a few hours a month once they’re up and running.) And they get to keep the profit – 20% a month, a rate any banker would drool over.

So yeah — VS&L is pretty awesome. Fortunately, the model is spreading. The Gates Foundation is spending north of 10 million dollars to scale VS&L’s to reach 30 million Africans by 2018. And it’d be great if we could tack on some business literacy education in a cheaper and more scalable way, which is why I’m here.

One more impression, randomly: Zimbabwe is very pretty, but not just in a “vast plains of Africa” kind of way. Large swaths of the country are verdant and super green, so that the effect — what with the granite boulders strewn about — is a bit like western Ireland. In fact, I met an Irish priest here two days ago whose thick accent made me do a double-take. No joke.

Or if it was, something like, “OK, so there’s this Irish priest in Africa, right?…” I’ll work on the punchline; get back to me.

This is today’s session in Mapanzure, a rural area near Masvingo. My laptop is resting on an empty Coke crate.

We spent today around Mutare, a Zimbabwe city of 170K just across the border from Mozambique. Our partner for the day was ASAP Africa — ASAP stands for A Self-help Assistance Program — who let me meet with two groups of their cluster facilitators. Each CF voluntarily oversees 5-20 Village Savings and Loan groups of 5-7 people each. Which is to say that the 25 women I spoke with today represent more than 1,000 of their peers. In ASAP lingo, the program is locally known as Kufasa Mari — and the women all have matching Kufasa Mari shirts they proudly showed me.

I learned a lot today, but one thing strikes me. Even the ASAP staff were surprised by how interested the women were about leading business literacy sessions for their groups. Clear enthusiasm. This is something I’ve encountered elsewhere — a failure to recognize how much microentrepreneurs want to learn business knowhow.

There’s something about microenterprise that arouses convictions in us First Worlders toward microfinance, but not as much towards spreading business literacy or the operations of the microenterprise itself. It’s not scientific, but Google turns up 4 times as many results for “microfinance” as for “microenterprise.” Phrases like “microentrepreneur” and “business literacy” fare even worse.

It seems to me — though if you’re reading this blog, I’ve probably said this to you a lot — that it should be the other way around. Business knowhow should be the lead product, with microfinance the complementary cross-sell.

A resourceful, savvy business owner can make do without much credit, while a simple-minded business owner with a plump line of credit won’t just spin his wheels, he’ll be a danger to himself and his bank account.

There’s also the issue that the gospel of microfinance operates under a set of assumptions, credit=investment=net profit=additional wealth, that don’t often carry all the way through. Microfinance is great, but it’s great because it helps recipients smooth their volatile income and deal with emergencies — a bit different than the stories that end so sweetly, “And that loan let Maria buy a sewing machine and now she’s not poor.”

How did Maria know to buy a sewing machine? How did she know she’d be able to pay it off? How is she selling more than her competitors, and how does she plan to keep this advantage?

Credit is a tool, I think; it matters more whether you know what to do with it.

As for the title of this post, it comes from a conversation today. My translator and the ASAP program manager, Joseph Miti, asked the women to describe their businesses. One said she had 8 goats, 4 pigs, and “brellas.” I thought, “Well, that’s a funny thing to buy elsewhere and sell in your community, but if there’s demand for umbrellas, go for it.” After all, on the way to this remote town of Sherukuru, I saw a few women blocking out the midday sun with large golf umbrellas, so perhaps they were in vogue, a la urban China. Also — shortening umbrellas to ‘brellas, how ‘mazing!

As I was asking a question later about challenges, I used umbrellas as the example business. A couple weird looks, but nothing crazy.

Though the next time she mentioned raising “brellas,” I stopped her.

“You mean umbrellas?”

“No,” she laughed. “I raise broilers. Like chickens.”

So if you visit Sherukuru and are asked if Americans really do grow umbrellas, I–I may be at fault.

Just finished a 4-hour focus group with 10 cluster facilitators about their interest in teaching business literacy to their groups. (CF’s are village agents who volunteer to help create and mentor village savings and loan groups.)

In addition, they each run their own individual businesses — like making peanut butter and candles or importating clothes and blankets. A super-talented group.

When I asked if their savings & loan groups would want to learn the business literacy knowhow, the whole table erupted, Yes! The demand is there.

In other news, I continue to blend in nicely:

After Atlanta -> NYC -> Johannesburg -> Harare, I’m finally here in Zimbabwe. My first time to Harare, my first time to Zimbabwe, and my first time to Africa. I think I blend in nicely.

At the start of the security briefing with Faithful, the NGO’s compliance officer, I mentioned this was my first trip to Africa. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’m really going to have to put you through your paces!” I think she’s worried about me, that I might try to buy a farm or something.

So if you visit Zimbabwe, here are some tips:
1. Don’t shop alone; bring along a local friend to negotiate for you.
2. In Masvingo (pop: 51,000), be sure to ask for a hotel with a generator; electricity isn’t the most reliable.
3. And I was told, “You’ve come at a very good time — there’s bread and sugar on the shelves.” (!)

And straight from Johannesburg airport, here’s a giant statue of Nelson Mandela made of beads for you.

More to come soon when I’m not delirious with jet-lag.