the k is for adventureGet the RSS feed.

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.

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.