Breaking the Thatched Ceiling

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realise the extent to which society in rural areas here in Zimbabwe, remains very patriarchal. Not just in the small rituals, such as men having pride of place on the kitchen bench whilst women stay on the floor, or the special bowl reserved for the (male) head of the family. But also in ways that fundamentally impact a young woman’s opportunities in life: it’s still commonplace to hear of girls taken out of school to help run the household or for early marriage, or to see men appalled at the thought a woman’s role is anything more than to bear and raise children.

It’s because of this that I found it particularly refreshing (and, I have to say, also quite emotional), when I recently met Winnie, one of the Kiva borrowers, and her family.

It was a big day for Winnie when we visited. Over 30 of us had descended in on her rural home, a few kilometres outside the quaint, colonial town of Shurugwi in Southern Zimbabwe.

Winnie is a member of Cama, Camfed’s nationwide alumnae network of young women who work to improve their local communities and who use Kiva loans to help establish their own business. The Cama National Committee, with representatives from all across the country, had chosen Shurugwi for its quarterly meeting. And as Chairperson of her District Chapter, Winnie had invited the group to visit her business, meet her family and hear about how she’d used her Kiva loan to transform her life.

The CAMA network, gathered around Winnie's family home
The CAMA network, gathered around Winnie’s family home

Winnie explained how she was 19, and had just left school, when she first started buying groceries, sweets, and snacks to sell to the local community. Living with her mother and her elderly grandparents (her father is no longer around), she recognised that things were very difficult for the family, financially, and she was keen to quickly start making her own contribution.

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After a few months of running her shop, she applied for and obtained her first Kiva loan of $500, which she invested in stock to expand the business. Sales grew, profits increased and, having successfully paid back the loan within 6 months, Winnie went on to take a second, $1,000, loan.

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She described to the group the transformative effect of her successful business. Not only has the family been able to afford the basics of food and clothing, Winnie has also been able to renovate the compound. She used her profits to purchase bricks, doors and window frames to build a better home. She is able to now finance herself through further schooling; having previously been resigned to dropping out, with the encouragement of her Cama colleagues she was now enthusiastically pushing ahead. And beyond her immediate family, Winnie is able to help others in the community; she buys stationery for students who are struggling, and she volunteers as a Community Health Trainer in local schools, teaching children on health and hygiene.

The impact on the family as a whole was evident. Winnie’s mother proudly described how much of what we saw around us stemmed from Winnie’s hard work in the business: “Everything I wear, comes from Winnie”. The family now even have electricity, a rarity in this remote rural area, but possible from investment in a solar panel. This also meant the luxury of a DVD player (evidently the pride and joy of Winnie’s mother, who made sure we all saw it, as we toured around).

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But what I personally found most moving, was the message that Winnie’s grandfather was keen to leave with the group, before we left. He described the suffering the family had been through, prior to Winnie setting up the business. And he described how proud he was of his granddaughter, whose hard work and success ‘shows her gratitude to her family, for having brought her up well, despite difficult circumstances’.

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This old gentleman’s upbringing was steeped in that culture of patriarchy; a society that didn’t consider women worthy of the same opportunities. But now having witnessed what Winnie had achieved, here he was with fire in his eyes, offering some very different advice to the assembled group of young women:

“It is not beneficial to have a child earlier. Do your own things and have children later. I encourage all you ladies to persevere in all that you do. Stand together, to build our nation.”

For Winnie, I imagine that it is this deep respect from her family and community, the dignity and the sense of self-worth, that is at least as important as any financial reward. As she explained to the assembled group her longer term plans to expand further and to create employment in her local community, I could see the pride, the self-confidence and the sense of empowerment in her smile. It is these attributes which will ensure Winnie, and others like her, bring change to society here, and use their Kiva loans to indeed go and ‘build their nation’.

Winnie, with her proud mother
Winnie, with her proud mother
And with even more proud grandparents
And with even more proud grandparents
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