The Smiles of Zimbabwe

June 18, 2015   |   Alumni Post « Back

by Tess Murphy ’07

When I was placed in Africa for my Kiva fellowship, I quickly realized I didn’t know anything about Zimbabwe. I didn’t really know much about any of the countries I wrote down, I just knew I wanted to go to Africa. Africa is huge. Africa is a mystery. I needed to see it for myself because I knew it was so much more than the poverty stricken slums, tribal villages, ebola attacks, Boko Haram violence and Joseph Kony rampages that the media portrayed. I knew there was an element of Africa that was entrepreneurial, innovative, bustling and holistic. Within a week into Zimbabwe, I can say, I WAS RIGHT! Granted, its an enormous continent, with a diverse population and varied histories, so I shouldn’t generalize. For now, I’ll focus on Zimbabwe.

Preparing for my trip to Zimbabwe was a pure headache. I tried to block out all the doubt, but I still felt a gaping hole of fear when I landed in Harare after 36 hours of transit. That was quickly overtaken by a genuine concern for my feet, which look like overstuffed sausage on the verge of explosion. Seriously, I really thought my feet were going to explode. This was the first concern I voiced to my host, who, understandably, was confused by a woman who, landing in Africa for the first time alone, was primarily worried about her exploding feet. (They’ve gone down in swelling but up in mosquito bite scars.)

After getting settled I noticed that mornings are my favorite time in Zimbabwe, which is hilarious because mornings have never been my favorite time, anywhere. The air is cooler and everything feels calmer. My home offers a beautiful oasis and solitude to the congestion of Harare. The vegetation surrounds the house with vibrant shades of green, playing host to tons of very loud birds. Next to my window is an avocado tree and a banana tree and I’m often woken up in the middle night to the sound of avocados falling on my roof. I think having an avocado tree next to my bedroom is now my number one life priority. I know I will have made it if I can reach out my window and grab an extra avocado for my guacamole of the day.

It took a lot of nerve to finally venture outside the walls of this heavenly avocado filled villa. Turns out Harare is just another city, with people like you and me, who go to work, eat, socialize and go home at night to their families. Granted, there are parts of Harare that are unique. It takes on the bustling nature of a dense city without it’s infrastructure. The water isn’t potable, the electricity goes in and out and businesses shut down and reopen spontaneously. The roads are narrow and trucks speed by honking their horn at any car, or person, that is in the middle of the road. This horn says “if you are still there in 5 seconds you will be road jelly.” Some streets are paved, some are dirt and most are a mixture of pavement, potholes and dust. The potholes are actually craters in the earth that cars avoid at all costs—even if it means swerving off the road over a bush. Seeing how there are no sidewalks, walking around is an obstacle course and a maze of fallen branches, rocks, stones, rubbish, glass and vehicles. Despite all of this, Zimbabweans are happy, smiling, joking people and although I’m dodging cars and swatting mosquitos, I can’t help but smile with them.

‘Kombis’ take on a life of their own and I haven’t braved one yet, even though the previous fellow told me it’s the best way to get around. Kombi’s are shared taxis-vans that can fit maybe 12 people safely but drivers usually aim for 18-20.

My first fews day I wandered around on foot as school children were heading home for the day. They were all dressed in formal uniforms, the boys wear blazers and ties and the girls wear skirts. They always smile, wave and say “How are you?” as I walk by. It’s refreshing to see children being children, playing in the streets and in trees, nobody’s head stuck in a phone or computer. (As I write this with my head stuck in a computer.)

Its obvious Harare has high levels of unemployment and there are tons of abandoned shops around. The economy is greatly affected by any current political situation. However, stalls on the sidewalk and vendors in the street show the enthusiastic entrepreneurial spirit of the country selling anything from bananas to pirated DVDs to paintings. It’s these makeshift shops that show the true essence of a place and make it so interesting to explore.

It’s also these kind of businesses that I’m so excited to visit, the entrepreneurs who have benefited from Kiva and lenders around the world. Kiva is a microfinance organization whose mission is to connect people through technology to help alleviate poverty around the world. They do this by working with field partners—micro finance institutions, banks, NGO’s, universities, nonprofits—the definition of a Kiva partner keeps expanding as Kiva expands. These partners are in the field, in more than 85 countries, dispersing and collecting loans, and uploading borrowers profiles to the Kiva site. After interning at Kiva’s headquarters for six months, I was dying to go to the field and meet these borrowers. So I applied for and was awarded this fellowship. I am so inspired by an organization who’s business model is sustainable, its impact is constantly expanding and its mission to alleviate poverty drives its priorities.

I work at MicroKing, the largest micro finance bank in Zimbabwe, touring all their branches around the country and meeting the borrowers. I also interact with Camfed (The Campaign for Female Education) borrowers. Camfed operates by identifying the poorest woman in a village with the believe that if they can help her overcome her obstacles, they can fix the overall community. The interest of the loans through Camfed are not paid back financially, but by returning to their village and providing services through education or health care.

As I geared up for my first day at work, Leopold, the Kiva coordinator at MicroKing, greeted me with an enormous smile and said, “No matter how things are now, I can guarantee you in two months you will not want to leave Zimbabwe”. And even though it was my first time in Africa and the farthest from home I’ve ever been, I thought … he’s probably right.

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