Sharleen was 7 years old when she tragically lost her father, the only immediate family member she knew. Without parents or siblings, Sharleen moved in with her grandmother for a few years, before transitioning to her aunt’s house at the age of 10.
It is not uncommon in many poverty-stricken communities for extended family members to feel angst when left with no choice but to care for an unbiological child. When this tension builds, the adult often takes their anger out on the child. Sharleen’s relationship with her aunt quickly became abusive. In an effort to find safety and hope, Sharleen turned to the boys in her community, eventually marrying at the age of 15.
Dynamics shifted when Sharleen’s husband found out she was pregnant with their child. He told her he didn’t want anything to do with the baby and proceeded to physically chase her out of the house. She attempted to go back to her aunt’s home but was denied.
“She told me it wasn’t proper what I had done and I couldn’t stay there,” recalled Sharleen. Homeless and alone, 16-year-old Sharleen bravely brought her son Kelvin into the world.
Thereafter, Sharleen worked odd jobs to help them survive. She and Kelvin moved almost monthly because Sharleen couldn’t afford the $5-$10/month rent cost. Community members took advantage of her desperation by hiring her, then intentionally failing to compensate her.
One time she took a job washing another woman’s clothes. When the job was completed, she was paid with food, even though Sharleen was promised to be paid with money. When Sharleen asked the woman why she would not be paid as agreed, the woman promptly responded, “ You will die anyway because you live in poverty and your life will not change”. Sharleen still remembers how painful and hopeless this made her feel.
Prayer kept Sharleen fighting through each day. When she joined Zoe Empowers Zimbabwe in 2013, the community didn’t believe Sharleen, an orphan and 16-year-old single mother living in poverty, could be a business owner. What the community couldn’t see was her internal drive to create a better life for her and her son.
Sharleen’s first business involved selling cold drinks and popsicles. She stored her inventory in a rented refrigerator at the market, but when an electricity shortage plagued the country, she strategically switched to selling produce items that didn’t rely on refrigeration. Eventually, Sharleen transitioned her small kiosk to a large stand in a bigger market. It was here she began networking with other sellers, especially the women.
“There was a small group of women who would lend me money to go run errands,” explained Sharleen. “I would never charge them for delivery and they soon learned they could trust me.”
Not only did these women become her friends and allies at the market, but they also allowed Sharleen to join their merry-go-round savings account, a form of banking where each member contributes an agreed upon amount at the end of each month to the fund. Money is then paid out when requested or borrowed to members with interest.
The merry-go-round account has proven to be a great way for Sharleen to save her money for big investments, like a passport for a trip to Botswana where she purchased a refrigerator for her home, a place she and Kelvin have happily lived for over two years. She has no problem affording the $40 per month rent.
As soon as Kelvin was eligible to attend school, Sharleen enrolled him. She impulsively smiles when explaining his academic success. They both have easily maintained good health, wear nice clothes and are often seen socializing with her former Zoe Empowers group members and other business owners in the community, who have become a family to them.
Sharleen’s ex-husband even took notice of her transformation and suggested they get back together. A request to which she unapologetically said, “No.” Sharleen knows the proposal was entirely based upon her new financial success and is content waiting for a life partner who shares her values and faith.
When Kelvin turned six earlier this year, Sharleen had saved enough money to throw him his first proper birthday party—complete with a chocolate cake. This celebration was a dream come true for Kelvin and Sharleen. Every time Sharleen looks at the photo taken that day, which sits in a frame next to her bed, she is filled with pride and gratitude.
From this state of gratitude, she continues to find ways to serve everyone, including the woman whom she had washed clothes for many years earlier. Although it would be easy for Sharleen to lift her nose in the opposite direction and bask in the glory of having proven that woman wrong, Sharleen regularly offers the woman a piece of fresh fruit from her kiosk. “It is a blessing to give,” said Sharleen quickly, as if it has never occurred to her to hold a grudge. “I’m just happy to be able to provide something.”