Double standards

15 11 2015

I usually only buy the newspaper when I need newsprint. It’s useful for mopping up excess oil after frying fish and Marianne had bought some calamari rings for Friday supper.

The Zimbabwe Independent is actually not a bad paper and insofar as I can tell gives a reasonably balanced opinion on the local political situation.


It’s no secret that the Zimbabwe Government is broke so I was more than a bit surprised to see that it had made a substantial bid for a majority shareholding in a local mobile phone company that was going to cost some US$40 million. A bit further down the page one can also read that a civil service audit report has recommended substantial reductions in the wage bill which gobbles some 80% of revenue.

Perhaps the government thinks spending $40 million that it doesn’t have is going to earn enough to avoid laying off large numbers of its supporters. This is unlikely given the appalling record of the government to do anything well except line the pockets of the faithful.

The 11th November came and went with little fanfare in the papers about remembering Armistice Day. In this part of the world it is also known as the anniversary of Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) that broke Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known) away from British colonial rule. Most years it passes with little if any comment but this year was the 50th anniversary. I must admit I’d forgotten about this until I saw it in the social media.

The state controlled press in the form of The Herald newspaper wasted no time in reporting that “unrepentant Rhodies” in other parts of the world had been celebrating this anniversary (Rhodie is a derogatory term for ex-Rhodesians). One ZANU-PF (ruling party) spokesman, Cde Simon Khaya Moyo (Cde is the abbreviation for “comrade” that only the party faithful and state press use) went so far as to reiterate that “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again”. He was apparently referring to social media posts in Australia advertising celebrations for the 50th UDI anniversary. Quite why he felt threatened by people having a party half the world away is not made clear.

Why anyone would want to celebrate the UDI is beyond me too. I was nearly 6 at the time and almost certainly looking forward to what my parents promised to be my last birthday party in 6 days time. The UDI culminated in a bush war that took my father’s life and very nearly took mine. I most certainly don’t look back on Ian Smith with any fondness even if he was right that the Mugabe regime would ruin the country. He was most certainly wrong to declare UDI but I don’t lose any sleep over it; I have more important things to consider like my birthday in 2 days time and just making ends meet.

After the fire

23 10 2015

Agriculture is not an exact science and sometimes things go wrong. The tobacco seedlings we’d sent to a customer near Headlands, an hour and a half to the east of Harare, had been well received until he informed me that we were some 160,000 seedlings short out of a total of some 500,000. I was more than a touch bemused. This warranted a visit to try and ascertain what had happened.

Leaving early this morning before the traffic had got going I arrived at 8h30 after a rough 20km south of the main Harare-Mutare road. The lands were impressive and well farmed in contrast to the derelict farms I passed along the way.

Not a lot happening

Not a lot happening

The farmer, young by my standards, had recently been allocated the farm by the government meaning that sometime in the past another farmer had been kicked off it though there was no evidence that I could see of habitation. I had to give the new farmer his due – he’d worked hard to get his project going starting pretty much from scratch and had got a substantial loan from a Chinese farming company that wanted his tobacco. The company has apparently been in the area for about the last 10 years. Of the missing seedlings there was no sign. Whilst we have absolutely no legal obligation to seedlings once they leave the nursery I did feel bound to meet him half way on the cost as I’m pretty sure he’ll be back next year. I made it clear that I expected him to check the quantities when they arrived (he admitted they hadn’t) and I made clear that this was not going to happen again.

On the way back I noticed a small burnt area near the main road and stopped to take some photos of the flowers that had bloomed after a recent fire. They didn’t need a loan to make the most of life; just a fire!

Getting more for less (or preferably nothing at all)

22 10 2015

The workers’ committee representing my labour force requested a meeting yesterday. They were asking for a wage increase. That most of Zimbabwe is unemployed swayed them not a bit. Neither did the fact that most prices are not going up and rents are, in some cases, going down. The pharmacist where I most frequently get scripts has taken a 20% reduction in salary and is struggling to pay her children’s school fees. That I would have to increase prices to offset the wage increase and probably drive customers elsewhere also failed to move them. So in the end I just said no, it was not going to happen (I already pay substantially more than I am required to by law). They were more than a little bemused but at least they are actually working for a living unlike a lot of the “haves” in our society.

Currently there is a bit of a fuss in the press over a Zimbabwe born doctor who works in the UK. Dr Sylvester Nyatsuro is after a farm owned by a white farmer in the Centenary area in the north of Zimbabwe. Dr Nyatsuro is by all accounts successful in the UK, running a weight loss clinic in Nottingham – he does not need a farm in Zimbabwe. Even his UK lawyers seem to think he is entitled to grab the farm under Zimbabwe law. Note that he is not going to pay for it despite the fact that it is heavily cropped so I can only think he must be well connected. And what will happen to the farm in the hands of a doctor who probably knows little about farming? Well, he could if he is sensible employ someone who does know about farming but more likely it will suffer the fate of the farm just down the road from my business.

The farm to which I’m referring was once was highly productive. Some 3 years ago the owner was kicked off. Very little happens there now. There have been 2 disastrous crops of potatoes this year and last year there was an extraordinarily bad crop of seed maize that looked like it had been grown almost entirely without fertilizer. There is ample water supply to farm most of the land through the dry winter and ironically, unlike a lot of Zimbabwe, it has reasonably reliable power to pump the water. It is not clear whom is actually in charge of the land but the manager is reasonably capable so I can only think the “owner” is bleeding it dry.

Earlier this month, hot on the heels of Cecil the Lion saga, a magnificent bull elephant was shot by a trophy hunter near the Ghona-re-Zhou game reserve in the south east of Zimbabwe. It was a completely legal hunt but already the social media knives are out having so successfully lynched the American dentist who shot Cecil the Lion and has been exonerated of committing a crime (the professional hunter who led the hunt may or may not have something to answer for).

The German hunter who apparently shot the elephant paid a reported $60,000 for the right to shoot an elephant. That’s a lot of money for most people and in Zimbabwe professional hunting does bring in much needed cash and supports a lot of people. The hunting fraternity also argue that the controlled hunting areas would become a free-for-all poaching areas if hunting were to stop i.e. they are conservationists too. Whilst a lot of people find trophy hunting repugnant it would be difficult to argue that a poached animal that often dies in agony over several days has a cleaner death than one shot (elephant poachers have taken to using tranquilizer guns on their prey because they are silent – the tusks are then hacked off whilst the animal is still conscious) in a professional hunt. In Zimbabwe we don’t have the luxury of being able to leave land idle – it must all earn its keep. Sadly, allocating hunting areas to photo tourism won’t work either. Our already underfunded national parks are themselves being poached and in many cases the general public is helping to keep them going. Friends of Hwange are active in providing water to the animals in the country’s premier national park – a task that in normal countries would fall to the government. This government is always pleading poverty and prefers to let well-wishers help out whilst they spend supposedly non-existent funds on military vehicles.

Just yesterday I received an email from some local microlight pilots who have started a trust to provide aircraft free of cost to assist with anti-poaching patrols in the National Parks. The National Parks people are reportedly delighted as I guess so too are the government.

Now that most parts of the country are suffering massive power cuts of up to 18 hours, those of us who can are looking to “make a plan”. Whilst I am not in an area too badly affected I am not sitting idle and am looking at the solar option. A diesel generator would be cheaper but I am not convinced that diesel will always be available. Sunlight will be. So I guess I am as guilty as anyone of not standing up to the corruption, mismanagement and poor governance that blights this special country. But at least I am working for my money.


Passing on the knowledge

9 10 2015

Every year at about this time in October the local University of Zimbabwe 2nd year agriculture students come on a tour of my nursery. Every year I give them what is by now a well-rehearsed talk. Sometimes it’s an interactive visit that I enjoy with a lot of pertinent questions. Sometimes I could be talking to a herd of mombes (cattle in the vernacular). Last Monday I was starting to despair; I just could not get more than single sentence answers and discussion was just not going to happen. Then somebody did it.

We were standing at the tobacco ponds where tobacco seedlings are grown in polystyrene trays floating on a shallow pond containing fertilizer. Did I take notice of the regulations concerning planting dates of the seedlings? For a moment I was incensed but I very quickly realised that it was a serious question. So after a “I cannot believe you asked that” response (that the lecturer chaperoning the students found very funny) I told them why the regulations existed and why flouting them was a very bad idea no just from the legal consequences point of view. It’s all about pest carry over for the non-scientific; separating sequential crops with a fallow period breaks the pest/disease cycle. Tobacco crops in Zimbabwe must be destroyed by the first of May, new plantings can only be sown from the 1st of June and seedlings planted out from the 1st of September. There are numerous examples of how pests have been introduced into the country by people ignoring phytosanitary requirements. But why was the question asked in the first place?

Sadly corruption is pervasive in Zimbabwe. Earlier this week the Swedish Ambassador expressed frustration with the level of corruption in the NGO sector. Now that is something coming from the Swedes who have a history of being very helpful to Zimbabwe. We are in the current financial mess in no small part due to financial mismanagement and corruption and when the people see the top echelons misbehaving they must assume that it is OK to do the same; Zimbabwe is very much a patriarchal society. Why would my nursery not also be cutting corners? Yes, I have seen these corners cut by farmers who should know much better.

Towards the end of the tour I pre-empted a question that I was hoping to be asked; do we take students on attachment? We do but few are enthusiastic once I tell them that we don’t pay them. Once in a while I am pleasantly surprised and for those I make an exception and at least pay their transport as they are genuinely useful. Moses is one. A student in last year’s batch he worked for at least 6 weeks going around all three nurseries on the premises. He even came back in his vacation.

One morning soon after starting his attachment he approached me as I was taking measurements from the tobacco ponds.

“Morning sir” he said.

“Morning Noah” I replied, genuinely having forgotten his name.

“Actually it’s Moses, sir” came the reply.

I liked that. Not so much in awe of me that he cannot express an opinion. He is also very ambitious and hopes one day to become a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. So he almost certainly will not stay in Zimbabwe along with so many others who are fed up with the mismanagement and corruption. Our loss.

“I knew it was something biblical” I replied, and he laughed..

Smoke and fire

7 09 2015
Smoke and sun

Smoke and sun

Sometimes, at this time of year, the sun sets before it gets close to the horizon. This photo was taken up at Nyanga in the eastern highlands two weekends ago. I was up there again this last weekend to take photos of the msasa trees whose colour can be spectacular but there was just too much smoke around and the colours were very muted. And yes, the sun actually “set” before it got to the horizon.

This is the dry season in Zimbabwe and the bush burns. Not just in Zimbabwe but the surrounding countries too are ablaze. This year the winter has been unusually long and unusually dry. Nyanga being on the eastern escarpment overlooking the Mozambique flood plain does often get winter rain. It’s not heavy but the mist and rain, or guti in the vernacular, can last for days. This year it’s been rare and it shows in the dryness of the bush.

There is a strong el Niño forecast for this season and that is not good news for us. Not because it is likely to bring a drought – droughts after all are endemic to southern Africa and we have survived droughts in the past. Now we don’t have the resources to survive a drought because the commercial farms are largely derelict and the dams (reservoirs to others) that should be used to irrigate crops are underutilized. There is of course an irony here. The nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Kariba, is worryingly low. We share it as a hydro power resource with Zambia and it’s capacity is normally stretched to the limit so when the rains are weak in Zambia which is the main catchment, as they were last season, the lake doesn’t fill. Both countries’ economies are heavily dependent on the lake for their power so now there is already squabbling over what’s left and our already punitive power cuts are getting worse. Not good news for a nation that is already crippled by economic mismanagement.


Panic attack

1 09 2015
FinGaz front page

FinGaz front page

This is the Financial Gazette front page from last Thursday. It represents a major shift of attitude in the government.

Up until now it has been very difficult to get rid of staff without paying a massive (read punitive from the employer’s point of view) retrenchment package. For example, if I were to lay off any staff it would have cost me 6 months notice, 2 months payment for every year employed and one month re-location package. Scenarios for a layoff would have included a takeover of my business by anyone with the correct contacts. As I only rent the premises and have little in the way of assets it would have effectively wiped out the company.

The labour law to which the paper refers changes a lot of that. Now it is only necessary to give 3 months notice. While I have not read the new legislation it is fairly obvious why it has come about. The government wants to lay off a lot of the civil servants which it can no longer afford to pay. Already a substantial number from the state controlled ZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Company) have gone. Rather than simply not pay them and get lumped with the bill later it has changed the law to suit itself. Interestingly there are a number of parties involved who are ready to challenge the legislation. Good luck to them! It is more than a little ironic that this is the government that introduced the heavily workforce biased legislation in the first place to gain the support of the working class.

The labour legislation, as it was, was deeply unattractive to would-be investors. Also unattractive is the current indigenisation policy, embedded in law, whereby companies must be at least 51% owned by indigenous Zimbabweans. While it was never completely clear what indigenous meant I knew that as a Zimbabwe born white I was not included. The reality was that the government (and those with the correct contacts) were after the bigger more profitable companies.  So does the second tier title on the front page of the paper represent an about-turn by the government? Well, if one cares to read a bit further the answer is not quite so obvious as the title implies. Elsewhere in the international press there does seem to bit a bit of a charm offensive by the President, Robert Mugabe, to woo investors from the West. This really does represent a huge change of attitude.

Up until now the West has been the cause of a lot of our problems, according to the government owned media. Our biggest creditor at the moment is China who has been very generous with loans. When things really started to go pear-shaped last year the finance minister went begging to them but came back empty-handed. So to go begging to our former nemesis, on whom our woes were blamed for imposing sanctions, really is a change of attitude. It shows just how deep the financial crisis is.

It is well known that the police have been told to go out and collect their own wages so we are used to being endlessly stopped for both real and imagined traffic violations but last week it really was a frenzy. Even the ZBC got in on the act stopping vehicles to check if they had valid radio receiver licences. Perhaps it was a fear of being laid off under the new legislation or perhaps they were actually getting their notice payments. This week has so far been eerily quiet. Maybe it will all start again towards the end of the month when pay day looms.

The curse of good health

13 08 2015

My uncle turns 93 or maybe it’s 92 this year. Mentally he’s very sharp but physically he’s frail. Last year he decided he’d had enough of life and decided to end it on his terms. He failed and now he’s condemned to a old age home in rural England, waiting to serve his time amongst the old, frail and demented.

I went to visit him the week before last whilst on an infrequent trip to a family gathering and the wedding of a young friend. We don’t get together much; my brother lives in the UK, my sister in north-western USA and I’m in Zimbabwe. It was my brother’s 60th birthday last weekend and I’d said to my sister-in-law that I’d come over for it if he promised to have a party.

wedding cake

Lucy and Will’s big day

It was pure luck that Lucy was getting married the weekend before and well, I probably won’t see Ant again.

The UK is unlike Zimbabwe in many ways;
Good roads
Horrendously heavy traffic but a noticeable absence of bad drivers (ok so it wasn’t a dangerous breach but it’s still a red light!)
Green (Zim is very dry right now
In short – First World!

So whilst in London we did the tourist thing, the Science Museum to get my dose of science.

tower bridge

Tower Bridge on the Thames

Dining hall 2

Dining hall at the old Naval Academy.

Cutty Sark

The Cutty Sark

A Thames river cruise to the Cutty Sark and checked out the amazing dining hall at the old Naval Academy. Zimbabwe does not have recorded history going  back that far and we don’t have a navy either. We do however have better weather than the UK though on this trip it wasn’t bad, choosing to rain just when I chose to do some serious photography.

Getting back to Harare we encountered some decidedly Third World air service with all the luggage being left in Johannesburg because there was no Jet A1 fuel in Harare. Well, that was the official story. It is certainly symptomatic of the state of the economy here and meant that we had to go back to the airport the next day to collect our luggage (don’t they deliver it elsewhere?). So my Saturday visit to the Gallery Delta had to wait a week.

The current exhibition there is From Line to Form where Wallen Mapondera’s string picture Everyone is a Vendor neatly caught the dire state of the economy; we just don’t produce much anymore.

Everyone is a vendor

Everyone is a vendor

Not at all like the market we visited in the curiously named Bury St Edmond where it was very hip to buy local produce. Not sure if these tomatoes were local but they are certainly better quality than the ones we get here!

Good quality produce

Good quality produce

When I left Ant I shook his hand. His grip was firm by any standard. He just laughed when I mentioned it. Handshake strength is one of the criteria used to asses old people’s health. I winced inwardly at the irony of it.


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