In and around town

16 12 2014

I had to admit it was an inauspicious start; a minibus reversing into the intersection of Quorn and The Chase just where some new, but yet to be activated, traffic lights have been erected. I did the right thing; swore under my breath and obligingly went around. It wasn’t really worth getting too hot under the collar. I have seen the minibuses commit much worse of course. A U turn on the pedestrian crossing at Borrowdale Village to pick up customers. Stopping on pedestrian crossings to oblige customers. Reversing flat out up major roads and of course stopping on the corner of Lomagundi Road and King George Road necessitating hard braking or a swerve of faith into the right lane and just hope there is no traffic behind you.

The police love minibuses of course because they can always find something wrong on the vehicle necessitating a juicy fine. I have only once seen a vehicle pulled over for a driving offense and that was a woman who was chatting on her cellphone at an intersection. Easy prey. But get out on the road and fine a few for dangerous driving?  No, that’s far too much like hard work. Much easier to set up a road block and pounce there.

The traffic was backed up at the intersection of King George and Churchill (good British names for roads in a former colony) roads. An accident was not what I needed to come across right now. I checked out the possibility of a U turn of my own but they were just painting road markings and the delay was minimal. But why were they painting road markings when so many of Harare’s roads are disintegrating by the day? A question of finances perhaps – painting is much cheaper than fixing of course and we all know the City Council is broke or very nearly so.

They were packing up the tents on the open ground opposite the showgrounds where the annual ZANU-PF congress had been held the previous week. Schools had closed early for the Christmas holidays in case there were issues with violence but in the end there was just an awful lot of hot air but not enough to break the drought that is starting to squeeze the nation. It would have been an interesting sight in a heavy downpour; enough red mud to stick a tank and not a tar road in sight. I did notice Dr Joshua Nkomo Way meandering dustily across the open area but try as I might couldn’t see Dr Grace Mugabe Way. I’d actually met someone who’d gone to the local university library and asked to see her thesis but alas, it was apparently not available.

An hour or so’s business in the Coventry Road area and I was ready to tackle the back route to the heavy industrial sites to check out a container that I was hoping to buy to store the coir pith used at the nursery. Thank you Google Maps for changing the interface so that I cannot operate it! Well, at least the map worked OK but getting to see the section that I wanted and negotiating the traffic was a little tricky.

Kambuzuma Road is in pretty good condition and the traffic was just slow enough that I could relax a bit and check out the scenery. About 2km to the north a spectacular fountain of water was jetting a good 20m into the air. A burst main no doubt. Great to know that the council was wasting water just as a drought seemed to be getting into swing.

The container yard was sizable, bore the name of a well-known freight company, and a lot of containers had not been moved in years. I was approached by the contact man who cautioned me not to mention that I was buying the container but looking to rent it in order that I didn’t have to pay storage fees. Alarm bells went off in my mind. My scepticism must have shown because he assured me that I’d still get the “papers”. Right. The container was not in great shape and I also suspected that it was smaller than the one used to import the coir. It also turned out that the “owner” wanted far too much for it (negotiable of course) so I made my excuses and left.

The water fountain was still spectacular on the route back; millions of litres of water now down the stream. The city council might not have enough money to fix water mains and repair roads but there’s plenty of evidence of money elsewhere. Turning into Harare Drive from the old Bulawayo road I noticed a considerable number (no time to count – there were minibuses to avoid) of suburban houses springing up to the north-west of the intersection. All at the same stage it could only have been a development project. But where had the money come from in a nation that is importing coins from South Africa to alleviate the change situation?

Back down Lomagundi Road to see Marianne for lunch and past a number of used vehicle lots. In fact lots of lots. One impressively packed with used UK lorries which even if they cost say £10,000 a piece amounted to perhaps £200,000. Oh, and add on the duty and transport please. Well, maybe not all the duty. There are often ways around paying all the duty but only for those with “contacts”. It’s negotiable if you know what I mean.


First Street

24 09 2014

Once upon a time the First Street shopping mall was a very fashionable part of town. Youngsters would go there and parade – boys strutting, talking and laughing loudly to impress the girls. It was quite the place to shop too; the place to be to sell fashion, or shoes, or hi-fi or furniture. That was long ago.

Now it is dirty with buckled pavements and old water bottles lying around. Tops are missing of street drains and the holes must be circumnavigated with care. Luxury shopping? Not if you want cheap Chinese fake leather belts, car cellphone chargers or no name brand long toed shoes. Or any of the other bric-a-brac commonly being sold on the streets of Harare.

The local idiot stopped washing a car with a tub of filthy water from the gutter and tried  to sell me the cheap Chinese watch pinned to his trousers. I pointed out that I had a very good Swiss watch that was much better than his Chinese one. The argument only ended when the parking meter attendant agreed that Swiss watches were always better than Chinese ones.

Negotiating my way down the pavement past the vendors tables I crossed the First Street mall and smiled inwardly at the controversy that had been caused by paving it in to make it possibly Harare’s first pedestrian mall. So far as I could see the glamour shops were gone, the wares in the current outlets looking tired and lonely supplanting quality with quantity. Perhaps that was an ice cream stain near the pile of bricks in the middle, a child dropping its long dreamed of Saturday treat. Perhaps it was just spilt white paint.

The Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA) was on the 3rd floor of a bank building opposite where I’d parked. The offices were plush and had a lot of chrome and granite in evidence for a government office. The lady at the Min of Ag (Ministry of Agriculture) building had said that now I had to be a member of the AMA to import coir for my nursery, just about $100 for a year she’d said. It turned out to be $500 and it was not exactly clear what I’d get for it. Well, the bureaucrat I spoke to certainly was eating some pretty impressive food but she claimed it was just leftovers from the board meeting currently in full swing. Having paid the $500 to the finance division I went back to get my membership. No, I was emphatically told, I had to go back on the 1st of October as it was only valid from then. I tried to reason that I could just have an invalid membership until then met with blind unreasonableness. No, and that was it.

The local idiot was back smearing filthy water over a slightly more dirty car. Negotiating the traffic I had to do a U turn at the end of first street were it was blocked of for “traffic works”. It will take a lot more than that to restore the pedestrian mall to a shade of its former glory.



14 09 2014

We descended below the clouds some 20 minutes out of Harare airport. A bit of mental arithmetic made that some 100 km or so depending on the speed of the aircraft. I wasn’t in a window seat but had a reasonably clear view of the countryside and kept an eye open for irrigated crops, their intense green easy to spot at this time of year against the brown of the veld. Nothing. One or two old centre pivot irrigation fields were detectable by their characteristic circular pattern but now they were derelict. Plenty of dams though and they were mostly full in this, the dry season. Yes, I was definitely home.


The keynote address at the first day of the International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane

The International Society of Horticultural Science holds a International Congress every 4 years in a different country.

This year it was in Brisbane, Australia and I decided it was time to go and see just where horticulture was going. It was impressively well organized in the modern conference centre on the south bank of the Brisbane River. More than 3000 delegates attended over the 5 days that it was run and the range of topics covered by the symposia necessitated a fair degree of choosiness. Presentations varied from excellent to hopelessly technical with a few mediocre thrown in for good measure. While I didn’t find anything directly relevant to my business it was worthwhile and my curiosity was well satisfied (or more precisely – saturated) by the end. The final dinner was a festive affair with a good band, dancers, magician and plenty to eat and drink. Rather depressingly I found myself to be of the average age – where was the future of horticulture which as one of the keynote speakers pointed out will be the future of feeding the world (horticulture is defined as being intensive agriculture)?

After the congress it was time to catch up with friends – some of whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years when I was last in Australia, doing the backpacker “thing”. I made some last minute changes to the itinerary and needing to book a flight to Canberra from Sydney I pulled out the smart phone in Brisbane airport and 3 hours later in Sydney got onto the plane to Canberra. Australia works. First world (not sure why I was expecting anything else but it really works). Of course first world functionality comes at a first world price and my friend Peter whom I visited in Orange (also in NSW) told me that Australia is now officially the world’s 4th most expensive country to live in. I can believe it. A small (by Harare standards) 3 bedroom house in Orange will go for some 5-600,000 Aus dollars and the gardens are miniscule! A meal for 3 of us at a good restaurant, though certainly unexceptional, in Brisbane cost $160 without alcohol. It would have been about $75 in Harare. It’s all to do with high labour costs I am told. That and the vast mining industry that powers the Australian economy.

Pasture land around Orange

Pasture land around Orange

That is not to say that agriculture is insignificant either. Australia has some 13 million ha of wheat production, mostly for export. Zimbabwe was once self sufficient in wheat and exported maize. Now we import both. Unlike Australia where most extensive agriculture is going the corporate farming route with vast tracts of land being farmed, Zimbabwe is heavily reliant on the small scale producers. The mostly white commercial farmers were kicked off their land in the early 2000s – hence the idle dams and land that I saw coming into Harare. In Australia most extensive agriculture relies on rain whereas in Zimbabwe irrigation is essential, especially for winter/dry season production.

canola fields

Canola (oilseed rape) near Orange, NSW

Oilseed rape (Canola) was abundant in the short trip we did around Orange, again mostly farmed by corporate organisations. This is not a crop we grow in Zimbabwe and unlike Zimbabwe, most states in Australia have embraced GMO crops. With labour costs that high GM farming is very attractive (most of the GM crops we saw were of the Roundup Ready® variety – i.e. weeds can be controlled by herbicide sprayed over the crop but the crop is unaffected). GMOs are banned in Zimbabwe though I know that they are imported illegally from South Africa where they are commonly grown.

Back in Queensland with another friend also called Peter we did the rounds of the farming area. The soil is much more fertile in the Darling Downs region than in most of Australia and it is used to the maximum. Again, mostly without irrigation and the maximum use of mechanization to keep labour costs down.

A few people at the congress in Brisbane asked me how many staff I employed. 14 labourers, 2 foremen and 8 contract labour. They looked stunned especially when I explained the size of the nursery. A nursery of similar size in Australia would employ perhaps 4 people. We are still third world here.

Being driven back home from the airport I couldn’t help but compare the filth of the Harare streets with the immaculate ones of Brisbane. BrizVegas, as the locals like to call it, is spotless. Like any modern, first world city, there is also lots to do there. There are two art galleries, a library that offers evening courses in, amongst other things, film making and of course lots of shows that are booked out months in advance. We don’t get much in the way of quality international entertainment here in Harare except perhaps for HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) once a year and it’s relatively easy to get tickets there.

Brisbane from the river - there's real money here!

Brisbane from the river – there’s real money here!

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

Back home the dogs were ecstatic, the lawn was dead from lack of water (it regrows in the rains), there was dust everywhere and the nursery was just fine. It had been good to get a perspective on the real world out there but it was also great to be home.


Their heroes and mine

11 08 2014

It’s Heroes Day today, a public holiday when we are supposed to remember those who died in the liberation struggle for Zimbabwe. This is nothing unusual; the war dead are remembered in various ways all over the world. At the time of the so called liberation struggle I was in the Rhodesian Army and did not see those against whom I was fighting as liberating anything. That could just be a point of view I guess – one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and all that. Except for the fact that over the years a number of the ruling party faithful have been interred in Hero’s Acre (the national cemetery) who status as heroes are dubious. Others who should have been buried there were left out. There is a certain financial incentive to being a national hero in that the family remaining get a substantial pension.

Anyway, like I said, today is the day that Zimbabweans are supposed to remember the fallen. There are celebrations all over the place and earlier this week I had a request from a local farmer for donations towards the party to be held today on his farm where the local branch of ZANU-PF, the ruling party, has its office. I ignored it, after all, they are not my heroes. I was hoping to be able to tell him this in person but aside from two missed calls yesterday morning from a local number that I did not recognise, nothing has come to pass. Yet.

Seedlings of course don’t take holidays so this morning I went into work to see how things were going. Fine of course. It was also an opportunity to catch up on a bit of work as I will be away for 3 weeks at a horticultural congress in Brisbane, Australia. It was worth it on another count as I spotted this spider on a daisy.

Hey, I'm with stupid!

Hey, I’m with stupid!


I have seen this type of spider on cosmos and it was white to match the flower. I wonder if they have the ability to change colour depending on the background or they have to spend their life on the plant to get the right colour? It was pure luck to see it with a fly as when I took the first photo it was just patiently waiting.

Of course I didn’t have my big SLR with its very special macro lens so my cellphone had to do – I was quite impressed with the result.

Tomorrow is another public holiday – this one is Armed Forces Day. It is traditional for the president to address the crowds at the National Stadium just outside town and watch military parades and a flypast by the Air Force with the 4 lonely remaining fast jets that are still flying. There is a football match afterwards to help pull in the crowds. Whether the armed forces will be celebrating remains to be seen. Rumours are rife that they have not been paid and junior officers have been sent on forced leave to cut costs.

So who are my heroes? They are the firefighters who went back into the damaged reactor at Chernobyl, knowing full well that they would not survive. They are the firefighters who went into the Twin Towers after the 9/11 attacks knowing that they were going into a hideously dangerous situation because that was their job. They are those who work for MSF and the International Red Cross and without fanfare get on with the thankless task of helping Ebola victims (and others) survive. These are the people I admire.

Lest we forget

5 08 2014

As I write this it’s the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1. I have a very tenuous link to it; my paternal grandfather was killed at the Somme in 1917.  Of course I never knew Lionel Roberts and neither did my father. In fact my father was born in 1925 some 8 years after Lionel’s death and his real father’s name does not appear on his birth certificate. My sister noticed this and asked my mother about it but she clammed up; some things were just not discussed. Us siblings were intrigued – a SCANDAL in the family, now that was something to boast about! However, my mother died with her secret and now there is no-one else alive who knows the answer. One day I plan to visit Lionel’s grave and pay my respects to him – the “grandson” he never knew who also payed a high price for being a soldier.

In August 1987 I knew none of this and was cycling through northern France on a 20 pound bicycle purchased off a hostel warden in Whitechapel, London. Northern France is littered with cemeteries of all nationalities. Most are pretty nondescript but the American cemetery at Verdun is an exception. I lost the photo but I can still recall the softly rustling oak trees, the brilliant green grass in the morning sunshine and the sad lines of white crosses stretching off in all directions. It was terribly peaceful. The Americans do cemeteries well and this was one of them.

I don’t recall the poppies in the wheat fields on that trip but in 2010 I was back in France trying to salvage a failing relationship (I failed) and we stopped near a field of poppies bobbing peacefully in the wind. The photos still exist on a hard drive somewhere but were not that good.

poppy2This morning in the nursery there was this poppy growing near the ponds of tobacco seedlings. I have no idea how it got there – maybe a seed crop from last year but I cannot recall seeing poppies there. It had a flower on it last week but today was another fresh one, coincidentally recalling a terrible war long ago and far away. In London tonight lights will be extinguished throughout the capital and replaced with candles in remembrance of the 888,246 British fatalities.

There is an irony in this short tale. The war dead from the Rhodesian bush war, in which I was involved, are not officially remembered within the country. That is the dead whom were fighting on the side of the Rhodesian forces. A number of memorials exist outside the country but within the country they are not welcome. However, next Monday, 11th August, is a national holiday. This is Heroes Day to celebrate those that died fighting for Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo – fighting against the Rhodesians. Such is the price one pays for losing a war – the winners get to rewrite the history. One day maybe we’ll get the right to officially remember our dead but in the meantime turn off your lights, light a candle and remember those who paid the ultimate price in the “war to end all wars” that started 100 years ago.

Surviving Makombe

20 07 2014

I lost my wallet about 5 weeks ago. Stupid really. I think I left it on top of the Land Cruiser and drove off. It’s not the first time I’ve done this but in the past it’s been walking sticks or a diary or two and I usually got them back though I wouldn’t have been too upset at losing a diary. But losing my wallet, now that’s a different matter. Driver’s licence, ID card not to mention money. I really didn’t expect to get the money or the wallet back but I was hoping to get the driver’s licence and ID. Of course I drove along the route to the microlight club but nobody waved me down and yes, they do all know me around here. I had to dig out my old driver’s licence – my very first with me looking the 16 years. It’s a bit tatty and broken in half but nothing a bit of new laminating couldn’t fix and it’s passed the test with the police a few times now albeit with a fair bit of amusement at my evident youth.

You can get a driver's licence at 16 in Zimbabwe.

You can get a driver’s licence at 16 in Zimbabwe.

Replacing an ID card is more of a challenge. The Makombe Building is where it all happens along with the passport office on Herbert Chitepo Road just on the edge of the Harare CBD. I don’t have fond memories of the place. I cased the joint on a couple of occasions when I had to visit a surgeon whose rooms are opposite it. It was as bad as I’d feared; chaotic. A seething mass of people and touts. Not somewhere I’d willingly go and spend a few hours. I should explain that ID cards are essential in Zimbabwe. Started by the Rhodesian government they were the concept was embraced by the Zimbabwean one to the extent that it is a legal requirement to carry some sort of identification. A passport will do but of course nobody wants to carry one of those. I don’t really mind and they are quite useful in ensuring that I get parcels at the post office that are mine – or ensuring that nobody else gets my parcels.

The official at the sub-office at Mount Pleasant shopping centre suggested I try the Market Square office in the Kopje area of town. I drove past and just kept on going. Dante would have been impressed; queues of people with glazed, hopeless, bovine looks, rubbish, touts and minibuses. There had to be a better way.

Shelton knew a friend who’d replaced his lost card at a sub-branch of the National Registration department at KG6 barracks and there were few if any queues. The last time I’d been at KG6 was when I’d been caught with an untidy trunk at an army inspection and had to do a day of filing when I should have been on R&R. It seemed like a good opportunity to see what it was like now.

The military policeman at the barracks gate stopped me and asked what I wanted. I was at the wrong gate but he offered to get the ID card for me (for a fee no doubt). This rather defeated the object of the trip and I didn’t see how I could get another card without being there myself so I politely refused.

There was precious little going on inside the building. The room I was sent to had sheets of very large ID card negatives on the table and piles of very old computer printouts on the shelves. A strange unidentifiable piece of apparatus lay on the floor. An older man looked at my passport and birth certificate and shuffled over to a computer terminal. Brushing aside debris he pulled out the keyboard and typed in my ID details. It was all there, this was looking really promising. Sadly the official said I had to go to the Makombe building as they couldn’t replace ID cards on these premises. Catching the horrified look on my face he said he’d give me a letter to speed things up so duly armed I set off for the Makombe Building on Herbert Chitepo Road.

I was lucky to find a car park close to the gate. Locking the car and nodding to the car “attendant” who promised to look after my vehicle I made my way to the entrance. I paused, took in the chaotic scene and taking a deep breath resigned myself to my fate.

Two hours and six offices later I had my new ID card. I’d been fully digitised, avoided two marriage proposals (no thanks, I don’t need help to spend my money) and hopefully got a bit of business. I’d gleaned that the new offices next door that had been vacant for the last 6 years or so were not about to be occupied anytime soon and the authorities were instead refurbishing “this dump”. With the exception of the photocopier operator I’d confirmed that most Zimbabweans are friendly and have a sense of humour. But I knew that already.


Fully digitized

Fully digitized

Just the normal

29 06 2014

Once in a while it’s nice to report on the normal and eschew the title of this blog; Zimbabwe Absurdity. This Scruffs dog show was organised as a fund raiser by VAWZ – a local animal welfare organisation. It was well attended and full of fun with categories as “The dog with the waggiest tail” and of course “The dog the most like its handler” amongst others.


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