Loadsa funny money

1 02 2017
Funny money and the real stuff

Funny money and the real stuff

 

Ok,  I wasn’t quite truthful, there’s not LOTS of funny money – there’s just more than we’ve had in the past.

Once upon a time there was just Zimbabwe dollars and we got by. Then they crashed, and people were sad, so we got US dollars because that’s how economics works and everyone was happy again. Now there are not so many US dollars (as notes but there’s plenty in accounts which we can’t use to import anything) because lots, really lots, have been stolen.

So when things started to change again the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank in its unfathomable wisdom saw fit to introduce Bond Notes and everyone panicked and withdrew their cash and mobile (phone) cash became king, dominated by one Ecocash who saw fit to charge extortionate fees so banks saw fit to introduce their version of mobile cash. These are debit cards that can be managed on phones and we got a swipe card machine and people were happy again (but only sort of).

Not many bond notes came across my desk and I was happy too (again only sort of). I did get lots of text messages on my cellphone confirming that people had used their cards to pay direct to my bank so I don’t check messages that much and miss the important ones. Now the funny money (top of the pile in the photo) is coming across my desk in much larger quantities as people try to get rid of it, pass the hot potato if you like. The government has decided to tax potatoes, before they can even get hot, and other basic foodstuffs too so everyone is unhappy again. But nobody is going to do anything about it.

Banks have said that if we deposit cash (the real thing in the photo – not the funny money) then we can import stuff to keep going but I haven’t found out if my cash, assuming I have it, is going to be flown to India to buy more raw materials or it’s just a ruse by the Reserve Bank, that in it’s wisdom (again), wants to mop up all the real money for the government to spend on paying employees or, more likely, on itself (which some people might be suspicious of).

It’s not looking good. Not at all.





Moving on

31 01 2017
final-view

Probably the best view near Harare

We moved, my wife and I, at the end of December into suburbia. It was not a move for me born of desire but one borne of necessity. The house where I’d been living for the past 14 years was not for sale and even if it were there was no guarantee that it would have been a solid investment situated as it is on a farm outside of Harare which will eventually be incorporated into Zimbabwe’s capital city.  Water supply might have been an issue. Currently it comes from further down ART Farm nearly 1,500m away so a source on the property would have had to be found.

I’d been happy there planting 15 indigenous trees on a property of around 1ha (yes that is a measure of contentment to my mind) but I knew that eventually I’d have to invest in a more solid property in town. So when Marianne became a permanent fixture in my life I suggested that we pool funds and look for a house. With the Zimbabwe economy sliding to a near comatose state we reckoned, and were told, that house prices were in a buyer’s market and the time was ripe to start looking. It has been a slow process – some 8 months to be exact.

Area was a concern as my work is to the north of the city and of course we were hoping to find somewhere easily accessible for exercising the dogs. We got on the internet and started looking. We were not flush with money and I insisted that we borrow as much as possible as we didn’t want to leave ourselves destitute should Zimbabwe totally collapse and we needed to find refuge elsewhere. Yes the loan would be expensive at 16% interest but worthwhile to risk someone else’s money rather than our own.

Having ascertained that we could get a loan for $75,000 we started the search. There were not a lot of houses on the market and what was there was often in very poor repair and over-priced. With the increasingly dire water shortage in the city a borehole was a prerequisite so any properties that didn’t have one didn’t merit a visit. The list of potential properties shrank and then became zero. Finally we saw a property that had some potential, or so Marianne thought. I was less enthusiastic but there was nothing else. The law had changed recently so that owners living outside the country could no longer repatriate their money from a house sale so were deciding to keep their properties – or so we were told. We paid the deposit, signed the agreement of sale and started looking for contractors to start the renovations.

By the time we started the move we were hopelessly over budget and of the firm opinion that artisans were in very short supply in Harare. And the rains had started on time (that’s a big storm in the photograph) and I’d got a policeman to admit that the new bond notes weren’t real money and didn’t make good toilet paper. Now 3 weeks later the rains have not let up, the contractors are still clattering around, we are even further over budget and my dear sweet Ridgeback, Kharma, has developed full-blown bone cancer and doesn’t have long to live. Yes, welcome to the suburbs.

This was only predicted to be a mild la Nina season but so far it’s been anything but. ART Farm where I used to live has already had more than its average annual rainfall with the wettest month, February, still to come. Major rivers in the east of the country are in flood and Lake Chivero,  Harare’s main water supply, is spilling. The roads are dreadful – it’s no longer possible to dodge all the potholes so one just has to slow down and accept that it’s necessary to drive through some. The tobacco crop will not be great quality – with all the rain the leaf becomes thin and light once cured. The maize (the staple diet) is at risk from poor pollination as it is wind pollinated and needs to be dry for that.

And the policeman. Yes, that was different. A removal company did the major moving but there were still pot plants and other assorted items collected over the years to move so I borrowed a trailer and made many trips without incident past an illegal roadblock of 2 policeman (there have to be 3 or more) who couldn’t have looked more bored. Then one day there was an altogether more professional bunch there complete with patrol car.

“I am <name given> of the Highway Patrol, this is our car” he added pointing to a small, newish police car with POLICE in 20cm high letters on the side. “You have not got a light on the number plate of the trailer”.

“Oh, really?” I replied knowing full well that I didn’t have one.

“I can show you if you like”.

“No that won’t be necessary. How much is the fine?”

“$20”. Right, $20 for no number plate light. Ridiculous but I’ve researched this before and had no intention of arguing the point.

“So you will accept bond notes even thought they are like toilet paper?” I countered instead.

“Ah, but you must embrace them” he said  parroting the official line.

I looked in my wallet and to my horror noticed that I had only a $50 note and a few $1. “If I give you real money I want real money change”.

He laughed, took the proffered note and counted out my change in US dollars and green bond notes. On handing me the US notes I asked “So this is the real money?”.

“Yes” he admitted.

“So you are admitting then that the bond notes are like toilet paper. Have you ever tried them for that purpose?”.

“Yes, but they were too hard!” he joked.

Well, at least he had a sense of humour.

We had a big storm last night and on the way to work there was grass caught on the railings of the bridge over the Gwebi River, near it’s source on the Borrowdale vlei. It had been over the road in the night. The nursery had received 80mm of rain but speaking to others it emerged that the eastern suburbs of Harare had received nearly double that. Despite the fact that this is a neutral el Niño/la Nina year we are having exceptional rains. Or maybe it’s just a normal rainy season like I remember from my youth.

The renovations to the house are almost complete and we’ll all breathe more easily once the contractors finally clear out. We still find badly painted doors, taps not centred over the bath, tiles with HUGE  gaps behind them and of course a monster pile of rubble and trash to dispose of. The swimming pools is clogged with leaves (we should have drained it but were worried about being able to refill it) and we had to replace a burnt-out motor on the filter.

One day it will all be sorted but poor Kharma will not be around to see it. She did not cope well with the move and still panics a bit when she cannot find me. Her leg that was healing so well with the assistance of a dog physio took a turn for the the worse just as we moved. We called in the physio again but she could find nothing wrong then last Sunday she stopped eating. Panic. Thinking it might be biliary (a fatal tick-borne disease) I rushed her to the vet but he could find nothing wrong and asked that I take her back the next day for X-rays and blood tests. The results were bad; the cancer had proliferated in her leg and had also moved to her lungs. When she’d broken the leg last year the vet had been suspicious but could find no sign of cancer but now there is no doubt; she’s on borrowed time. The anti-inflammatories are helping control the pain and yesterday I found someone who could supply cannabis “oil” which has certainly brightened her mood (yes, the supplier said, it really did have THC in it as she’d tried it) and she eats with gusto and is pleased to see me but I know that each day is a bonus. Poor girl, she’s been such a good friend and companion and I dread the day she tells me she’s had enough.

Today I received a copy of a new Statutory Instrument from my ZIMRA (tax authority) account manager. The government has put VAT on basic foodstuffs; meat, fish, rice and maize meal. They really are desperate and it should provoke a riot but it won’t.

 

 





Health and safety Zimbabwe style

12 12 2016
A new style in eye protection

A new style in eye protection

James is a house renovator’s dream. He gets the job done and he will go the extra distance to do it. He also spent some 7 years working in the USA and Canada so he has a clear idea of what health and safety is about. In the end he had is immigration application turned down so ended back in Zimbabwe.

“This PVC piping on the outside of the building is not up to standard” James said. “We’ll have to replace it with copper at some stage”.

I fixed him with my most concerned expression “Yes, James, and what country are we in James?”.

He gave me a wry smile “Zimbabwe”.

I confirmed with the electrician that the reason for the copper piping was to provide an earth for the house. “We’ll put in an earth spike” he said.

A few days later whilst checking up on progress I noticed the welder was hard at work on the gate in the fence to keep the dogs away from the electric gate. His eye protection was um, innovative to say the least.  Curiously he did not have arc-eye (an excruciating condition similar to snow blindness) the next day. Maybe sunglasses are more effective welding gear than I’d expected!

Yes, we have no earth protection

Yes, we have no earth protection

At the same time they were welding the fence gate another artisan was constructing a simple gate for the kitchen wall. His angle grinder was plugged into the kitchen socket, line and neutral wires the wrong way around and the earth left dangling. There was a light rain falling and he had no eye protection whatsoever!

Ah, Zimbabweans, always making a plan…

 

 





It’s all legal tender

9 12 2016
New notes and a coin. All real, apparently...

New notes and a coin. All real, apparently…

Earlier this year we decided to take the plunge and buy a house. We reasoned that with the economy in tatters there would be lots of cheap, good value houses on the market. Well, yes and no.

There were lots of houses on the market but most were unrealistically priced and the owners were inflexible on the prices. Seven months later we agreed on a house, circa 1960, that needed substantial refurbishing but was solid and had a good quality 2 bedroom cottage in the garden which made the asking price a lot more palatable.

Some $10,000 later it’s almost habitable and we are due to move in 2 weeks time. The rubble pile has grown substantially and the old parquet flooring (original 1960s teak) was clogging the garage. Then on Tuesday this week a buyer arrived in the afternoon as I was preparing to leave. Of course I insisted on cash and then the bargaining started, or so I thought it would. It seemed I’d come across the only Zimbabwean who didn’t know how to negotiate. Eventually I asked him how much he was prepared to pay and agreed to his offer of $250 – I had things to do. That evening he arrived back with the money bought at the Roadport in town, where all manner of buses and taxis congregate and devious deals are done, with the required amount in old $10 bills. I thought it odd that there were no larger denomination notes available but it was real money. The old parquet tiles were piled into the back of a pickup, the passenger seat of the pickup, a Honda Vitz and a Nissan 1/2 tonne pickup.

Yesterday my senior foreman asked if I could find some small change, even the much reviled bond notes would do. I managed to find some $1 bond coins at a hardware store and the clerk was happy to give them to me as change. My bank was also happy to oblige but the teller misheard me and said I could have my day’s allocation of $175 of which only $25 could be bond coins or notes. I opted for the coins and was more than a bit taken aback to get 6 brand new, sequentially numbered US$20 notes. Are we not in the middle of a full fiscal meltdown with US dollars being plundered at a frantic rate and the dreaded bond money taking over and doomed to follow the Zimbabwe dollar into oblivion? Well, most likely that is the case but where did the new $20 come from? Were they bought recently? By whom? Or had they been stored in a bank vault somewhere? Is this an attempt to emulate India whose government, in an attempt to curb rampant corruption, recently ruled that the larger denomination notes were no longer legal tender? That would be wishful thinking indeed. The larger denomination US$ notes have already fled the country.

 





A country on the brink of disaster

1 11 2016

We in Zimbabwe are apparently teetering on the brink of disaster. The much-dreaded bond notes alluded to in the previous post have been signed into law by President Mugabe (yup, Bob notes are real guys!) and it’s all down hill from here. We are still not sure where they are coming from as the German company behind the printing of the now defunct Zimbabwe dollar refused to print these. Never fear, someone will step up to the plate where there’s money to be made.

Marondera air day. Fun in the name of fund raising

Marondera air day. Fun in the name of fund raising

Going out to an air day organised for charity at Marondera, a small agricultural town 3/4 hour from Harare, on Saturday there was little sign of impending disaster. Vehicles clogged the road and drivers drove badly. There were no queues at filling stations but I’d had to search out low sulphur diesel the previous day as my regular supplier didn’t seem to have it anymore. When we arrived at Marondera aerodrome there was a fair collection of aircraft  both ancient (see the Cessna 182 in the foreground) and brand new – a 2 seat helicopter. I guess it was all small fry compared with a similar event in the civilized world but hey, it was actually happening! The Air Force had even been roped in (camouflage aircraft back left) to supply parachutists for entertainment and paid rides for the public. The parachutists certainly were entertaining with some spectacularly hard landings and bad approaches through trees to the LZ. And yes, I mean THROUGH trees! The inevitable party after the show was over was not well attended and the music was not great either but hey, we could still buy imported beer.

The man in charged of the local parachute school said he was still very busy though it seemed that paramotoring, which is why we were there, is not so attractive as we didn’t have any inquiries. The next day the wind was too strong for us to fly so we packed up, had a late breakfast with our host the other side of town and headed home along a busy road.

Today I am breaking news to my employees that they will no longer be paid in cash and like the rest of us will have to get themselves a debit card. It’s not going to be a popular move but they were warned 2 months ago that this was coming. Cash can now be bought for as much as a 15% premium which can make for a useful bargaining tool when buying. My partner and I have decided to embrace the crisis and have bought a house in a suburb that needs considerable refurbishing before we move in. Surprisingly not all the companies we’ve got quotes from are that interested in cash and only offer a 5% discount but with the bond notes now inevitable that might change. Who knows, we might be able to pay off the mortgage with a few bond notes and actually save a lot of money as they rapidly become worthless. (People who had mortgages in the Zim dollar days were often able to pay them off for a few notes as they became completely worthless.)





Urban wildlife

23 09 2016

wildlife-urbanWhile out running the dogs this morning we spotted these two reed buck (a type of antelope). While there are only two in this picture another three were lying nearby, apparently unconcerned about our presence. And yes, that’s the outskirts of Harare in the background – to the south.

When I first moved onto this farm 12 years ago there were an estimated 70 reed buck on the property. We saw a total of eight this morning. Of course there will be others but certainly not close to the 70 of not so long ago. The rest? They’ve been poached.

The fence around the farm, once electrified, is now rather porous. Depending on the route we take we bump into a school boy off to school on his bicycle. Where exactly the school is I don’t know but he gets to the fence, climbs through, and then pulls his bicycle after him. Nope, it’s certainly not electrified now!

On the right of the photo are some houses which now extend all up the western boundary of ART Farm. A lot are incomplete but nevertheless they have inhabitants and they’d be unlikely to pass up an opportunity for a bit of fresh meat. On the eastern boundary is another farm once inhabited by a good customer of mine. He was kicked off by a Connected Person (about as connected as one can get in this country) some four or five years ago. At the time his farm was replete with duiker (another smaller antelope than the one pictured) to the extent he was getting fed up with them eating his cabbages. Well, that’s what he said but I could tell he was also rather fond of them. At the time his electric fence worked well so the duiker had a great excuse not to go anywhere else and so they proliferated. The fence most likely doesn’t work now and I haven’t seen a duiker for a long time (though they’re mostly nocturnal I did see them occasionally during the day).

So the reed buck can only go north now. That’s a problem because there are a lot of mesh fences to the north which are supposed to protect the research section of ART (that’s Agricultural Research Trust), and while certainly not impenetrable, they are a definite obstacle. From the food aspect they don’t need to go anywhere for the moment. There are a number of cattle on the farm and they have plenty to eat so by extension so do the buck but the encroachment of Harare, pretty much stalled as a result of the appalling economic environment, is inevitable and then their future will be questionable.

A bit more flexible are the two jackal we occasionally see. They are usually on the boundary of the grassy vlei (wetland) area where they most likely have a den. Zak likes to chase them but they see him coming a long way off and are much more nimble and cunning – the fox of Africa. They are hugely adaptable. There is one that has lived on a nearby golf course for some time now. Again it is conveniently trapped by an electric fence but the course is bounded by a rubbish tip so there is no shortage of rats and other vermin for it to eat. The club gate is just a boom gate so it could, if it wanted to, get out.

rubbishThe rubbish tip is itself a supporter of wildlife. Apart from the obvious rats there are crows, egrets and maribou storks. The latter can often be spotted in huge wheeling flocks soaring majestically amidst plastic bags lifted in the thermals generated by the rotting garbage. I don’t suspect they mind to much but to me the tip is a hideous eyesore that I pass everyday. And that’s before it rains and the whole area smells like vomit.

The maribous are scavengers and attracted to whatever they can find – there was once a sack of offal spilt at the traffic lights on Harare drive and Alpes Road on the way to the tip, so I guess there’s plenty of other pickings to attract them.

And where there’s vermin there are predators. Snakes, long-crested eagles and others. I know the incidents of cobra bites on dogs has gone way up over the past years as uncollected garbage in the suburbs attracts all manner of opportunists.

Zak sees off the local maribou storks

Zak sees off the local maribou storks

I have to admit the maribou stork is not the prettiest bird around but they are master pilots and I love to stop and watch them soar. So, in a way, rubbish can be a benefit but I do wish they’d move the tip somewhere else!

 





Blame it on the Cremora

6 07 2016

Cremora, that coffee creamer stuff, can no longer be imported into Zimbabwe. Actually, there’s quite a long list of goods that are now prohibited including dairy products, steel, bottled water and more. This first came into effect (yes, it’s been rescinded and reinstated at least once) some 10 days ago and immediately sparked riots at the southern border post of Beitbridge on the South African frontier. Customs officials were confiscating goods that cross-border traders in this country depended on to make a living. Normally placid Zimbabweans were incensed and rioted. The revenue authority backed down. Then the ruling was reinstated and the riots started again. A warehouse was burnt which apparently contained new bonded vehicles.

On Monday, perhaps inspired by these events, minibus drivers clashed with police in the southern suburban areas and in Ruwa, a small town to the east of Harare. Word was they were fed up with the bullying attitude of the police at roadblocks. Even the government owned Herald newspaper weighed in on this topic a couple of weeks back, criticizing the police. A disturbing photo of a policeman wielding an AK47 with one booted foot on the head of a protester did the rounds. I was sent a particularly brutal video clip of police beating protesters. Yesterday civil servants were due to go on strike over delayed wages and the first reports of WhatsApp started to filter in. Evan Mawarire of #ThisFlag fame sent out an impassioned and widely circulated video calling for a national shutdown today. He emphasized for it to be peaceful and non-political, calling for the government to act against rampant corruption that had been detailed in the Auditor General’s report submitted to parliament last week. She estimated that around US$1bn had been misappropriated by government officials in 2015 alone (this is about 8% of the GDP). The ZTV news report started the day with a story about grain millers (it’s a government channel) and nothing was said about any disturbances.

This morning, while at work (we were closed for business but seedlings don’t stop growing in protest), I received 2 calls from friends in Germany obviously concerned about developments. One was on WhatsApp the other on Skype. They could hear me but I couldn’t hear them. When I got home for lunch there were widespread reports on Facebook about the apparent blocking of social media by the government. There were also more than a few suggestions about how to circumvent the blocks with VPNs (virtual private networks).  Photos abounded of empty streets and shopping centres. Hackers have taken down government websites in punishment for blocking WhatsApp. Facebook is currently unavailable on my desktop computer which has no VPN. My phone has one and I can read FB.

The Zimbabwe Government is broke and cannot pay its employees, including the military. Hence the restrictions on imports which are depleting the national coffers due to our appalling balance of trade deficit. Zimbabwe produces little of anything these days due to government actively scaring away investors by insisting that companies investing have a 51% locals shareholding. The once productive agricultural sector is moribund; most commercial farmers were evicted in a disastrous land reform exercise in the early 2000s.

The Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa, and his entourage are in London begging for money. Their meetings with interested parties were poorly attended and they had to be escorted by the police as he exited Chatham House and was confronted by The Vigil – Zimbabwean protestors living in the UK.

Quite who dreamed up the list of imports to be restricted to save us money is not clear. Yes, we can do without bottled water and imported vegetables but Cremora? Really, how much is that going to save us? Of course the MDC opposition was quick to take advantage and claim that various ruling party members were favoring their local business. A bit too quick as it turns out. A MDC politician making just this claim on South African TV could not show that this was indeed the case. Twit.

And no, I don’t even use Cremora.