Déjà vu

13 06 2016
Just change the date and the bank details...

Just change the date and the bank details…


It was quite simple really. All I had to do was open the “Labour”
folder in Microsoft Word, look for a file with “wages request” in the title and change the date and the bank on the existing letter (above). Back in 2008 the hyper inflation was raging, shop shelves were empty, money was being printed and the money changers were making small fortunes.

Now we are in 2016 and money is about to be printed, shop shelves are full for the time being and money changers are making small fortunes if they have access to cash. And I have to make an application to the bank to withdraw my own money as cash for wages.

Last Friday I’d called in at my local bank to check on cash withdrawal limits; $300 per day for small businesses. The bank manager suggested I get my staff to open accounts so that they could use debit cards. I pointed out that a number of my labour force signed their name with an X. They were pretty much illiterate. How was I going to explain that a piece of plastic now represented cash and the actual money was held at an institution which they didn’t trust in the first place. Well then, she suggested, I should make an application to withdraw cash but they couldn’t promise anything.

So here I was, a little over 8 years later, changing minor details on a letter so that once again, I might get access to my own money to pay wages. Yes, they are US dollars now but I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu.  (I did also have to change the phone numbers and email address on the footer.)

VAWZ scruffs show 2016

12 06 2016

It’s that time of year when for just a morning we can forget all the nonsense of living in Zimbabwe, the impending disaster of the bond notes, the pantomime that is politics and just be normal. It’s the annual VAWZ, fundraising, scruffs dog show. All dogs are welcome, breeds and otherwise. There were demonstrations by the Harare Kennel Club including a nearly blind Labarador that insisted on completing the agility course. Tomorrow, well, that’s another day.

Insults and injury

19 05 2016

From today’s papers:

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 500k tonnes, we are going hungry here.

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 600k tonnes, we here are going hungry.



And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.

And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.


Return of the Zimbabwe dollar

6 05 2016

There was a demonstration against the rule of Robert Mugabe recently. That’s not news by most country’s standards but it most certainly is news here. It was small, about 2000 participants, but noisy and although the police originally refused permission the High Court granted permission. So what exactly is happening here? Is this the beginning of the end of the Mugabe regime?

I was in town for my French lesson with Shelton. He was late, comme d’habitude, as he has to rely on the notoriously erratic minibuses. While I was waiting a call came through from an unknown number.

“Hello, is that Mr Roberts?”

“Yes it is”.

“I am name given from  ZANU-PF Gomba District at your office. I am requesting a donation for Monday”.

“What’s happening on Monday?”

“It’s Independence Day”.

I’d genuinely forgotten this most sacred of Zimbabwean holidays. There aren’t a lot of reasons to remember it. After 36 years we have steadily regressed to the point where currency restrictions are being reimposed because our balance of trade is so heavily skewed towards imports that we are once again running out of money. No, we cannot just print some more as we did with the Zimbabwe dollar; we are now using the US dollar. We don’t even have a currency of our own. Well so I thought.

Shelton told me that for 3 days this week he’d been translating at a feminist conference in town. It wasn’t just feminists, the whole spectrum of LGBTIQ (I had to ask what the last 2 letters meant) were there and it was quite an experience for him. No holds barred; there were tears, shouting and bad language aplenty but as he said just that it happened at all was remarkable. It would have been unthinkable just a few years back. Progress perhaps?

Bond coins - not enough for this cup of coffee!

Bond coins – not enough for this cup of coffee!

Then today I was on the way to do some company shopping in the industrial sites when I saw the newspaper placards advertising that the Reserve Bank is introducing bond notes. Bond notes? Really? We already have bond coins that are useful only in Zimbabwe and are on parity with the US dollar which is our de facto currency, but bond notes? Is this the start of the return of the Zimbabwe dollar as was suspected when the coins were introduced? Those fears were unfounded – it was just a means to alleviate the chronic shortage of small change – but it only gained acceptance when the South African rand plunged in value. We’d been using the rand coins, which fortuitously were one tenth the value of the US dollar, but when the rand started to run the bond coins became acceptable. Rand paper money also became unacceptable and the US dollar now rules supreme representing 95% of the currency in circulation. I decided to see where the public opinion lay.

Newspaper vendors on Coventry Road in the industrial sites were my first target.

“Can I pay for your newspapers with bond notes?”

“Yes” (no, I can’t – they haven’t been released yet)

“The Zimbabwe dollar is back!”

Nervous giggles – clearly I was not going to get a response here.

I stopped at the Zimbabwe Fertilizer Company yard to buy some gypsum. Despite my best provocations the clerk who served me would not be drawn to any sort of opinion on the matter. I was more blunt with the labourers who loaded the fertilizer. They were so bored with the lack of business that even those not involved wandered over.

“Pamberi ne ZANU-PF” (forward with the ruling party) I shouted and gave a clenched fist salute. Laughter.

“Pamberi ne Zimbabwe dollar” elicited a similar response. Nobody showed much interest in a debate.

My campaign reached it’s finale at the accounting office where I had to sign my companies’ annual returns (to indicate they were still active). The clerk’s response to my provocation was simply; “Ah, but what can we do?”. Protest perhaps?

Getting onto the internet at home was instructive. A statement from the Reserve Bank governor was circulating that was instructive and entertaining. The bond notes are going to be issued in $20, $10 $5 and $2 denominations and will be equivalent to their US cousins. They will be backed by a bond (hence the name) of $200 million from the Africa Export-Import Bank though they will be released as necessary (the $50m that backed the release of the bond coins last year has not all been used). But why are we in this mess?

  • as the economy has declined our balance of trade deficit has ballooned. There is less money around to buy the cash we need. It’s going into importing goods.
  • the cash we need has dwindled because it has become a commodity in itself. People are hoarding it because they don’t trust the banking system that let them down so badly in the past. The Reserve Bank estimates that some $3b – $7b is circulating in the informal sector and never goes through banks.
  • the countries around us with more volatile currencies are eager to get hold of US dollars and are mopping it up any way they can.
  • the cash is being illegally exported. Who is responsible? In the words of a teller at a bank I deal with  – “The big men are stealing it all”. Also the Chinese. One was caught recently at Harare airport leaving with a large amount of cash.

So the elastoplast fix is multi-faceted. Heavy restrictions on imports especially luxury items. Raw materials, medicines and fuels are unrestricted. Paying for students overseas is restricted. Cash withdrawals are limited to $1000 per day. This should make paying wages for the big companies interesting. There are heavy restrictions on taking cash out the country but I saw nothing about using local Visa cards outside the country. Use of plastic money is going to be heavily encouraged and in some cases laughable; “To this end, every business in all geographical areas and sectors of the economy must have a point of sale per till machine or purchase point” in the words of the Reserve Bank governor. Really? That rural bottle store in the Honde Valley must get a POS machine?

So will it work? No, as I said earlier it’s not addressing the source of the problem – the gravely ill economy. Luxury goods will of course be available at a hugely inflated price (better stock up on wine now!) as those who can circumvent restrictions. Local producers will lack competition and hike prices. Cash is already being sold at a 10% markup and really, what will $200m do? Real $100 and $50 notes will be hoarded and smuggled even faster than before and the run on the banks that started some time ago will not stop as people fear the worst. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So is this the return of the Zimbabwe dollar? Whilst the Reserve Bank has stated it has no plans to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar I don’t know anyone who actually believes that – apart from maybe itself.



Scam humour

13 03 2016

scam letterI don’t often get snail mail letters from South Africa and thinking it may be for my landlord who’s company is also called Emerald Seedlings I opened it to find out whom it was for (very unlikely to be personal). It wasn’t.

scam letter_0001Now I’m sure that most of you have received this sort of scam letter before, by email. I should think I get about one a month.  They are deleted, often without being read (NEVER reply to these by the way). I’m told they are of Nigerian origin, usually. That this one came from South Africa, where there are lots of Nigerians, was a first as was the method of sending. It follows a fairly standard formula; a deceased estate that the sender has authority over which in a fit of huge generosity he wants to get rid of for what seems like very minor personal gain and somehow evade a bank audit in the process. Quaint English too. But what really is a give away in this letter is the sentence that states “…60% shall be for me for personal investment purposes in your country…”. I mean seriously, someone wants to invest in Zimbabwe?



Bitten by lightening

23 02 2016

The power went off on Sunday afternoon as it often does when there’s a storm nearby. We didn’t mind – it was a small price to pay for a respite from the incessant heat and the smell of damp earth was just wonderful. There was even a bit of hail which is very unusual for this time of year. I have also recently finished installing the solar panels and inverter so I was actually feeling a bit smug, secure in the knowledge that the fridge, freezer and of course the WiFi were going to function as normal.

The power was still off yesterday morning when I got to work and the foreman suggested I go and look at the transformer which in his opinion had been “bitten by the lightening”.

Unconventional wiring I think

Unconventional wiring I think

I could see his point – it was unlike any wiring I have ever seen on a transformer. Now we have had a lot of problems in the past with the wiring and the fuses (in those black, cylindrical things) often get loose and burn the contacts and as the original fuses are no longer available  the power utility technicians insert washers, bits of copper wire and generally anything that will do the job.

wiring closeup

The fuses have been completely bypassed

I could see the fuse holders had been bypassed entirely with some not so thick copper wiring that was completely open to the elements and the unwary and all of 2m off the ground. It is “only” 220 volts on this side of the transformer but that is enough to be lethal.

The other problem we’ve had in the past is theft of the transformer cooling oil (for what purpose I’m not sure) which resulted in the transformer core burning out. A cage was made around the new transformer to keep would-be thieves away but I reckon this new wiring setup is just as effective and quite Darwinian too boot.

I told the foreman that as far as I could see the problem of lack of power was not at our transformer and sure enough later in the day it did come back on. But I did recommend he have a look – just for educational purposes.

A tree of many uses

11 02 2016
new seed

Natal Mahogany – Trichilia emetica

Pleased to see you Mr Roberts he said. Of course he was pleased to see me; the car park only had one car in it and it was theirs. Yes, I was making an order for more advertising banners but it was only a small one but these days you cannot be fussy – it’s money or nothing!

More of interest to me was the tree I’d parked under – a Natal Mahogany or Trichilia emetica to use its botanical name. It was in full fruit and there were a myriad of old seeds on the tarmac, squashed mostly, the evidence of their high oil content smeared around. The oil is valuable and used in cosmetics and is also edible but the seeds are notoriously difficult to germinate, especially when not fresh, so here was a challenge the horticulturist in me could not refuse. They are beautiful indigenous tress of medium size with dark green evergreen foliage and I always know when the one next door is in fruit – there’s a constant stream of hornbills flapping in to feast on the fruit!


Fruit to scale

The seeds really are this intense red as in the photos. I have no idea if the black mark serves a purpose – it is not visible in the seed shell. Despite the literature saying the seeds are edible I am not tempted; one of the myriad of uses in traditional medicine is to make an emetic (it induces vomiting) from the bark!

Looks like an alien?

Looks like an alien?