No quick fix

14 09 2018

“It’s one of the best shows we’ve had for a very long time” commented Merv as we walked into the show. He should know; he’s bee a stalwart of the Zimbabwe Orchid Society for many years. I had to agree. I do like to visit the biannual orchid show at the Mukuvisi Woodlands park in eastern Harare when I can and in the few years that I’ve been a regular visitor it’s the most spectacular show I’ve seen. It’s also nice to escape the depressing state of the nation for an hour or so and pretend that in some respects at least – we are normal.

Not much has happened since the election and in fact some aspects of the new government led by ED Mnangagwa are decidedly familiar. There a lots of new faces in the cabinet. The minister of finance really is an economist, the Minister of Sport is Olympic medalist Kirsty Coventry and the Minister of Health does not have the medical qualifications that he claims.

Professor Mtuli Ncube (a graduate of Oxford no less), the finance minister, is on record as saying he wants to clear Zimbabwe’s foreign debt as quickly as possible and wants to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar. There is no time limit specified for the latter – a wise decision. The last version of the Zimbabwe dollar was officially abandoned in February 2009 in favor of the US dollar when the former became worthless due to the second highest inflation in history. I really don’t see the point of this; it will simply replace our infamous bond dollar with another of a different name. The black market will still exist and nobody will trust the new currency such is the level of distrust in the system. Some say we should adopt the South African rand being that South Africa is our neighbor and biggest trading partner. However, there are simply enough rands to support the Zimbabwe economy and it is by no means clear that South Africa will agree. Of course a currency must be based on something which in our case is our exports as the manufacturing base collapsed with the Zimbabwe dollar and is still moribund. Export horticulture is the hot ticket to get into but takes some years to build up export crops and recover the farms neglected under ex-president Mugabe’s ruinous land redistribution policy. No quick fix there. Mining, another mainstay of the economy is also down and will take some time to build up pending investment from outside the country. It was also not immune from Mugabe’s policies – one of my foreman’s sons did his accounting attachment at a German run graphite mine in the north east of the country which was shut down for some time last year because of political “issues”.

At the last count 28 people have died from the current cholera outbreak – mainly in Harare. Such is the state of the economy that the finance minister has launched a crowd funding exercise to raise money to treat the outbreak. It is unlikely to have a lot of success given the controversy over new vehicles for ministers and the public’s mistrust of all things governmental.

Obadiah Moyo, the new health minister, whose claims to various medical qualifications have been questioned has certainly got his work cut out with the new cholera outbreak. What is certain is that he did successfully run the Chitungwiza Hospital for several years. Someone I know went there last year and said that although it was threadbare it was clean and functional. Perhaps we should give him the chance to prove himself. Good luck to him – he’ll need it.

Kirsty Coventry has several Olympic swimming medals to her name but I’m not sure how that qualifies her to be the Minister of Sport. Cricket, once a source of national pride, is in disarray after the recent firing of the entire coaching team for not getting the playing team into the World Cup. A crucial match was lost due to rain causing a complicated, and some say unfair, formula being implemented to calculate the winner. Corruption is rife and players are demoralized. And that’s just cricket. Good luck to her too.

Droughts are a perennial problem in southern Africa and it looks like the coming rainy season (November to March) is at best going to be erratic. An el Niño weather condition is nearly a 70% likelihood for our summer – not a good sign. At our house in the suburb of Mt Pleasant we have not had municipal water since we moved in just over 18 months ago. We had our borehole tested earlier in the year and were told it could handle 900 litres an hour – adequate for domestic purposes. A tank have been installed to catch water from the washing machine and another 5,000 litre rainwater tank is planned to add to the two others we already have. The borehole is only 40m deep which is shallow by Harare standards so we are not confidant it will last especially as I see a lot of green verges being heavily irrigated further up our road. Fortunately our hole is 180mm diameter, large enough to get a drill down if we need to go deeper assuming there is water to be found by drilling deep.

We visited my sister in June in the USA – She lives in Spokane in Washington State. A friend of hers asked me if we in Zimbabwe thought the USA “crazy” – she was referring to the Trump administration. I replied that we were just to busy trying to survive in Zimbabwe to view the Trump administration as anything more than entertainment. No, we are in this for the long term – no quick fix to this particular mess.





Voting is done – now where?

30 07 2018

Voting Zimbabwe style

I got the text message on Wednesday last week instructing me to go to a local elementary school to cast my vote in the general election. It even had the queue number to join and it came from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

One of the few advantages of being physically disabled is that I don’t have to join queues so having located the hall where I needed to cast my vote I simply walked up to the door and the policewoman there waved me to the desk inside to start the process. It was all very orderly if a little slow. My ID was checked against the register and my name and photograph crossed out. The little finger on my left hand was fastidiously marked with a black felt tip pen all around the nail (a friend said he washed his off very easily later) and the three forms, colour coded and different sizes were explained. I went off to the cardboard booth, marked my choices and posted them in the relevant boxes. Then I waved to an observer whom I knew and walked outside. That was it.

The last election was held in 2013 and was much less organized and less well attended. One could vote anywhere and it was simply necessary to drive around and find the polling station with the fewest cars parked outside. The queues where I voted were long and everyone was standing around and talking, some had bought chairs and cooler boxes of refreshments. I got the impression that most people were young and quietly determined to have their say. Whilst the urban votes are expected to go to the offical opposition MDC coalition, the rural votes are expected to go to the ruling ZANU-PF and most people live in the countryside. We will have to wait until Friday to find out just how close the result will be. All the indicators are that the presidential vote will be close – if there is not a clear winner (neither gets more than 50%) a runoff vote for the presidency will have to be held.

News reports at this stage agree that the voting process was peaceful but in some cases badly disorganised. The EU observer mission was more critical than the regional SADCC observers. The counting has started so now we wait.





Searching for Grandpa Lionel

28 07 2018

We finally found grandpa Lionel’s grave where the documentation said it would be; Extension 2, row I.C. grave 11.

Lionel Roberts’ grave

We’d been discussing our ancestry with cousin Pat in June 2015 when in the UK for a family reunion and holiday. She’d mentioned that grandfather Lionel had died in the Somme area in May 2018 so I’d suggested we should have another family reunion on the 100th anniversary of his death at his graveside.

On May 24th Marianne and I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines jet in Harare and flew to the UK to start the pilgrimage. It was a long flight made longer by a 5 hour stop over in Addis Ababa in the middle of the night. Compared with the quality of the aircraft and aircrew service the airport was more than a bit drab. Heathrow airport is vast and by the time we’d got to the coach station to catch the bus to cousin Pat in Harlow it was a good hour and a half after landing. Three very tedious hours later we arrived in Harlow and vowed the next time to take the train no matter how much it cost!

My brother Duncan arrived from Shropshire the next day and we set off to France. The weather was bright and sunny and after a roadside lunch in a nearly deserted picnic area it was time to turn on the Google Maps navigator for the next leg into Amiens where Duncan had booked rooms in a utilitarian hotel of the sort favoured by traveling salesmen. I was a bit disconcerted when the app told me that I would be arriving at our destination in 15 minutes and also had our booking details even though I’d had nothing to do with it. I can only presume that it had searched my phone and found that Duncan was my brother and then done a search to see what bookings he’d made for the area we were in. Not sure I like that but I guess it’s something we’ll just have to get used to.

The next day we headed some 50km north to the small town of Doullens to find Lionel’s grave. It took longer than it should have. After and hour scouring what we thought was Extension 2 of Doullens Communal Cemetery and wondering why there were no graves newer than 2017 Pat made the discovery in the registry at the gate that we were in Extension 1. A quick search on Google Earth revealed that Extension 2 was much nearer where we’d parked the car and so we quickly found Lionel’s grave right where the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) information said it would be.

Doullens Communal Cemetery 2. Beautifully maintained by the CWGC

The cemetery is small by First World War standards and beautifully maintained by the CWGC. At some fairly recent time all the gravestones have been renewed. Some have been personalized in the form of granite, presumably by family members.

Pat laid a card from cousin Malcom on the grave together with a sprig of myrtle for Lionel’s wife Myrtle whose ashes are scattered on the grave. We sat in the cool shade of some trees, signed the register and discussed family ties.

Lionel is not our grandfather at all. My sister Diana noticed this back in 1992 when looking after my mother in the final stages of her terminal illness. Going through various documents she noticed that my father’s father’s name was not on his birth certificate. At that stage we had never met Pat and didn’t know about Lionel, who really is her grandfather, and that he’d died seven years before my father was born. My mother clammed up and that was the end of that particular conversation. My brother, sister and I were intrigued by a scandal in the family but in my mother’s era it was terribly shameful to be born out of wedlock – oh how times have changed! Pat has a friend who pastime is tracing family trees and she asked her to see if she could find out whom our real grandfather is but the trail has gone cold as anyone who would have known is now dead and Pat said she never heard the subject being discussed by her parents.

We’d known for sometime that the family name has not always been Roberts. The Roberts name used to be Metz which is of course of German origin. Lyon William Metz applied to change his name on 21st September 1917 to Lionel William Roberts, presumably as Metz would have been associated with the enemy. It was approved on 7th January 2018 and then on the 27th of May in that year Lionel was killed by his former countrymen. He died from abdominal wounds – I hope he had sufficient morphine. Three days later the hospital where Lionel spent his final hours was bombed.

 

<i>No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens</i>

No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens

I also have combat experience but in a very different war. In August 1987 when I cycled across northern France on a round trip to Zurich and Germany, I had a stark reminder of just how different. After a long day of 143 km I collapsed in a delightful campsite near Verdun, site of one of the major campaigns of the First World War. I got chatting to a Dutch man whose holiday hobby was going through the old battlefields with a metal detector. He assured me that he still had to be careful what he unearthed as there was still live ordinance buried. He showed me a clip of .303 ammunition which he said would likely still work. What he was really looking for was the double eagle cap badges the Germans had on their helmets. The next day as I tried to pull up my tent pegs I was amazed by the suction of the soil which wasn’t even very wet. I could only imagine the appalling conditions of trying to fight in really wet weather. At the battle of Passchendaele soldiers drowned in the mud. By contrast the war in which I was involved was primarily counter-insurgency warfare where “contacts” with the enemy were usually fleeting and very close range – around 30m or so. Rain was very rarely a contributing factor to the action and we were fighting in our own country.

Cap badge of the Artists’ Rifles

The regiment in which Lionel served was the Artists’ Rifles. None of us had heard of it but a little internet research turns up that it was a highly popular regiment and supplied many officers to other regiments. Established in 1859 it really was intended for artists, musicians and other creative types. Whilst it was a fighting regiment in WW1, in WW2 it was an officer training regiment and was disbanded after WW2 before being resurrected in 1947 and incorporated into the SAS as 21 SAS.

Before visiting Lionel’s grave I did wonder if I would feel any emotion, a connection perhaps with the man whose name I inherited. As a former soldier I have also experienced the terror of combat and was wounded 39 years ago and I will carry the consequences for the rest of my life.  I had to reflect as we walked back to the car that the death a 100 years ago of a man to whom I’m not related was too distant to feel emotionally connected.

We were there. A salute to all those brave men who paid the ultimate price.

 

 

 

 

 





Waiting to see – as we usually do

26 07 2018

Heading towards the worst month in the nursery since 2009. Will it change after the election?

We’ve done a  lot of waiting and seeing in Zimbabwe but this is arguable the most crucial one. There’s a general and presidential election on the 30th of this month and the outcome really will define the foreseeable future of the country.

After a slow start the campaign for all concerned has got into high gear. Trees, lampposts and walls everywhere are festooned with posters for the hopefuls – and there are many of them. Not surprisingly politics is seen as the path to easy wealth and everyone wants a share. By far the most expensive campaign has been by the incumbent party (ZANU-PF) and the current president E.D. Mnangagwa who is usually just known as ED. His visage is on billboards throughout Harare often with the slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business”. Indeed, he has been saying all the right things that might interest investors including scrapping the 51% indigenous ownership of foreign based companies, compensation for commercial farmers (mainly white) who were kicked off their farms by the Mugabe regime and a free and fair election. Anyone is welcome to come and observe the elections and indeed on Wednesday I saw an EU observer team vehicle parked in town. ED has come across so far as supremely confident that he and his party will win the election without any obvious subterfuge. The key word of course is obvious because, as always in Zimbabwe, all is not as it seems.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) which is responsible for organizing all aspects of the election is most certainly partisan to the ruling ZANU-PF. Among their transgressions have been not releasing an electronic voters’ roll to the opposition parties, not listing presidential candidates in alphabetical order (ED’s name and photo is top thus biasing his chances), making the voting form a double sheet of paper (it should be single) and saying they are not answerable to anyone. The head of the ZEC has also been photographed wearing ED’s trademark Zimbabwe colours scarf and wouldn’t say when the photo was taken. Ghost voters abound on the roll some of whom are evidently the oldest people in the world. Whilst the bio-metric voters roll was put together in a rush and errors were bound to crop up people are wondering if they will be corrected in time for the poll.

The most credible opposition is the MDC Alliance. Once the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) was a single party but I have lost count of how many factions there now are. For the moment they seem to have patched over their differences and their presidential candidate is one Nelson Chamisa who has impressed me not at all so far. He seems prone to making silly campaign promises such as a high speed train that will link the capital Harare and Bulawayo the second city in the south of the country. Given that is 450km that will make it the fastest train in the world. That aside he has been touring the country and if the pictures are to be believed the stadiums have been packed. The colour of choice for the MDC Alliance is red which does rather remind me of the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) party in South Africa which is known for it’s extreme views on taking land without compensation. It’s headed by the firebrand Julius Malema who has a very thin grasp of economics and models himself on the late Hugo Chavez. I hope that the colour is the only thing in common between the MDC and the EFF.

What I have not heard from any political party is any coherent policy to alleviate the critical cash shortage. The head of the central bank has stated that after the election he will flood the country with US dollars to put the black market traders out of business. Quite where the money will come from has not been stated.

The currency black market is flourishing at a level reminiscent of the Zimbabwe dollar days. My friend Shelton, who is also my French teacher, tells me that the currency traders are openly trading in the centre of Harare (he also tells me that the marijuana dealers are also trading openly but that’s another story). There are several rates depending on what is being traded. Bank transfers for US cash commands about 1.8 or more to US$1 cash. Bond notes, the Zimbabwe equivalent to a US dollar but only valid in the country, trade at about 1.6 or 1.7 to US$1 cash. Mobile banking on a cell phone is about the same as a bank transfer. Apparently there is no shortage of of either type of cash which is curious given that it is vanishingly rare in the shops and banks.

About 2 weeks ago a rumour did the rounds suggesting that the central bank was going to start issuing Zimbabwe dollars again. This started panic buying of US dollars cash and the rate, which had been stable for about 8 months, started to run. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rumour was started by those with the cash (both types), who are known to be the political fat cats, to force a run on the rates before the election.

All my accounts, both company and personal, are in US dollars – it says so very clearly at the top. We all know that they are not US dollars as we cannot go to the banks and get any and the “street rate” is fast closing on 1:2. This is going to pose a major problem for whoever wins the election. Zimbabwe imports a lot of goods, mostly from South Africa, and prices have gone up because those who are doing the importing are doing so at inflated rates. I bought a sheet of plywood this week to put in some extra cupboards at the office and it had more than doubled in a year. I paid by debit card so that would go into the seller’s bank account and immediately be registered as US dollars. Assuming that we do revert to “real” US dollars after the election those who have been charging at the street rates stand to have made a lot of money. I deal in seedlings and when the rates started to run towards the end of last year tried to put up my prices. My customers raised merry hell and I had to bring them down again or risk losing customers. That they put up with increasing prices elsewhere for chemicals, hardware and general cost of living didn’t seem to bother them as odd.

The public’s mistrust of the banks and the banking system is profound so that any cash released into the banking system will soon be mopped up by withdrawals that most certainly will not be redeposited and we’ll end up with a cash shortage of the type we’re experiencing now. I don’t see how this can be solved in the short term. The nation has made significant progress towards becoming “cashless” – payments are made using debit cards and a number of mobile phone platforms. As a result I have little need for cash but I would like to have the choice of using it if I want to.

As I write this the election campaigns are running furiously. The incumbent president, ED Mnangagwa, has gone so far as to woo the white electorate with a purpose-designed rally at Borrowdale racecourse in Harare. He must be feeling a bit nervous to go to that effort; there are very few whites left in the country and their vote is all but inconsequential. I predict a close result. Quite what the military, who were instrumental in removing Mugabe from power and installing ED will do if the opposition wins remains to be seen. Will they throw their lot in with the MDC and Nelson Chamisa? They must be only too aware that should the MDC win they and others in ZANU-PF may well be held accountable for their sins in violent election fixing in past elections. As usual, we will wait and see.





And on the positive side…

14 07 2018

Will McNicol, acclaimed guitarist, entertains.

We don’t have a lot to celebrate in Zimbabwe at the moment; the economy is barely existent, cash is a fond memory and the weather is unusually cold and dull. But we have just spent the afternoon listening to the top class acoustic guitarist Will McNicol in the gardens at Amanzi restaurant, thanks to Music Every Month  who brought him over from the UK. Oh, and the wine wasn’t bad too if rather pricey – but as my dear departed mother liked to say; money was designed to be spent! It was just what we needed. Thanks Will and to all those who made this possible.

And he even used his mouth – inspired by Jimi Hendrix perhaps?





The uncooperative spider

11 05 2018

Nope, just not a good photo

The spiders are back in the nursery after a 2 year break. I’d noticed the decline for a few years prior to this and I’d put it down to erratic and decreasing rainfall over the past 5 years. So last year after an unusually heavy rainy season, I was expecting to see at least a few. Nothing. I was disappointed. In a normal year they festoon the nursery with their golden and incredibly sticky webs. I like to think that they catch all manner of pests that are eating the seedlings but I never really see much in their webs. They must eat something as they do grow. I don’t really mind what they do or don’t eat as I just like seeing them there; I guess I have to admit that I just like spiders. Maybe it’s an underdog thing – lots of people don’t like spiders but they can have my support.

Maybe it’s the same thing with snakes as I also quite like them. Friends at school kept harmless snakes and I admit they are fascinating creatures to handle – cool and silky to the touch. In the bush I am a bit wary of them. So long as we meet on my terms, i.e. I see them first and am not surprised by them, then we can be friends.

The first job I had back in Zimbabwe after I’d finished my backpacking travels was with a flower growing company in Lion’s Den, the other side of Chinhoyi from Harare about an hour and half north-west of the capital. It did not go well and after 2 years I threw the towel in and we parted best of enemies but I did get to live in the bush and that aspect I really enjoyed. On several occasions I saw a herd of kudu (a type of antelope) by the road, there were lots of birds on the local dams and lots of snakes to watch out for and they were not necessarily harmless.

One morning I walked out of my office in the flower pack-shed to use the toilet. I opened the door to see a lizard like head watching me from behind the water pipes. I paused as it moved and revealed itself as a snake. I couldn’t make out what type so moved a little closer. It opened it’s mouth and spat but nothing hit me and there was no typical cobra hood. I wasn’t going to take a chance so went back into the office to get some safety glasses kept for when using an angle grinder. Calling a foreman to bring a sack and a broom I went back to the toilet whilst the women packers vacated the pack-shed with shrieks of excitement. By now the snake had decided to make a break for the door but being a smooth cement floor it couldn’t get any traction and did not so much slither as writhe. It even made an effort to strike at me but I easily side stepped it. Brushing the snake into a clear area of the pack-shed, I trapped its head with the back of the broom and picked it up by the tail. In this part of the world the only snake that can climb back up its tail is a boomslang (tree snake) and this was most certainly not one of those. Snakes will try to lift their heads up from this position but all one needs to do is jerk it up by the tail and the head will drop down again (this is not the recommended way of handling snakes!).

Now I had to get the snake into the sack. The foreman was holding the sack at arm’s length and wouldn’t come close enough. I shouted at him for being daft whilst the rest of the labour force giggled nervously from the safety of the shed door. Finally he came close enough, I dropped the snake into the sack, grabbed the top and tied it off with some string. I could just see the snake waving around inside. Nobody could tell me what it was and I had no other means of identifying it – it was just a metre long, brownish snake. I did know it wasn’t a black mamba which were common in the area and certainly not a snake I’d have tried to pick up. They are also quite nondescript in colour but aggressive and highly venomous.

Later that day I showed it to a local farmer.

“Sounds like a cobra” he said. “Let’s have a look”.

“But it didn’t put it’s hood up” I countered.

“Maybe, but now it has” he said, pointing at the distinct silhouette of a cobra in the bag.

Despite several brushes with snakes in the area that included nearly standing on a puff adder walking out in the bush, one of my dogs being bitten by a puff adder (she survived and lived another 13 years) and getting repeatedly bitten by a mildly venomous grass snake that didn’t appreciate that I was trying to heal the cut on it’s back (it too survived and was released) I’ve never lost my appreciation for snakes. I won’t handle them like I did as I am not nearly as agile as I used to be but I’ll let them be and defend their right to exist if I can.

So where was I? Yes spiders, that’s what started all this. The golden orb spiders that weave their webs in the nursery are completely harmless to humans and have fascinating blue and yellow patterns on the base of their abdomen. I’ve been trying to get a decent photo of one for years so when I saw this one on an aloe in the nursery car park I thought I was in luck. The light was good and the spider was in a good position but all I had was my cellphone. The camera is not bad as cellphone cameras go but it’s not a patch on my SLR. So I snapped the photo at the start of this post and thought “I’ll be back to get you”.

So today I was back with SLR camera and tripod but would the spider cooperate. Oh no. It sat contentedly in the middle of its web and would not be coaxed back onto the aloe. The light was also wrong; I’d been distracted by my landlord and missed the 5 minute window of sun on the aloe leaf that I’d seen yesterday. This evening I checked up on it again. Its magnificent coloured abdomen was perfectly lit by the late afternoon sun and it was nowhere near the aloe but no matter. Just as I got up to grab my SLR the sun slipped behind a bank of cloud. I’ll be back.

Who’s a pretty girl then?





Penhalonga revisited

29 04 2018

I used to live in Penhalonga, a small gold mining village in eastern Zimbabwe, named apparently from the Portuguese for long rocky mountain. I grew up on Sheba Estate, a forestry plantation some 15km further to the north and moved to Penhalonga with my mother after my father was murdered on Sheba in 1979. Sheba Estate is part of the Border Timbers group of forest estates comprising Sheba, Imbeza, Charter and Tilbury scattered along the eastern border of Zimbabwe which total some 40,000 ha of mainly softwood pine trees.

Imbeza Estate is in the next valley to the south of Penhalonga and despite its proximity I never actually visited the estate except once in the Rhodesian army as an escort for an engineer who wanted to look at the source of an explosion in the minefield that the Rhodesian military laid along much of the eastern border to restrict the inflow of Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA guerillas from Mozambique where many of them were based.

The old guest house on Imbeza estate where we spent the weekend with Stewart and Nicole Goss. The trees in the background at right are on the border with Mozambique

This last weekend Stewart Goss and his wife Nicole invited us down to Imbeza for a weekend. I’ve known Stewart all his life from when his mother June, and father Gary, moved into the top end of the Penhalonga valley in 1980. They had a small farm there from which they were evicted in the early 2000s as part of Mugabe’s disastrous land reform policy which saw the majority of white commercial farmers evicted from their land countrywide and crashed the Zimbabwe economy. Now in a delightful twist of irony Stewart and Nicole are living on Imbeza and have been contracted to do much of the forestry silviculture (planting and management of trees), road maintenance and fire fighting for Border Timbers. Their house is the old guest house on Imbeza and has a commanding view of the valley and countryside to the north. The minefield has mostly been cleared in the proximity of the house which is very close to the Mozambican border though we drove past stretches of red and white tape that demarcate areas still to be cleared.

Looking north and east from a fire tower. The Mozambique border runs along the skyline at the centre. Parts of the minefield still have not been cleared of mines.

Morning view from the front garden. It was as peaceful as it looks.

Evening sky from the front garden. The road to Nyanga runs the other side of the hills in the distance.

The aloes were in full bloom and the sunbirds, (a Miombo double-collared in this case) were all over them.