Old dogs are special

18 11 2022
Myself, Marianne and Themba (who photo-bombed the moment). Marianne’s wearing a cap and dark glasses because “my hair’s a mess and I haven’t got eye-shadow on”. I am wearing a cap to hide my bald spot.

On Tuesday Marianne asked me if I’d remembered it was my birthday today. I had totally forgotten about it. I won’t but that down to old age just yet but my memory isn’t great and I’ll explain that later.

I got to thinking last night that I was about to turn 63 which is 3 times 21 and what was I doing at 21 and 42? Oddly enough I have quite clear memories of my 21st.

I was in the car park at my university residence when and acquaintance by the nickname of Russian, who was actually of Polish descent, found out and asked me if I’d been kissed yet (he didn’t have to specify a woman). I made some non-committal reply whereupon his girlfriend, Colleen, stepped up and kissed me. It probably was my first kiss! Being a November baby meant that parties clashed with exams so my mother paid for a few of us to go out for dinner later in the year.

November is, of course, an historic month. Armistice Day marking the end of the First World War is on the 11th. This year I noticed a plethora of Facebook posts marking the occasion and reminding readers how we must no forget. I agree totally. Less well known in the wider world is that the Rhodesian government, led by one Ian Douglas Smith (who was a World War 2 fighter pilot in the RAF), made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from British rule on the 11th of November 1965 making Southern Rhodesia just Rhodesia which became Zimbabwe in 1980. International sanctions swiftly followed and we were on our own (with support from South Africa and Portugal) until 1980. Rhodesians were capable and highly industrious and for a while the country flourished.

Various Facebook sites on the 11th were swamped with ex-Rhodesians reminding me of this. They seem to have forgotten that by the end of the ensuing bush war in December 1979 we had long lost the support of Portugal and South Africa and came very close to a battle for the capital city, Salisbury (now Harare) which would have been a bloodbath. The following elections got us Robert Mugabe as a ruthless head-of-state and we all know how that eventually turned out. Thousands of people lost their lives in the bush war, my father included as an innocent civlilian, and I was partially paralysed in a military action. Really, did those who concocted the UDI not see the train wreck coming? What were they thinking? The UDI was arguably the worst decision in our history.

What was I doing 21 years ago? In 2001 the Mugabe regime was on the rampage, chasing white commercial farmers off their land, frequently destructively. Often farms were looted and abandoned of their agriculture, plunging the currency into a hyper-inflationary period that culminated in 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes and inflation in October 2008 estimated at 4.3 million percent. Those who could left the country, New Zealand was particularly quick to see the potential of qualified Zimbabweans and welcomed them en masse. I do know that in 2001 I had a lot more disposable cash than I do know and I did around that time have a party for friends in a local restaurant. It was great fun. Maybe we just didn’t care about the impending financial disaster or more likely we just chose to ignore it for the night. I certainly wasn’t concerned about getting to 63 – that was far away.

Now 63 is here and I’m not impressed. But before I go down the route of losses and gains I owe an explanation of my terrible short-term memory. In April this year I had a lower back operation to repair and stabilize various vertebrae that had deteriorated as a consequence of the bullet that tore through that region in April 1979 (detailed description in Reflections on the first half). The operation was successful and the surgeon said the spine was not as messy as he was expecting but the anaesthetic has had lasting consequences on my memory. It even has a name; Post Operative Cognitive Dysfunction (POCD). While its occurrence in people my age is uncommon I appear to have been unlucky – I’ve had more than a few general anaesthetics in my life and none have had this effect. Effects range from forgetting conversations I’ve just had to full-blown bouts where I cannot control my thought processes and I cannot perceive the world around me. The POCD may last in younger people up to 6 months but in older people there can be permanent effects. Recently I decided to do something about this and give my brain some work to do.

When I first took over my business I quickly vowed to get rid of the pile of paper that accumulated on my desk at the end of each month and decided to write my own software package to deal with the administration side of the business. I duly went on a course to learn Visual Basic (VB) and got to work. It took several years but it does the job now. While these projects are never finished I more recently decided to write a wages package that my senior foreman could use and free me up from tedious and mistake ridden Excel spreadsheets. It works well but being written in an old version of VB has issues running on my relatively new laptop. So I rewrote it in a newer, and quite different version. On getting out of hospital I needed something to do whilst on bed rest so wrote a cash notes calculator for the old version. Being rather pleased with they way it worked I decided to write one in the new version, only to find to my complete amazement (and disquiet) that I’d already done it before going into hospital. I had zero recollection of writing the app or the code itself. So now I’m rewriting the original accounting software to give my brain exercise. It will be a long project.

My mobility has taken a considerable knock over the years. At university I used to cycle all around the campus and when I left I went on a cycle tour of France, Switzerland and Germany. At 42 I still cycled around the farm where I rented a cottage. This all came to an end, albeit slowly, when a South African surgeon did a less than stellar job of fixing the neck I’d fractured as a teen. Back in 2014, when I’d started tripping over my own feet, I winced mentally when the surgeon who finally fixed the mess said “Oh, that old man” when I told him who’d done the original surgery. Little did I know at the time there was a specialist orthopaedic spine unit which is part of the Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town. I have not been on a bicycle since. So the message to the reader is: if you really HAVE to go under the knife, DO YOUR HOMEWORK! When asking a local doctor for advice on who to see about the neck operation I accepted at face value what he told me. It was an expensive mistake.

So, in the last 21 years I have lost: hair (thanks to my mother’s genetics), mobility (already explained), hand and upper body strength also as part of the aforementioned, hearing (thanks to the military) for which I wear hearing aids – I love ’em and can enjoy music again and of course my eyesight is not what it used to be. I do wear bifocal glasses but only for flying a drone. I’ve had lifelong short sight for which I’ve variously worn glasses, then I had a flirtation with contact lenses and now I’m back to glasses which I take off for close work.

Gains: toys, rather a lot! Some years ago when it became apparent that paragliding was a dying sport in Zimbabwe I took up aero-modelling. It’s definitely second prize but at least I get to fly something. So now I have several drones (I took the photograph at the top of the page with one) and some fixed-wing models too. I particularly like electric gliders. For the real flight experience I have a paramotor (that’s a paraglider with a petrol driven motor) but I don’t get to fly that much as I need assistance with the setting up. Of course I’ve gained a marvelous wife which was something I never expected to happen at 21 or even 42. Nothing could have been further from my mind at 21 and well, at 42 I thought I’d be a batchelor for the rest of my days. Fortunately I was wrong.

As for the next 21 years, well, it’s best not to think about it too much. Maybe I won’t get there, after all, 84 will be getting on a bit. Perhaps the end will come like the proverbial “thief in the night”, but sadly few of us will be that lucky.

I won’t pretend the last 21 years have passed quickly but I don’t have a lot of memories to look back on. I guess that it’s time to make a few now so next May Marianne and I are going with a group of friends to a rock concert in Birmingham, U.K. It’s our first ever and hopefully it will be good. Mike & The Mechanics are by no means a current band but we still like their music.

On Tuesday after Marianne reminded me it was my birthday on the 17th she went shopping. She complained that she couldn’t find me a present; I really wasn’t concerned – I think presents should be bought when one sees them, not necessarily for an occasion. It did occur to me to get myself a present, perhaps a rescue dog from one of the over-flowing charities. But I wouldn’t have been able to choose just one and would like to have gone for an older dog. Old dogs are special so maybe I’ll sponsor one instead.





The extreme side of recycling

20 10 2022
But it’s cute

“What is this doing here?” I asked Marianne, pointing to the minuscule container on the basin.

“Oh it was a free sample. Now it’s empty” she replied.

“So throw it away!” I demanded.

“No, I can put something in it next time we travel, and besides, it’s cute!” she countered.

How does one reply to that logic?





The Wonky Pig

20 10 2022

“He’s gorgeous!” enthused Caro by WhatsApp. It was not the response I was hoping for. I’d just sent her a photo of the pig sculpture in the pond outside the Harlow civic centre which I deemed awful and cousin Pat said was wonderful. The sculpture is officially titled “Boar” and is part of the sculpture collection of Harlow, a relatively new town some 30 minutes by train north of London. I prefer to call it the “Wonky Pig” as to me it looks like it’s on the verge of falling over – a bit like I do to a lot of people.

I’d enlisted Caro’s opinion as she’s qualified with a degree in fine art and should know about these things – i.e. is it good art? Of course liking art is in the eye of the beholder; it doesn’t make it good, at least not in my opinion. Cousin Pat was silent on the matter but I detected an aura of smugness. Further along the pond was a bird. Well, that’s what the plaque said but I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what it might be. The last sculpture in the pond was a copy of Rodin’s “Eve” which even I could appreciate.

We were coming to the end of our three week holiday in the UK having visited friends and relatives and were looking forward with a mix of trepidation to returning to the chaos of Zimbabwe. England works. Zimbabwe not so much. We’d experienced first hand the motorway driving which is the antithesis of Zimbabwean driving. We’d seen a show in London, done the tourist bit on a tour bus and caught up with old friends. The weather had been surprisingly good but we were also getting tired of living out of suitcases and were looking forward to getting back to our own space and the dogs.

After the long night flight from Johannesburg we landed at Heathrow Terminal 5 and made our way into London. As a disabled person it was comforting to find that getting assistance was easy, something that we found throughout our trip.

Porlock was a three hour trip; train from London to Taunton, bus to Minehead and a short taxi ride to Porlock where we stayed not far from Meryl Harrison, an old friend of Marianne’s. Meryl is well known in in Zimbabwe for her single minded and courageous rescues of farm animals in the chaotic years surrounding the farm invasions in Zimbabwe. She was also instrumental in setting up the VAWZ animal charity. Now she lives in retirement in the country of her birth. She would prefer to live in Zimbabwe but cannot afford to. You can support her by buying her book Innocent Victims about the farm rescues.

Don, another friend of Marianne’s from long ago, had agreed to meet us in the area and take us exploring with his wife Rachel and three dogs. We took a drive up onto Exmoor nearby and onto the twin towns (or is it one?) of Lynton and Lynmouth. It’s famous for its funicular water-powered cliff railway that opened in 1890 and, yes, still works today.

There are two carriages on a cliff that take passengers up and down. Both have water tanks beneath them – clearly seen in the photo above. The descending carriage has a full tank and the ascending one an empty tank so gravity does the work.

Pubs in the area were of course also visited and being just out of tourist season we had no difficulty finding space for lunch. There was just one day that rain curbed our plans but other than that it was cool and clear. Autumn colours were just starting on the moor.

Our next stop was Weston-super-Mare about and hour towards Bristol. Don kindly did a small diversion to drop us there where we’d found a convenient B&B close to the beachfront. We were glad to be there out of season so had no crowds to negotiate and didn’t even have to queue for the ferris wheel.

The first day we explored the nearby helicopter museum and the following day cousin Malcom came out from Bristol for an entertaining lunch.

The Helicopter Museum is billed as having the biggest collection of helicopters anywhere in the world. I can believe it – they were really packed in. There was even a Vietnam veteran Bell Huey complete with armaments. I never flew in one in my military days though they were around. We deemed them unsuitable for the type of bush warfare we were fighting as they could be heard a long way out. Ironically I did get a casevac ride in a US Navy Huey in 2002 (see the Reflections on the first half post). They did have an Aerospatiale Alouette II which is the predecessor of the III. I spent many hours flying around the countryside in the latter. Though small they could carry four lightly armed troops, a pilot and a technician/gunner and were ideally suited to bush warfare.

Perhaps the star of the show was G-LYNX, the Westland Lynx that set the world speed record for a conventional helicopter in 1986 and it still stands to this day. Surprisingly the only major modification was to the rotor blades, the rest of the machine was pretty much standard. Of course there were some very early helicopters that had a much less distinguished career.

My brother Duncan picked us up on the third day and we made our way back to his home in Baschurch, Shropshire via an old school friend in Droitwich. Cathy was a sporting lass in her youth and held a number of athletics records. Once when playing cricket at our house she bowled to Duncan who hit the ball through a closed window and hit Cathy’s father Geoff on the head. Duncan blamed Cathy for her poor bowling.

Duncan and the rescue dogs. Winnie on the left, Sheba on the right

It was good to catch up with his family whom we’d last seen four years ago. His eldest son, Frazer, no longer lives at home but we did manage a dinner in the nearby town of Shrewsbury where we caught up with him and his partner.

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth was on whilst we were there. Yes, we did watch the pomp and ceremony for a while and yes, as a British citizen she was my head of state but there is only so much of that sort of thing I can watch so in the afternoon we did other things. We went off to a local garden centre where, amongst other attractions, they had a cunning system whereby a pound bought a little tub of fish food to feed their koi. Neat!

While we were there Duncan suggested a trip to the RAF Cosford museum. It’s vast so luckily we managed to get use of an electric mobility scooter for me.

The British do museums well and this one is an exceptional example and it’s free but beware, in the holiday season you may need to book.

As a child I was captivated by a “Boys’ Own Annual” story of the BAC TSR-2, an extraordinarily advanced (a perhaps overly ambitious design) multi-role attack/reconnaissance aircraft so I was particularly pleased to see a real one. We didn’t get to see the final hanger as it was time to go and rescue Marianne from her favorite pastime of shopping in Telford.

From Shropshire we went on to Shirebrook where Gordon and Judy Grierson live. They are also economic refugees from Zimbabwe. Several years ago they decided they could not afford to live in Zimbabwe any longer as they were both getting on in age so they decided to move to Englalnd where Gordon has two sons. They sold their property here for a decent price but getting they money out proved problematic so now they just get by and long for Zimbabwe.

Shirebrook is an unremarkable town with a lot of older folk and an amazing Indian restaurant. It does have a large garden centre nearby which we visited out of curiosity. We have nothing like it in Zimbabwe and I think there is potential for something along similar lines.

I was not overly-impressed with the quality of the plants but to be fair autumn in the UK is not prime gardening weather. There was much else that was only vaguely related to gardening – mead comes to mind.

From Shirebrook we caught a train to London where we’d promised ourselves three nights of entertainment and the tourist thing. Marianne had found a reasonably priced hotel close to Leicester Square in central London that was in walking distance of a theatre showing Moulin Rouge. We both decided that whilst the sets were magnificent and the dancing good, the acting left a bit to be desired. At half time Marianne decided a flute of champagne would be nice but balked at the 17 pounds price.

The next day we went to the Imperial War Museum that I’d last visited in 1987. I was impressed back then but it’s undergone a substantial facelift since then and we saturated ourselves on the floor that dealt with World War II. It was very well done with lots of small placards that gave personal stories of often ordinary people on all sides of the conflict. It’s not something that one can really absorb in one session. There were a lot of school children around and I really felt the enormity of the event was lost on them – it was just a morning away from school.

For me it was a crystal clear reason why we never want to go to this extreme again. By the end of the display I was more than a little depressed but the final straw was the video of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves in the German death camps. As a veteran of a vastly smaller conflict I have seen more than a few dead bodies but this made me feel ill.

The generation that fought in World War II is often referred to as the “greatest generation”. My father served in the RNVR as a sub-lieutenant and try as I may, I could not get him talk much about it. He said he did not see much action but was on historic ships; HMS Savage, HMS Jamaica and HMS Norfolk but was not onboard the latter at the time of it’s action against the Bismarck.

Peter Danby, who lived in my mother’s village of Penhalonga in the east of Zimbabwe, had been a commander in the Royal Navy and had been in an irregular unit (I never found out it’s name – perhaps a forerunner of the SBS?) that did hit-and-run raids on German shipping in the Greek archipelago. I commented that it must have been “exciting”. He replied “yes it was quite” and that was the end of the conversation. We owe it to the exceptional and oft understated bravery of this generation that a catastrophe of this magnitude never happens again.

The next day we did the tour bus thing and were lucky to get a good commentator. It was double-decker bus and I couldn’t manage the stairs so we had to be content with a street eye level view. A short cruise up the Thames took us passed all the major sights. Once again we were lucky with the weather and the grand finale on the London Eye was well worth the wait. The tour guide noted that in peak season the Eye can take 500,000 pounds a day. We were lucky and did not have to queue at all and the pods were perhaps half full.

En route to the London Eye we went past the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace – the armed police presence was very noticeable. There were the obligatory guards on horses but I did wonder if they carried loaded weapons.

We did not of course “eat in” at night (the hotel did an uninspiring breakfast) and tried to find reasonably priced restaurants close to where we were staying. We had mixed success with the food quality but prices were all much the same – high. I told Marianne we hadn’t come on holiday to lose weight or save money and so we tucked in.

Then it was on to cousin Pat and finally home after three weeks away. It was a good holiday, thanks in no small part to Marianne’s organisation skills. We saw the people we wanted to see and saw sights that I wouldn’t have done by myself. Now we are back in stress land and plotting the next escape – more on that another time.





The slide and fall of the Zimbabwe dollar

8 09 2022
Clean cash but I paid for it!

Last month I finally had to throw in the towel. I called together the workers’ committee who represent the labour force and told them that I couldn’t find enough local dollars to pay them and from now on it would have to be US dollars. They tried hard not to show their delight and failed, dismally.

The government likes to claim it has stabilized the Zimbabwe dollar that had officially slumped to about 530 to one US dollar last month. They have even gone so far as to issue punitive fines on those organizations trading at unofficial rates which can be around 800:1 or higher. Indeed, local dollars can now be bought for as little as 700:1, if they can be found at all. That very little needs to be paid for in Zimbabwe dollars is no doubt preventing the local dollars gaining more. My business has steadily been taking in more and more US cash over the last 6 months to the extent that my time spent going through the bank statements at the end of the month is now only a couple of hours.

The government also displays considerable ambiguity to the currency it is supposedly supporting. Imports are taxed at a rate of 700 local dollars to the US dollar, no doubt to encourage importers to use the US currency. Export remittances paid back to Zimbabwe are “taxed” by the government which takes 40% of the hard cash and then pays the exporter back in local money at the official rate which means the exporter is losing 25% of the hard-earned forex. Internal foreign currency transactions are deducted 20% under the same system, and yes, the money I withdrew from my account shown above was taxed 3%. Curiously the small denomination notes are all issued new. I’d been hoping to get some 1s but my bank didn’t have any in stock.

Marianne and I are going to the UK on Sunday for three weeks. It’s always a bit of an exercise in anxiety in what can go wrong whilst I’m away but it’s been four years since we got to the UK and the break is needed.

Yesterday I got a call from one of the foremen saying that one of the borehole pumps wasn’t working. Fortunately there’s a business park some 10 minutes from my work that has an irrigation company and three visits later with an unnecessary purchase of a pump controller, it was determined that the motor was burned out (the pump controller should have protected it but failed to do so) and it was pulled out the ground and changed. Marianne remarked drily that “at least it didn’t happen next week”. Indeed.

A friend has the estimated wages, in US dollars of course, which he will drop off when the clerk tells him an updated breakdown. The wages package was written by me and although I’m not and exceptional programmer I do take pride in designing software that’s intuitive to use. Emergency phone numbers have been listed and fingers will be crossed. We will be taking our full currency allowance of 2,000 US dollars each with us – nobody outside Zimbabwe has use for our currency either.





Not all that is gold glitters

4 08 2022
Oh these were the days back in 2008. And this was not the biggest which topped out at 100 TRILLION dollars! For a while one could buy them on the way out of the airport at US$20 or so each. Now THAT’S an effective way to make money out of inflation!

As of four days ago Zimbabwe has its very own gold bullion coins, one troy ounce, 22 carat gold. Like gold coins sold all over the world it even has its own name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, which is the name the Tonga people gave the Victoria Falls and roughly translates to “The smoke that thunders”. Unlike gold coins elsewhere nobody has any idea if it will be tradable outside the country and therein lies the catch.

The coin has been introduced to try and rescue the local Zimbabwe dollar from oblivion. Nobody wants it and on the parallel market it’s trading at 720 to one US dollar though for some reason now outlets I spoke to yesterday were using less than 760. That is actually down from 750 a week ago when I had to sell 1,000 US dollars to part-fund my staff wages. Not many retailers are using the local dollar anymore and, although they are bound by law to accept Zimbabwe dollars, they price goods so that it’s very attractive to pay in $US. Supermarkets are the lone exception and they price at the official rate of 400 or so to the US dollar. Those who can obviously pay for their groceries and consumables in the local currency.

The initial run of gold coins will number 2,000 and will be sold at around US$1,800 or so depending on the value of the metal. One can also pay in any other major currency and, here’s the kicker, Zimbabwe dollars at the official rate! Yes, this means that if you can get enough local dollars you can get yourself a gold coin or several very cheaply indeed. The government admits that this price is out of consideration for most people, so will consider minting smaller coins at a later stage.

Cynics are easily found in Zimbabwe and it’s not difficult to see why. Many have pointed out that these coins are there purely for the rich and politically connected to mop up easily and hopefully in the process rescue the local dollar (the price is way beyond the average citizen intent on daily survival). I suggested to my cousin, who is a gold smith in Cape Town, that she should see if she could get her brother, who lives in Harare, to buy her some that she could then melt down for use in her business. Gold jewellery is usually diluted with silver to around nine carats. It would be really worthwhile doing if possible. My local cousin is well-connected but probably not that well connected.

It has not of course escaped notice that Zimbabwe does not have a great reputation for fiscal responsibility and those who do buy the coins might well find out that nobody outside the country is interested in buying them. Why should they when in South Africa, our neighbour, one can buy the internationally recognized gold Krugerrand not to mention the plethora of other coins available worldwide?

It doesn’t take a huge amount of mathematical intellect to work out that gold coin sales are unlikely to make much difference to Zimbabwe’s dire financial status. Let’s have a look:

Initial minting is 2,000 coins valued at $1,800 each. That’s a grand total of $3.6 million. Not a lot to get excited about. This has not stopped the government owned newspaper The Herald from waxing lyrical and claiming that that existing stocks of the coins have already sold out. How many were available in the first place was not mentioned. Perhaps even more tellingly the article claims that the gold coins will take local currency out of circulation. Does this mean that we are reverting to using the US dollar once again?





The Rhodesian Ridgeback Centennial

10 07 2022
Themba on the move

This year is the centennial of the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Zimbabwe. For those with a bit of interest in history and geography, the southern African country once known as Rhodesia has been known as Zimbabwe since April 1980. Yes, we have our own dog breed, known as the Rhodesian Ridgeback, since 1922 when the parent club of the breed was formed in the country. Breed names don’t change with geography so the breed has kept its name.

There’s quite a bit of misinformation about the breed out there on the internet, the biggest myth being that the breed was developed in South Africa which is on our southern border. It was not and neither is it the “South African national dog”. The first Ridgebacks were bred in the Bulawayo area of southern Rhodesia in the early part of the 20th century specifically for hunting lion. They are a mix of many breeds with the distinctive ridge of reverse aligned hair on the back likely originating in the native dogs of the Cape region of South Africa. It is said that the early breeders/hunters of lion noticed that dogs with the ridge were not afraid of lion. I suspect that they were savvy enough to use this as a marketing tool though one of the early pioneers of the breed, Cornelius van Rooyen, was not particularly interested in furthering the development of the breed himself but he was an avid lion hunter. It was left to others to further the development of the breed and in 1922 Francis Barnes was instrumental in setting the breed standard (which he admitted to poaching from the Dalmatian standard) and calling a group of like-minded people to start the parent club near Bulawayo in 1922. So this year we will be celebrating the centenary of the parent club at the Wag Zone, Harare’s (and quite possibly Zimbabwe’s) only dog park.

Yesterday we had a small gathering of Ridgebacks and their owners at the Wag Zone to get the dogs used to the premises. The actual centennial gathering will be there on the 13th August in the morning from 10 a.m. My Themba (above) will be attending as will quite a number of other dogs with hopefully some from neighbouring countries.

My first Ridgeback was Kim, whom I got from a local farmer in the Chinhoyi area of Zimbabwe when I worked there in 1990. She was a companion for my Labrador Cassie and I fell in love with the breed then. Being hounds they are not easy dogs and are very independent. Training takes a lot of persistence (no, they are most certainly not stupid) and if they have a failing it’s their undivided loyalty which can be a bit much at times but for an often lonely batchelor, it was a great fit. They often don’t live very long either. Unusually for this breed Kim lived for 14 years before I had to make the decision to say goodbye. She was followed by Tina, Jenni, Kharma and Zak (Roxy was my wife’s dog). Now we have Themba who has a diary on Zak’s blog and, at 9 months of age, has firmly laid claim to our hearts and centre of the bed.

Further information on the breed is only a few clicks away on the web but for history buffs the definitive book is “Rhodesian Ridgeback Pioneers” by Linda Costa (ISBN 0-646-43501-9), which may take a bit of finding as it is no longer in print.

Themba at the airport aged 8 weeks when we picked him up




Taxed if you do, taxed if you don’t

27 06 2022
Export fruit that didn’t get taxed (bought for cash off a neighbour)

Zimbabwe’s dollar is crumbling for the second time. It last fell off the charts in 2008 so you’d think our finance ministry would know better. Apparently not. Inflation in local dollar terms is back in triple digits and, like the rest of the world, inflation in real money is also a problem – but one we can live with. The real problem is tax.

Given the problem with the local currency the reader would be correct to assume that those who can export products to bring in hard currency would do so (the breakfast bowl of fruit above were probably not export grade but they were delicious!). However, keeping the fruits of one’s labour is a bit more difficult. The government takes 40% of these export earnings and pays back the exporter in Zimbabwe dollars at the official exchange rate. As things stand the official exchange rate is around 360 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar whereas the unofficial rate, the one nearly everyone uses to price what you see in the shops, is about 650:1. So exporters are losing about 20% of what they get in as hard currency. If they then use this hard currency in an electronic transfer the receiver is also subject to handing over a portion, in this case 20%, to the government at the official rate.

One doesn’t have to be an exporter to have a Foreign Currency Account (FCA). My company holds one and I have received US dollars into it for some time now from a company for whom I grow gum tree seedlings which will, when mature, be cut for firewood for curing tobacco. They get US dollars in the form of a levy from tobacco exports. Yes, I can even go to the bank and draw out the money as cash though again there is a 3% levy on this which the government takes. Naturally people prefer cash deals which are not then banked though there is only so much one can “hide under the mattress”. Safe deposit boxes are a preferred option to the former but at the moment they are at a premium.

These FCAs also existed under the Mugabe regime but on two occasions during our hyper-inflationary period of the local currency they were raided by the central bank and the owners were paid out in Zimbabwe dollars which very quickly became worthless. The inflation in October 2008 was estimated at 4.3 million percent for that month. This is not so long ago that people have forgotten and there is a steady queue of customers in my local bank withdrawing hard cash, risks and levies notwithstanding.

Of course not all transactions require US dollars. The local currency is still used and indeed, the government has stipulated that customers must be allowed to use it if they want. Of course everybody makes it very attractive to pay in US dollars by offering a rate heavily stacked against the Zimbabwe dollar. One hardware outlet is well known for offering a discount on top of this, so they can say to any inquisitive official that they are using the official rate, but only if you actually ask the checkout person.

VAT is not particularly high at 14.5%. However, transactions over 500 Zimbabwe dollars (less than a US dollar) attract a tax of 2%. A number of transaction types are not taxed. These include tax payments (what, no tax on tax?), wages, insurance payments, medical aid payments and various others. One bank I deal with has a comprehensive list of non-taxable transactions, the other has a very short list for no reason that I can discern.

The Zimbabwe banking system is surprisingly sophisticated in some respects and dismal in others. Everything can be paid for online, taxes, transfers, insurance, social security. It doesn’t all work very well though and as a part-time programmer I am constantly irritated by lazy design and weak code. It is even possible to buy car licences online and the government can see from a database that one’s vehicle insurance is up to date. The paper discs for display on the vehicle are then delivered by courier to one’s address which rather spoils the efficiency.

Like nearly everywhere else in the world we have been affected by the Ukraine/Russia war. At the beginning of the year fuel was around US$1.25 per litre (it is ONLY available in US dollars!). Now diesel is $1.87 per litre and about 40% of that is government taxes and levies. No small wonder that inflation is running rampant. I saw a Reserve Bank announcement last week that the Zimbabwe dollar lending rate had been increased to 200% in an attempt to block speculative borrowing. It will have little effect – you read that here.

I have been paying my staff in a mix of local and US dollars for some time now. This month they approached me to increase the US dollar proportion. It wasn’t difficult to say yes given that my local currency accounts will hardly cover my own salary let alone their wage. Clearly they don’t have faith in the local dollar, unlike the President who is insisting it’s here to stay. For those with a bit of time on their hands try typing this into Google: “zimbabwe multi currency system to stay herald” (exclude the quotes). It’s farcical. Note that The Herald is the government-owned newspaper, so it parrots the state line.





A short stay in Zimbabwe’s finest

18 05 2022

“I have a suppository for you” said the nurse aid pulling on another set of gloves over those he already had on.

I eyed him suspiciously, “What’s it for?”

“Pain” he replied.

“Oh, OK” I relented. I needed a bit of alternative pain control – back surgery is a painful affair. The fentanyl had been a disaster causing me to vomit a lot and pethidine doesn’t have much effect on me. I laboriously rolled over and let him put the suppository where suppositories go.

I rolled back over and watched aghast as he reached over me with his left hand to my table on wheels. “I hope you aren’t left-handed because if you are you’ve just spread the bacterial contents of my rectum over the table” I thought.

Then he stripped off the outer pair of gloves and moved on to the next patient.

The hospital I was in is relatively new being opened in 2017. It’s not big and it only caters for surgery patients but by Zimbabwe standards it is “state-of-the-art”. The wards contain three beds which are comfortable and can be power-controlled for comfort. The food, for a hospital, is excellent. There are still pencil marks on the wall above the awnings in the small courtyard – I guess Zimbabwe’s artisans don’t look at the final details like I do.

I got chatting to one of the qualified nurses on the night shift. She told me that the hospital made use of a lot of nurse aids to keep costs down. The turnover was high as they then took their experience overseas to go caring and earn reasonable wages. She had two small children and a surveyor husband in dead-end government job so she was unlikely to hang around much longer. There were some older nurses around but not many.

Some years ago Canada had a drive to recruit Zimbabwean nurses and physiotherapists. There was a big billboard on a major road into town advertising emigration to Canada. I can only guess at how many took up the offer (a recent France 24 article puts the figure at 1,800 for last year); the weather might be dismal by our standards but the salaries far better. I saw a post on Facebook today that a junior doctor in Zimbabwe on a government salary can expect to earn ZW$35k which is less than US$100 per month.

I was let out of the hospital after six days, trailing a vacuum dressing device and with strict instructions not to go further than the bathroom for the first two weeks. I also had to get in a nursing service to administer the intravenous antibiotics for 10 days. The two nurses involved were older women, one of them very proudly told me that she got her qualification in the Rhodesian days (Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in April 1980). Her husband had retired after spending a lifetime working for the National Railways of Zimbabwe and now gets a monthly pension of ZW$30 which equates to about 7.5c in US dollars. Needless to say we paid the nursing service in USD.

For the first couple of days when Marianne went out shopping she hired another retired nurse to come and keep an eye on me. I told her the story about the suppository. Joy rolled her eyes and said for a start there was no need to double-glove except if the gloves were of suspect quality like when she’d been nursing in the 2000s when just about everything was difficult to get hold of. She’d left nursing as a profession when she could no longer put up with the declining standards.

Boredom set in quickly. It didn’t help that I couldn’t sit up for any length of time. Mike the electrician came in to repair a spike filter on the solar inverter. Themba, my seven month old Rhodesian Ridgeback barked at him from beside me on the bed despite having met him before. When Joy walked up the passage he was even more agitated and growled when he thought she was getting too close. That’s my boy! I was so proud of him (there was no danger of an attack).

Themba, having told off the electrician and nurse for getting too close.

It’s now been a month since the surgery and I am a lot more mobile. The vacuum dressing has gone and I have made the transition from crutches back to my walking sticks. The pain is under control with nothing more than paracetemol but, like all pain control, it must be anticipated. Today Marianne drove me into work so I could see the state of the nursery. All was well though business was slow. My foreman had phoned around the competition to see what their prices were and they were way below mine so I’d taken the rather painful decision to reduce my US dollar prices even though I know that my quality is superior. I didn’t bother changing the Zimbabwe dollar prices. Currently the unofficial rate, i.e. what retail outlets are charging, is around 400:1 US dollar so a minor change was not going to make much difference. In the month that I’ve been away Marianne has been in twice to change local prices. It’s easy enough. Back in 2008 we were changing prices daily so I made sure that the software, which I wrote, was intuitive in that respect.

As I was sitting in the truck with the computer a customer arrived. I have grown seedlings for him in the past but last year he chose to take his business to one of the other cheaper nurseries. Back again this year I can only assume he had a bad experience because he didn’t even blink when I told him my prices. We briefly discussed how the economic environment was affecting his business which is mostly export orientated. He admitted that the 40% export earnings retention by the government was tough (the government takes 40% of the forex earned and gives it back in local dollars at a highly disadvantageous rate for the exporter) but at least changes to the procedure meant that they were “only” losing some 25%.

Two weeks ago the president of Zimbabwe, E D Mnangagwa, announced that all banks were to stop all lending in an effort to get inflation, estimated at 96.4% for April, under control. Confusion reigned. It even made the weekly edition of The Economist which called it a “curious way to tame inflation” and also ran another article on how a Zimbabwe businessman was running a pension scheme for Zimbabweans by breeding cattle. Clients buy cattle and the offspring are the interest. At any time they are welcome to go and visually inspect their investment. It’s a clever idea as Zimbabweans have little faith in any sort of intangible currency. This extends to not depositing US cash in banks but using safe deposit boxes which are now at a premium.

Marianne interrupted our discussion to say that she’d read the loans ban had been completely dropped but we agreed that the damage had been done. Who would want to invest in a country where the government has so little understanding of economics that they might arbitrarily slap a ban on the core business of banking?





Paperwork

27 03 2022

Anyone anywhere who has tried to import materiel knows that paperwork is essential. Where you are depends on how tedious it all is. In Zimbabwe three import permits are required for plant material; a Plant Import Permit, a Control of Goods Act Import Permit and a National Biocontrol Authority Import Permit. So when I need to import the coir pith (coco peat is the trade name) that we use in the nursery as a propagation medium, I am filled with a sense of dread and resignation. It can be a tedious process, really tedious.

Compounding the issue is the Covid crisis. I have had an order in with my supplier in India for eight months now. Finally he said that he could source a container but it would have to come in via Durban in South Africa, not the shorter land route via Beira in Mozambique. I have had to use this route once before in 2014 so went back through my file; the C & F (carriage and freight) price to Durban had increased 200%. I don’t know how much of this was the container but I do know that thanks to Covid prices of containers have skyrocketed. There was nothing to be done about that; the imported medium is much better quality than the local medium, so I got on with the application process.

The Ministry of Agriculture building where two of the permits are to be applied for is quite close to where I live and fortunately well out of the CBD. It’s also had quite a makeover since I was last there just over a year ago for another purpose. The gardens have been spruced up and the parking lot and entry and exit made less hazardous off the busy Borrowdale Road that passes it. I suppose it’s a small expense compared with fixing up the disastrous state of the roads and public hospitals but I do feel it shows where the interest in spending money lies.

In order to start the process I had to provide a number of other documents. Several were company registration documents and easy to get copies of them from the accounting firm where they are kept. Another was proof of membership of the Agricultural Marketing Association (AMA) and despite the name I’ve yet to ascertain exactly what it does apart from take US$350 per year off me. I did notice that they had gone some way towards making applications entirely online.

They young man in the AMA office was pleasant and chatty. He took the completed forms off me and put them through the very large scanner/copier/printer in the corner of the room. “We are making every effort to go paperless” he commented. When I pointed out that it was a very large and new printer he did admit that it was a bit ironic. He was well informed and actually did know what coir pith was and what it was used for. The actual registering online took a bit of tweaking over the phone but I’ll admit to being impressed that it actually does work even it it’s not very intuitive. Zimbabwe is progressing in very select areas!

The permit application process at the Ministry of Agriculture was also surprisingly painless. The Plant Import Permit was ready within three working days and the Control of Goods Act permit two days after that. I didn’t have to queue long either! The Biocontrol Permit needs a declaration from the coir pith supplier but that can only be had once the coir is packed in the container and ready to be shipped. Apparently I can also apply for that entirely online. We’ll see. Of course fuel prices have increased markedly in the last month which was after I got the original quote so I haven’t dared to inquire what the new transport costs from Durban will be.

Some of the stands at the ART field day

The long reach of the Ukraine – Russia war has got to Zimbabwean agriculture. At the annual ART (Agricultural Research Trust) Farm open day, held close to my nursery, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture exhorted the audience to grow lots of wheat this coming season. It seems that we import nearly 50% of our wheat requirement, mainly from Russia. No doubt this influenced Zimbabwe’s abstention at the UN meeting on the Russian invasion, as did Russia’s support of Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA faction in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe’s civil war that culminated in Zimbabwe independence in 1980. It was probably not lost on the audience that we wouldn’t be so dependent on wheat imports in the first place if the government would just get on with making land tenure a reality so that farmers would have collateral against which to borrow. Banks have made it clear that loans will not be forthcoming any other way. I guess there will be a bread shortage later this year.





Positive

11 02 2022
The lateral flow (antigen) test result

It’s the fatigue and coughing that are the most annoying. I’m bored of Facebook, bored of YouTube and certainly not in the mood of doing any programming on the wages app I’ve been writing for work. It’s mostly functional anyway – it just needs testing against the existing app for accuracy and work on printing out reports which is deadly at the best of times. So here I am, writing up a blog on my Covid infection, the fourth day in.

Monday was an average sort of day for a Monday. I managed to get to the gym and do a programme that hopefully wouldn’t wind-up my left knee which was having a bad-knee day i.e. deciding whether to be debilitatingly painful or just painful. It’s amazing how much pain an artificial knee can generate though in the words of the Cape Town surgeon whom I consulted a few years back; “Welcome to the world of knee replacements. There is nothing wrong with your prosthetic but as a disabled person you are going to have more bad days than most people”.

Monday evening I was unusually tired and coughing a bit, the dry cough that is characteristic of a Covid infection. It did occur to me that it could be Covid but I’d go to bed early and see in the morning.

Tuesday I felt fine, got to work early as I had a personal trainer coming later in the morning to see if she could do something about my deteriorating mobility. Sometime later this year I’m going to require lower back surgery as two discs have collapsed and are putting pressure on the nerves to my legs but in the meantime I want to try something less invasive and anyway, it’s a Christmas gift from Marianne.

By the evening I’m coughing again and have a sore throat. I’m tired and go to be early. Part of me wants this to be Covid so that I can get it over with. That’s a bit of a weird attitude as I know that it doesn’t mean immunity to future infections. We know a couple of teachers at a local private school who have a Golden Retriever puppy with whom we arrange play dates for Themba our Rhodesian Ridgeback and they have had Covid infections several times. They are fine but others we know who’ve had the infection are struggling with the so-called long Covid. There are no guarantees.

Wednesday morning and the sore throat is still there as is the coughing. I try taking my temperature with a digital thermometer that Marianne was given some years back. Apparently I’m either hypothermic or a corpse but decide I should get checked out anyway.

There’s a clinic that’s opened up within the last year just five minutes from where we live. Marianne took the gardener there when he had Covid last month and was impressed – no queues and cheaper than going to our GP. No waiting for an appointment either.

We arrive and are the only people there. After signing all the required forms we are weighed and blood pressure taken. My systolic pressure (the first one) is a bit high but no figurative eyebrows are raised. Then we are shown through to the doctor’s room.

Marianne doesn’t think she has much of a case and indeed the doctor agrees there is nothing further to be done. He listens to me as I say that if it weren’t for Covid I’d write off my symptoms as just another cold. I can’t read his expression – the mask sees to that – but he thinks a antigen or lateral flow test, as it’s sometimes known, would be a good idea. I don’t have an elevated temperature.

I’m sent to the nurses’ room where I’m told I’m getting an antibiotic injection. We didn’t agree on this but I go along with it. Little do I know but he’s also written out the prescription for the cortisone and rest of the antibiotic in pill form. It seems the antigen test is a formality. A laboratory technician takes the swab for the antigen test from the back of my brain, well that’s what it felt like, but my eyes are running too much too see if there’s any brain tissue on the end of the swab. The test results arrive as I get to work and I’m not surprised to see it’s positive. I get some information off the computer in my office and head home.

By the time I get home Marianne has moved me into the spare bedroom and I have exclusive use of one of the bathrooms. Given that I’m nearly two days into the infection I probably only have another day or so where I’m infectious but we have to play it safe. Marianne doesn’t seem overly concerned. I sleep most of the afternoon. Themba, our Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, is delighted to have access to a bed with me on it. He’s not normally allowed onto the bed in the main bedroom if we are on it as Roxy, Marianne’s Ridgeback, has determined that it’s her territory and will tell him so in no uncertain terms which causes a lot of yelping from Themba and anxiety from Marianne. I do notice that he’s farting a lot.

My throat is sore but ordinary supermarket throat lozenges ease the symptoms. The coughing is another issue. I must not start. If I do a coughing fit follows and it takes a lot to control it. My asthma pump does ease the symptoms but it can be over-used and will cause tachycardia (a racing pulse). I’m well aware of this from many years ago when farming in another part of the country and eventually the local GP had to put me onto cortisone to control the asthma. At the time he told me that the area was known to be bad for asthmatics but I wonder in retrospect if it had something to do with the chemicals we used to spray the flowers. It’s best not to start coughing if I can, but lying down seems to aggravate it.

Thursday I manage to achieve nothing which is just as well as that’s what I feel like doing. I don’t feel bad, I don’t feel great. I’m eating normally so it’s just as well my taste is unaffected by the virus. I have no desire to drink any alcohol. By late afternoon I’m feeling tired again but no so much so that I cannot help with Themba’s training. He’s coming on really well and will sit, stay, lie, jump up on a log, recall, touch a hand, leave a treat, look at my eyes on command and is walking well with Marianne. Treats are necessary to ensure compliance though. No treat = not a lot of interest. I suggest we start teaching him to track.

Thursday night starts early again. Themba decides at 4 a.m. that he needs to go outside with lots of restlessness and theatrical yawning. It doesn’t bother me as I can catch up on sleep anytime and Marianne would prefer he did his business outside whatever the hour. We go back to sleep after the interruption – at least it’s take care of the farting for the moment.

This morning the sore throat is gone. A pity in a way because I quite liked the lozenges. I seem to recall as a child stealing them out of the medicine cupboard at home in place of sweets (candy) that was strictly rationed. The lethargy (or is it fatigue?) is still there and the coughing is no better. I will go back to the clinic next Wednesday which will be the requisite 10 days after symptoms started and get another antigen test done. If it’s negative I should be able to get back to work. In the meantime I have my phone and can get messages delivered via one of the foremen who stays in a room on our property. I’ve noticed in the past that the business runs just fine without me provided there are no emergencies such as broken boreholes and pumps. Even those I think can be dealt with remotely if I have to.

Themba is still farting. It’s amazing the volume of noxious gas a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy can produce. Well, he’s not that small anymore at nearly five months old. I sincerely hope he grows out of it.

Themba – more gas than a blimp