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




The urban owl

4 02 2022
A bedraggled urban owl

“Did you see the owl?” the office lady asked.

“Owl?” I repeated, envisaging someone dressed as an owl. It was after all three o’clock in the afternoon and not dark not withstanding the downpour in which I’d been caught. I must have looked rather blank because she flapped her arms in a bird imitation and said, clearly enjoying my confusion;

“Yes, an owl. Whoo, whoo”.

I hadn’t see it but given the intensity of the downpour I wasn’t going to step back outside to have a look. Apparently it was a captive-reared owl that had for some reason, that I was not told, taken up residence in the shopping centre not far from where we live. Initially it had tried to cadge food off passing pedestrians and its former keeper had, on occasion, called past to feed it. Now it was independent but still habituated to humans.

I had just been to the bank to see if I could exchange a rather grubby stack of US$5 notes for large denominations and to my surprise they hadn’t balked at the state of the notes and changed the lot. For a price of course. It would be the next day before the deduction of 3% for changing the notes appeared on my statement and of course it was not just a simple exchange as one would expect in a First World country. Oh no.

I had to deposit the cash into my company’s foreign currency account (FCA) whereupon the government took 20% and paid back the equivalent at the official rate to my company’s local currency account. This was done at the official Reserve Bank rate of 105 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar. The “street rate”, i.e. what you’d pay anywhere else to buy US dollars, is double that. So yes, just for changing money I’d devalued it by 13%.

However, whilst the teller was counting the money, I spotted a bundle of new USD$1 notes in his drawer. Now small US notes are indeed rare again, just as they were in the halcyon days back in 2009 when we started flirting with the greenbacks and “dollarized” stopping the multi-billion percent inflation in its tracks and ditching the Zimbabwe dollar. At the time we thought it was a permanent solution. Sadly it was not to be. Yes, small denomination dollar notes are sought after again and worth paying for. My business does not do a lot of transactions in cash but having change helps keep the walk-in customers coming and over the month it adds up. So I got the entire bundle.

As I stepped out of the bank it started to rain but it didn’t look like it would amount to much so I started up the slope out of the mall. It soon became intense and I sought shelter under an umbrella by an estate agent. It wasn’t long before I was invited in and offered a cup of tea. The staff were friendly and promised that the tea came without an obligation to buy a house.

After half-an-hour of scanning house prices the rain eased and it was time to go. I stepped out of the office, looked up under the eaves and there was the owl. Bedraggled.





Who’ll start the rain?

5 12 2021
Part of last season’s bumper harvest of maize, though these are heirloom maize seeds used for ornamental and breeding purposes.

Last year most of the country experienced good rain with some regions receiving record falls. This was largely influenced by a strong la Niña effect. We, in the suburbs of Harare, were not among them and recorded a sub-normal rainfall. This year the whole country is dry and rains are late despite there being another moderate la Niña effect off the coast of Ecuador. We had some good rain in the middle of November, pretty much when we expect it to happen, but nothing since. The maize that was planted with the rains has germinated but is going to be stressed in the heat of this coming week.

As the owner of a commercial seedling nursery I am not that keen on getting rain on the seedlings in what amounts to perfect conditions for disease to spread. Accordingly we make use of what are known as Colombian greenhouses which are a simple structure of poles that support a plastic sheet which keeps the rain off the seedlings. In winter part of the nursery has plastic sheet sides put in to assist the cold sensitive crops but most goes without – we have a relatively mild climate and frost is rare around the nursery. But we do need rain to replenish the boreholes (wells) that we pump for the seedlings.

This year both of the existing boreholes had to be restricted – the run-dry electronic protection system kept turning them off and we were struggling to keep up with use. The new borehole that was drilled is not great. There are some very big housing developments not far from the nursery that will almost certainly negatively impact on the ground water table in the foreseeable future and the rainfall has become increasingly unreliable. Last year, whilst most of the country received record rainfall and excellent maize harvests, we receive some two thirds of what we’d normally get, whatever “normal” means these days.

The staple food of Zimbabwe, and much of southern Africa, is maize (or corn as the Americans call it). It is a poor choice for a region beset by drought – the millet family is far better adapted to the dry conditions but to say that Zimbabweans are besotted by the mealie crop, as it’s known locally, is a fair assessment. Come the first rain every square metre of available ground in the urban area is tilled with enthusiasm and planted. The crop is tended with passion thereafter. Even the few seeds planted from the handful in the above photo have received extra attention in our veggie garden courtesy of our gardener. One of my foremen cynically commented that most of the urban-grown crop stolen but nobody lets that deter them.

The crop itself is not great food. It’s mostly carbohydrate and to make matters worse it’s preferred refined where the germ, which is the most nutritious part, has been removed. It’s then cooked into a stodgy mass of “sadza” and eaten with relish, gravy and meat. I have to admit it does taste good with a stew but I avoid it, and most other carbohydrates, as part of my weight control programme.

At the time of writing the next rain showers can be expected in a week’s time. This has gradually moved back over the past week. Some of my seedling customers are delaying planting their crops until the rain arrives. Most are not dependent on the rain for irrigation, that would be foolhardy in this climate, but I do grow a lot of gum trees for a regular customer and their programme is too big to irrigate. So we must all wait and I watch the water running into the main reservoir with concern.

This month’s ENSO forecast courtesy of Columbia University





Gentleman John

21 11 2021

“Look what I’ve been given” Marianne said.

I turned around to see her admiring a large bunch of mainly red roses; she was positively purring.

“I got them from John” she added.

“Because you are my guardian angels” enthused John as a way of explanation. “Thank you for thinking of me”.

I told him that we had thought of him because he does good work which was quite true. He has cut out a number of diseased trees for us over the past five years and always does a good job and is reasonably priced to boot. And of course he is a gentleman too. So I had to think of a way to “get him back” so to speak. More about that later.

We turned out attention to the avocado tree in question. It had grown very big so the only way to get avocados off it was to wait for them to fall. Avocados don’t do falling well, especially from eight metres, and whilst they were not bad as humble grown-from-a-seed fruit of this type are, there are definitely better around. The plan was to cut the tree back to three stems, wait for new shoots to grow out, and then graft on several known cultivars that I like and get a tree that can produce for some 6 months or more.

I showed John where I wanted the main stems cut and with yet more thank yous for thinking of him he got to work.

Our president, E. D. Mnangagwa, or just ED as Zimbabweans know him, is not much like John. He has been at the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow. Not one for scrimping on costs or being environmentally conscientious he took along 100 sycophants in a specially chartered jet. Technocrats were left behind in favour of party buddies. Judging by the videos on social media they know how to party too.

An address by ED to a nearly empty auditorium was picked up by the press, and whilst not that unusual at that time slot, plenty of mileage was got. Apparently ED has committed us to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Details on how this would be done were omitted. One social media wag commented that since the land invasions of the 2000s the destruction of the economy has already achieved the 40% reduction target – we just have to be careful the economy doesn’t grow. That shouldn’t be too difficult – the current regime is only interested in self-enrichment. He also made claims that the sanctions to which he and other party bigwigs are subjected are stifling Zimbabwe’s economy and hamstringing our economy. One of his sons recently imported, by air, a Rolls Royce car valued at some US$500,000.

The local Zimbabwe dollar continues to lose traction in the economy. ED has buckled to the war veterans’ (loosely defined as those who supported the nationalists in the civil war of the 70s) demands that they get their pensions paid in US dollars. The civil servants saw this as an opportunity and made the same demand which was flatly refused. In other countries it would be unwise to anger one’s voter base but in Zimbabwe elections are predetermined so it’s not a big issue.

Our gardener comes from the rural north of the country and he says that there the US dollar holds sway – don’t bother offering local dollars. My senior foreman comes from the east and there the local dollar is still acceptable in some situations. While it’s not illegal to price in US dollars it is illegal to convert it to the local equivalent at anything but the official rate which is determined by the central bank’s (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) daily auction rate. Senior figures at a local company were charged for this infraction and I have noticed that signs claiming the rate of exchange used in their outlets became prominently displayed. Everyone else is ignoring it and the black market rate continues to climb. It’s now around 200 local dollars to 1 US dollar whereas the official rate is 105.

We paid Gentleman John in US dollars because we do like him and he does a good job, this one was no exception. My revenge on him giving him Marianne roses was to give him a bar of Lindt chocolate for his wife who I hoped would to ask why. I haven’t heard back.