The brick is back

7 05 2023
The bundles of 500 notes in bank wrappers were commonly known as bricks in 2008. Now it’s 2023 and they’re back!

The senior foreman said the customer wanted to pay in Zimbabwe dollars, cash, were we going to accept them? We didn’t have much of a choice as it is legal tender so I said yes and asked how much it was. 67,000 he replied. I groaned knowing they would be in small denominations. The biggest, $50, is worth all of US2.2c so I knew there would be quite a few bundles but the majority were $20 notes. We filled a medium-sized box.

Quite a few were in bank-sealed plastic bags of 500 notes which were called “bricks” back in the hyper inflation days of 2008. We didn’t bother counting them then and didn’t bother now. Back in those days the government attempted to get around the problem by printing ever larger denomination notes (an example is in the picture). Our inflation now is not quite that bad but anyway, local currency notes have largely been superseded by electronic money. It’s very easy to add zeros onto electronic money.

The other currency in Zimbabwe that is also legal tender is the US dollar. Having nothing to do with the government it is by far the most preferred. Although the government tries to set the exchange rate and can prosecute those not using it there is an easy work-around. It goes like this: the official rate is 1,097 Zimbabwe dollars to US$1 and with a few exceptions, fuel being one of them, businesses have to quote their prices in the local currency. On the unofficial market the rate is currently around 2,200 to one US dollar depending on to whom one is talking. Businesses price their goods in the Zimbabwe dollar and then offer a fat discount if you want to pay in US dollars – this effectively brings the official rate up to the unofficial one and it’s completely legal. Many businesses don’t bother with the official rate and just quote the unofficial one. My business is one of them and so far there hasn’t been a comeback.

There is a sense on around town that the unofficial rate is running again and people are offloading their Zimbabwe dollars. I sent the driver into town the day following the above deposit to get rid of the cash. In reality it was about US$30 so didn’t go far but I managed to find a fertilizer company accepting them and topped up with a bit of electronic money in the form of a debit card we managed to get a meaningful amount of agricultural chemicals bought.

The government is of course also looking for a dependable currency and has hit on tax as the easiest way to get in US dollars. All US$ cash deposits are levied at 20% and the government reimburses the amount in Zimbabwe dollars – at the official rate! This means that in reality the recipient can be losing 10% or more of the deposit in real terms. Exporters are levied 40% of the amount remitted to their forex accounts. It gets better; 3% of all USD cash withdrawals from a bank are taxed. While one can still pay car licence fees and other government levies in the local currency the sense is that it cannot last.

The local Reserve Bank has an idea to shore up the local currency; digital tokens backed by gold. It won’t work – the population’s trust in the government has long since evaporated. There is nothing new about digital currency in Zimbabwe but my staff for one will only be interested in the greenback.

Med-tech Zimbabwe style

5 04 2023
Zimbabwean medical technology can be surprisingly advanced – if you can afford it. This is a Holter ECG recorder.

“Enjoy getting the sensor off your chest” the nurse said and smirked. I didn’t share the humour and suspected this was why she said that shaving my chest before attaching the Holter ECG was unnecessary. At least she had a sense of humour.

I was strongly beginning to suspect the whole exercise was a waste of time and a not inconsiderable amount of money. The specialist physician who’d done the ECG and echo cardiogram had already said that all was normal as far as he could see and that only the MRI angiogram scheduled for the following week might show something. I left $810 poorer.

Last Friday morning at 4 a.m. I had to get up to go to the bathroom. When I got back to bed I asked Marianne what the bandage on my left ankle was for. It has been there four months for an ulcer. Not surprisingly she was concerned. The next three hours were a blank for me but apparently I repeatedly asked about the bandage and looked at my computer programming work and apparently recognized it. I have a vague recollection of asking who my doctor was and where the practice is located (which I have been visiting for years). When we visited the GP later that morning I asked Marianne to come with me just in case I missed something (not that I’d have had a choice!). We emerged 20 minutes later, blood sample taken and with a long list of tests to be done. It looked expensive.

Access to the Zimbabwe medical system requires a subscription to medical insurance and frequently quite large sums of cash as US dollars. The latter is often referred to as a “co-payment” which is another way of saying that “you pay us up front and then claim back from your medical aid/insurance company as we don’t have the patience to deal with their habitually late payments”.

First appointment was with a technician who was working out of his home with an EEG in his spare room/office. He told me that I most certainly had not experienced a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) otherwise known as a mini stroke and relieved me of $200. I noticed that he was fond of his dog so forgave him – mostly.

I haven’t seen the test results for the 72 hour Holter ECG yet but I guess they will arrive in due course. The record sheet that I had to fill in detailing any “out of the ordinary” experiences I left blank. There weren’t any.

Yesterday was the turn of a MRI-A (A is for angiogram) in my brain. I had to get there at 7.30 in the morning and forgoing my morning coffee – MRIs have a way of going on for a long time and I suspect the operators would have been unimpressed if I said I needed to use the toilet – I headed out early taking a big mental breath to deal with the morning traffic. It was all a non-event. I arrived early and one of the staff agreed that the traffic was unusually light. The MRI machine was new and made by Canon, the camera manufacturer. It only took 30 minutes then I was off to the Doppler ultra-sound of my neck vessels at another clinic occupied by the same company in another part of town.

They relieved me of $105 (yes, all fees were mentioned in advance and nobody mentioned the local currency – US dollars only) and then after a short wait it was into the examination room. I could just see the screen placed on the opposite wall for my convenience. The technician was not very communicative but did say he could see no problems. The machine made all the right heart noises too.

Now I have to go and see a specialist physician after the long Easter weekend. He will take $100 (he’s seen me before else he would take $200). He has a bit of a dour reputation but was also my physician for the back surgery a year ago and was very kind not charging for hospital visits once he knew I’d been injured in the Rhodesian bush war. “Because of people like you Mr Roberts, people like me got to go to medical school”.

I do have another off-shore medical aid scheme based in South Africa which will reimburse at least some of the costs. However they will only pay what the procedure or tests cost in South Africa which is often considerably less than in Zimbabwe. I’ll have to wait and see.

So what was it that I experienced? My sister-in-law Jane, who lives in the UK and is a better Googler than me, sent me this link which accurately describes it. It’s called TGA or transient global amnesia. It happens, it’s not serious and there’s nothing one can do about it.

On the way back from the gym this afternoon I drove past the local municipal clinic. Once a part of the primary medical care system designed as a first port of call for the average Zimbabwean citizen without access to medical insurance it is now nearly derelict. The gates don’t shut, there was one vehicle parked inside and not a soul to be seen. The last time it was used was for Covid vaccinations and that was sponsored by the WHO and other agencies.

A letter to America

5 02 2023

Hi Robin,

Our weather has become increasingly erratic over the last 15 years or so. I put it down to climate change. Right now we are in the middle of a relatively normal rainy season. That means that the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone) moves over the country and it rains –  quite a lot. Most of our rains happen from mid November to the end of March which in Harare means some 700 to 800mm. The rain can be quite intense –  we had 75mm (3 inches) in several hours last week which meant all the rivers around town were up and one of the reservoirs that supplies town was spilling. As a country we’ve had good rain for the last 3 years due to the la Niña effect though it has been quite variable over the country and Harare, which is in a high rainfall area, received less than average. We are due for a drought and I see that there is a el Niño predicted later in the year which is a reliable indicator.

There’s rain around as I type this and yesterday afternoon we had quite a storm with high winds and hail and of course the power went off. It’s still off but we are geared for this eventuality and have solar panels and two lithium batteries to get us through the night. Power outages for other reasons, mainly incompetence and over-use of Lake Kariba as a hydro source, are common so everyone who can has a solar backup plan. Solar water heating makes a lot of sense in our climate so we have three solar heaters, one for us, one for the cottage tenants and one on the domestic employee’s rooms. In the cloudless, hot days of August and September the water can easily boil.

The complete Zimbabwean domestic survival system: visible are two solar water heaters, two solar panel systems and rainwater collection into tanks and a swimming pool.

I see your weather has been erratic too. Mt Washington in the north-east of the USA hit a record -70C a few days back and Europe had an unseasonably warm Christmas. It seems that California has had some heavy rains too; the default weather app on my new iPad is set to the Apple headquarters in Cupertino and they had flood warnings out recently.

Planned, and I use that word loosely, power outages are called “load shedding” in this part of the world. Towards the end of last year it was announced that Lake Kariba, which is our major source of hydro power, had got to it’s minimum level permitted for generation due to over-use by the Zimbabwe power authority and load shedding would become a daily occurrence. We have another major thermal power station at Hwange in the west of the country but it has become a byword for mismanagement and cannot take up the shortfall. We also import a lot of power from Mozambique and South Africa but have managed to get into a lot of debt so the aforementioned countries are fed-up and restricting our supply. South Africa has its own power supply issues (again due to mismanagement by the state-run utility) and is also imposing load shedding but at least it sticks to a schedule. In Zimbabwe the power generally goes off in the suburbs about 6.30 a.m. and comes back on around 10 p.m. Businesses are not exempt either and incur heavy costs due to diesel generators. It’s not unusual for some to run just on night shifts.

Our swimming pool was an early casualty of the power cuts. It’s essential to keep the filter running which the solar panels can do on a sunny day but those are rare in the rainy season so it’s more green than clear these days. Marianne was muttering about the cost of more chemicals to try and clear it. I pointed out that we could always fill it in but it wouldn’t be a cheap procedure and then we’d lose some 70,000 litres of stored water that would be very useful in a drought. We have decided to live with it being more green than not (it is covered over in winter when not in use).

The book you asked about is, I think, “The Shackled Continent” by Robert Guest who was an Africa correspondent for The Economist for a number of years. I found it fascinating and very insightful. Maybe I should read it again.

My business muddles along. I have a lot of outstanding debtors and it’s not so simple as insisting that they pay up front for their orders. I hate having to get nasty but it may eventually come to getting professional debt collectors in as I need to get the money to pay for imports of the coir “peat” raw material that we use to grow the seedlings. I obviously cannot use Zimbabwe dollars but fortunately I did invoice in US dollars which once again is becoming the currency du jour. The government is still trying desperately to keep the local dollar alive but with an official exchange rate of 740 to the US dollar compared with a “parallel”, i.e. street, rate of 1,100 to the dollar, it doesn’t have much of a chance. The local currency is still used, and has to be offered, as a payment method but most outlets make it very attractive to use the US$ by offering massive discounts . Government departments don’t do this so get paid almost entirely in local currency which means they are perpetually in financial difficulties – hence the disastrous state of the power supply, roads, rail links and anything else they are involved in. Am I making sense?

The government is also trying to stifle speculation on the currency markets by lending money at vast interest rates, 110% in November 2022, which makes doing business very difficult and one of the reasons that I use to explain why my business is so flat. The other is the proliferation of competition, often informal, which cut lots of corners allowing them to undercut my prices. Their quality is dismal but people either don’t care or see it as an acceptable consequence of the cheap prices. My prices haven’t changed in four years despite the rising costs of inputs in real (US dollar) terms. It doesn’t make for attractive business. Curiously the construction business is booming with cluster homes (small, single level apartments – several to a property) and other developments being built throughout the suburbs. Quite where the money is coming from I cannot ascertain – but in an economy as moribund as ours it’s almost certainly dirty.

Yes, us Zimbabweans are a resourceful lot and I guess in that respect Diana remained true to her heritage. My workroom/office is full of junk that I cannot throw away just in case I find a use for it in years to come. It must be a hold-over from the days when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and under sanctions so nearly everything that could be was recycled. It’s probably an attitude of my generation rather than today’s “youngsters” – I drive past a municipal rubbish tip on the way to work and there’s never a shortage of trucks pulling in to offload. I suppose people do make a living out of recycling here though it’s not as fashionable as in the developed world. An elution plant (recycling gold from electronics) has recently been constructed at the former rubbish dump. It’s also not unusual to see carts being pushed around the suburbs and having one’s gate bell being rung by the owners looking for scrap metal.

I guess our “big” news for this year is that we’re going over to the UK in May to attend a rock concert! I’ve never been to one as standing for a long time in rowdy crowds is obviously not possible for me but this is Mike & The Mechanics who are not as popular as they used to be so seating is an option. Time to tick off the bucket list.

Then we are going to stay on the Cote d’Azur with an old girlfriend and her husband for four days. Apparently we’ll be quite close to St Tropez. Marianne is keen to go and see how the ultra-rich live but I may give it a miss. Really looking forward to it and we’re brushing up our rudimentary  French in anticipation.

Well, on that positive note I’ll sign off and wish you all the best for this year. Forget the snow shoveling, go skiing and may it be exceptional.



Note: this is a genuine reply to a friend in Washington State U.S.A. who was a good friend to my sister Diana, and helped look after her in the terminal stage of her cancer three years ago.


30 12 2022
A female Amur falcon with a broken right wing is handled by the resident vet at Birds at 30

She was tragically beautiful and very frightened, fluttering in blind panic with a wing that just wouldn’t work to get her off the ground. Recognizing that the dogs would very likely kill her I reversed back up the track to where Marianne was following with the dogs. Quickly she loaded the dogs into the back of the truck and we took a cover off a mattress and Marianne soon had her trapped in the makeshift bag and the walk could resume.

Over breakfast I contacted various people known to take in injured birds and established that Birds at Thirty, a place I’d never heard of, was the place to take her. It was easy enough to find behind an imposing brick wall and massive gates some 10 minutes from where we live.

I thought I’d arrived at some luxury hotel but the visibly amused receptionist said no, it was the headquarters for Spar Zimbabwe (a local supermarket franchise). I was met by one of the bird park assistants and directed to the veterinary office.

Hilton examined her whilst I told him the circumstances of the find. Initially he was quite positive saying he didn’t think the break was too bad, then he changed his mind.

“She’s bleeding at the joint so it’s an open fracture I’m afraid. I’ll give her some strong antibiotics and strap it up and we’ll see what develops. We may have to get the wing removed.”

“What’s your policy in situations like these?” I asked.

“Well that depends on whether I think our visitors can learn from seeing a bird like this” he replied.

“So do you get quite a lot of school visits?”

He told me that the birds were originally a private collection and anyone was welcome to come and enjoy them (you need to book). They were certainly very much in evidence, swans on a small lake and peacocks strutting around. Schools visited regularly. And I had never heard of the place!

“It also depends on the wishes of the person who brings the bird in” he added.

“Well, I’ll leave that to you” I said, ducking responsibility.

“I don’t see much point in leaving it to spend the rest of its life in a cage” he warned me.

“Well, we’ll have tried” I responded. “Please let me know what you decide”. And I left to get on with my day.

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