The spiders are just fine – thanks

1 04 2020

The spiders are thriving – not a great photo though

The spiders are thriving in the nursery. It’s a long time since I’ve seen that many that fat. Well, I should qualify that last statement; the females are that fat, the males are as skinny as usual – probably all that escaping being eaten by the females that keeps them slender.

I am genuinely pleased to see all these spiders. It means there’s plenty for them to eat and that means our policy of using softer chemicals in the nursery is working. There have  been years in the past when the spiders never appeared (they are common golden orb spiders and harmless) which I put down to poor rains and a lack of prey. Curiously our rains have again been poor but the spiders haven’t noticed that, yet. Maybe there’s a lag phase but we’ll have to wait for this time next year to find that one out.

We are also going to have to wait a while to see how the covid-19 virus impacts us as a nation. Officially we are on a 21 day shutdown to reduce the transmission rate. It’s not likely to be that effective. On my way to work I didn’t notice much evidence of reduced activity and no police road blocks enforcing travel restrictions. It’s not a busy route at the best of times but there was still a long queue at the filling station and the usual amount of traffic up the short 4 km road past the rubbish tip which was quiet but still accepting waste removal vehicles. I was traveling legally as we are considered an essential enterprise and I needed to check up on our skeleton staff who are keeping the plants alive whilst there are no customers around.

The government did come up with a comprehensive legal document to enforce the lock-down remarkably quickly – I suspect it was largely copied from the South Africans who are enforcing their own lock-down. There’s nothing wrong with that and we do share the same type of law. Their other responses have been less well thought out.

The Zimbabwe public healthcare system is in a mess (see previous post A state of health ) with 7 known ventilators available to treat a population of some 11 million. So far as we know there’s been one fatality due to covid-19, a high profile local radio/TV presenter from a wealthy family. Relatively young at 30, Zororo Makamba was admitted to the local Wilkins infectious diseases hospital where facilities proved woefully inadequate. By the time the family had sourced their own ventilator from South Africa it was too late. Apparently he had contracted the virus on a recent trip to the USA and also had underlying health issues.

Testing kits are also inadequate. As of writing there have been 165 tests performed which accounts for the low apparent infection rate; just 5 positive so far. Strive Masiyiwa, local media mogul and sometime philanthropist, apparently took out newspaper adverts saying that his company would buy or lease ventilators from people who might have them on hand. Right, let me just go and dust off the one in the garden shed that I bought some years ago and stored for just this scenario.

While the direct health impact is still some time away the financial impact has already hit. Flower exporters have had to dump tonnes of flowers that cannot be exported due to airline shutdowns and are unlikely to be sold even if they could get them to Europe. Local vendors who rely on daily sales of produce have also been shut down. They must already be feeling hungry. We’ve had a large order of avocado trees cancelled, no doubt because the customer, who sells other fresh produce, cannot move the stock they have and cannot pay for the order. The financial cost to the country is going to be staggering. That the economy is already staggering under a burden of government incompetence and corruption will make it all the more difficult to endure.

The governor of a province to the north-west of Harare has taken matters into her own hands and is at least preparing in a way for the virus crisis. She sent out an email to local farmers for any medical supplies that included, among other things, boots, gloves, masks, body bags and quick lime. Why farmers would have body bags I cannot imagine or why they would feel any need to donate anything to a government that has done nothing to make their lives easier astounds me. I know this because a friend who farms in the area has become a de facto information hub and I’m on his emailing list. He’s also had a torrid time trying to stay on his farm and be productive whilst various fat cats try to evict him under the aegis of the previous government’s land reform programme.

While the covid-19 storm gathers the government has take the opportunity to ditch the ill fated Zimbabwe dollar. We can now legally trade in any currency we like (usually US dollars), again. The reason they gave was to mitigate the effect of the covid-19 on the economy. I think it was convenient to ditch the non-performing currency before it’s devaluation became, once again, a world recognised standard. They have stipulated that the exchange rate is fixed at 25 local dollars to the US but nobody is taking much notice of that when the parallel rate is 43:1.

On driving out of the nursery to come home I had to wait for a minibus to pass. It wasn’t supposed to be on the road during the lock-down,  that privilege belongs to the government owned ZUPCO buses which are apparently enforcing stricter hygiene standards.  I’m not sure what these standards are – it certainly won’t include social distancing given the seating arrangement. The seating philosophy on that minibus and others is pack them in, as many as possible. This has meant that I’ve decided to reduce work hours so that the majority of the labour who live within walking distance can avoid this virus highway and walk or cycle. It also means that they don’t get the transport allowance but hopefully we can do a bit to reduce the disease impact on my business.

Will we make it through the coming storm? I think so, we are semi-essential as witnessed by the rush on vegetable seedlings in the days prior to commencement of the lock-down. It is uncharted territory for us. The spiders of course will come and go as spiders do, influenced by the weather and factors other than covid-19. But for the moment they are doing just fine, thanks.

 





A state of health

16 03 2020

Lots of hardware holding my neck together

This is my neck. It doesn’t look pretty but with this amount of hardware holding it together it’s pretty strong. Quite how it got to be such a mess is a long and convoluted saga but it’s worth telling if only to warn just how badly wrong surgery can go.

In 1977, just before I was to start my compulsory military service, I went on holiday to South Africa with my sister and friend of hers and the friend’s brother. We met up in Pietermaritzburg where my sister was at university and made our way to the east coast of South Africa to a small town called Uvongo. We found the campsite and quickly pitched camp. I made my way to the beach whilst the others went shopping.

The surf on the South African coast can be big as there are no reefs offshore so it helps to be surf-wise. The tide was out and the body-surfers were making their way out to the bigger waves, diving under the breaking waves and surfacing once they’d passed.

A wave broke and tumbled towards me, I dived as stylishly as I could straight into the sand. My head hit the sand, swiveled to the left and bent backwards and I became a quadriplegic. Coughing seawater I somehow got my head back to the surface and legs and arms started to move again. I staggered a few steps then stumbled back to the shore.

That afternoon I went to see a local doctor. He was in an old cottage in a quiet part of the town and was totally bored. I explained what had happened.

“Squeeze my hands” he told me.

I did.

“Here’s a prescription for some pills that should ease the discomfort in your right shoulder”.

“So I’ve pinched some nerves in my neck?” I asked.

“Yes, something like that” came the reply.

And that was it.

20 years later and whiplashes to the neck in a military parachuting jump, a car accident and a mountain bike accident, I was in trouble. I’d had crippling migraines since leaving university. Now I had electrical like nerve pain in my shoulders to boot. It was time to see a neurosurgeon.

The same surgeon who’d fixed my spine after gunshot injury sustained during military service way back in 1979 put the MRI film of my neck up onto the light box. He’d done a good job then so I had a lot of faith in him.

“That’s giving you headaches” he said, pointing to a very distinct constriction in the spinal cord channel. Even to my untrained eye it didn’t look good.

I mentioned that on a recent trip to Cape Town a local neurosurgeon had fitted me in for a quick consult. He’d said that on the strength of the X-rays that I probably needed surgery although a MRI would be necessary to confirm it (I didn’t have the time for a MRI).

“Why didn’t you get it done in Cape Town?” the Zimbabwean surgeon asked.

“He only fitted me in as a favour” I replied.

I only realised years later that the Zimbabwean didn’t want to do the surgery. By the time the surgery was done some months later I’d discovered the surgeon was 74, certainly not in his prime but he assured me that it was routine. When I walked out of the hospital after 6 days I was convinced the problem was fixed.

After 3 months I had a final consult and all the adverse symptoms were gone.

“Thank goodness” the surgeon said with relief, “I don’t need to see you again”.

We discussed other things for a short while and I went on my way. No follow-up X-ray was mentioned.

By the end of 2009 I was dropping things and my left shoulder had become very weak. I was advised to go to Johannesburg in South Africa. I duly sent a stack of MRIs to the recommended surgeon and the reply was; “You need surgery!”.

Early 2010 found me in Milpark Hospital in central Jo’burg.

“These MRIs are terrible” the surgeon commented. “Do you mind if we do them again?”.

I was not surprised. The machine in Harare was old and the collar for the neck MRI was broken. A plan had to be made Zimbabwe style and the results were indistinct. So I agreed. Fortunately it was covered by my medical insurance.

The next day I was being prepped for sugery when the surgeon came past.

“Those MRIs, it’s a good thing we redid them”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because it’s worse than I thought – it means we are doing the right thing!” came the response.

After 5 hours of surgery I woke up in agony. It went from bad to worse after that.

On the 4th night I woke up in the early hours and couldn’t get my right arm off the bed. My left arm was slightly better and I could just reach the handle on the chain over my bed. The nursing staff were puzzled and insisted it could not be swelling on the operation site as that only happened up to the third night. The surgeon was concerned and redid all the MRIs. He told me that he didn’t see anything he wasn’t expecting to see though the report that got back to the referring doctor in Zimbabwe clearly stated there was swelling, and pressure on the spinal cord, at the operation site. Evidently my body hadn’t read the text books.

The pain eventually subsided but I never got the full function back to my right arm and hand and now have had to become left-handed (with limited success). Weakness to my left shoulder resulted in surgery to it to decompress a pinched ligament but that was not wholly successful and I’ve had to give up swimming as a result.

In early 2014 I was in trouble yet again – falling over my own feet and eventually had to admit I needed two walking sticks instead of the one I’d used for the past 35 years. My GP referred me to Dr. V. He put the images up on the light box and could hardly contain his excitement (beware of surgeons who sense a challenge – they love challenges).

New MRIs were ordered and the news, once again, was bad.

“You need to make a decision soon. This degeneration is moving quickly” Dr. V. cautioned. Unfortunately I’d already booked to go to a bucket list event; a World Horticultural Congress in Brisbane Australia. By the time I got back I was in further trouble so hurried up and booked the surgery.

“This is to stop the rot” Dr. V. said from behind his surgical mask as I was wheeled into the operating theatre. “Anything else you get back will be a bonus”. The procedure went well with no complications and the rot was stopped but there were no bonuses. Dr. V. had been as good as his word.

Recently I went back to Dr. V. for a checkup on the neck and to asses a potential problem with my lower back which is starting to show signs of degradation below the original war injury that I sustained in the Rhodesian military in 1979 (this is accounted in https://gonexc.com/reflections-on-the-first-half-abridged-and-mostly-expurgated/). It was well treated by the standards of the day but now if you look at the X-ray on the left it’s possible to see where one disc has collapsed below the L4 vertebra and I felt that my gait and balance had suffered as a result. Dr. V. wasn’t so sure and sent me off to see a neurologist for nerve function testing.

My lower back. Look for the collapsed disc between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae from the bottom.

I got chatting to the technician who did the actual tests and discovered that he’d tested my hands back in 2009 in the big government run Parirenyatwa hospital. I was curious to know if it was still running as it had closed in 2019 when all the junior doctors had gone on strike over pay so low that they could not afford to feed themselves and get to work. When the government had stone-walled the doctors the senior doctors had also gone on strike in support and they were fired too. A wealthy entrepreneur had offered to pay the junior doctors a useful wage but they replied that even if they could get to work there was nothing in the hospitals to work with – no bandages, syringes, gloves, medication etc.

“The junior doctors were reinstated – well those that hadn’t emigrated were – but the senior doctors weren’t and now there is no-one to run the departments” said the technician. So the hospital remains dysfunctional. Which applies to many hospitals around the country.

Fortunately for me I can afford the local private healthcare system which is adequate for most things. For the more technical I have an offshore policy that I have used in South Africa. The vast majority of Zimbabweans have no health cover at all and no way to pay for any.

I have been out of Zimbabwe for 10 days now, staying in the USA where my sister is very ill. In that time the unofficial exchange rate for the Zimbabwe dollar to the US dollar has plunged from 30:1 to 40:1. Nobody except the banks and government use the official rate (called the interbank rate) at 18:1. It is illegal to use anything but the interbank rate but even a fuel station chain, part owned by the government, is now openly charging US dollars for fuel. Just before I left Zimbabwe I was in a big hardware store in the industrial sites of Harare buying electrical cable for a borehole pump. The customer next to me asked if he could pay for a car battery in US dollars. The till operator nodded and printed out the relevant invoice. At the end of the counter the man operating the in-store bureau de change was asleep. The electronic notice board for the exchange rates on offer indicated the official interbank rates. Nobody was interested as the store was offering the black market rate. Yet the central Reserve Bank and the finance minister continue to trumpet that the economy is on course to de-dollarize i.e. go back to the Zimbabwe dollar.

I read somewhere that the death toll from the economic impact of the current COVID-19 coronavirus is likely to be higher than the direct death toll from the virus itself. Given the disastrous state of the government health system this is difficult to imagine. Large swaths of the population are malnourished and undernourished. Many are immune compromised with HIV and its effects. Should the virus get to Zimbabwe in any substantial force the impact is going to be massive because those most at risk are the old, infirm, malnourished and immune compromised. It won’t be pretty.

 

 

 





Of potholes and corruption

9 02 2020

Tyres supplied, fitted and balanced – price is local money but US$ are accepted!

The road to my work is appalling. In the distant past, when it was in good repair, it was quite possible to go 80km/h along it. No longer. Some stretches are so bad that one needs to slow down to 20km/h or less, especially when it’s been raining which is not a lot this season.

The farming and residential community that resides along the road gets together on occasion and patches up the potholes, usually just with some gravel or clay that doesn’t stay there long but makes the drive a little less tedious. There’s also a fair-sized high density suburb (if one can call it that – it’s closer to the definition of a slum) but they contribute nothing and short of putting up a toll gate there’s no feasible way of getting contributions from the cars and minibuses that ply the route.

The potholes all take a toll on one’s vehicle’s tyres. Mine needed replacing after a mere 60,000km – the tyre man at the service station at the bottom of the road estimated they should have lasted at least 75,000 km if the roads were good. By the time I’d had two punctures in as many days I threw in the towel and went looking for new ones. They are all imported (at least for my pickup size which is pretty common) and foreign currency is something that Zimbabwe has very little of right now. Yes, fixing the road would probably have been cheaper in the long run but our government doesn’t think that far ahead and prefers to pilfer the national exchequer while it can.

The first outlet I tried quoted me $US190 per tyre despite it being illegal to sell anything in Zimbabwe for US dollars. Curiously this does not apply to the passport office which has been directed to ONLY charge in US dollars for urgent passport applications.

The second outlet also quoted in US dollars at $220 per tyre but said I could pay in the local dollars if I wanted to (they are clumsily known as RTGS dollars if electronic or bond notes if actual notes which the government tells us are they same value but they are not – confusing I know) so I opted for that. It didn’t take long and anyway, the company paid for it even if it was a bit expensive so I consoled myself that it was coming off the end-of-year tax bill.

Suddenly, just before Christmas, a road maintenance vehicle arrived on the road with workers and tarmac to patch the potholes. There was much excitement and speculation on the local community WhatsApp group as to who was behind it. Perhaps it was a wealthy resident who’d finally got fed up with the dismal state of the surface?

The answer, which emerged the following day, was typically Zimbabwean. E D Mnangagwa, the country’s president, has a son who was getting married that weekend at a local resort that specializes in weddings and upmarket events. Of course he couldn’t be allowed to drive up a severely potholed road. We didn’t complain too much but the patching was superficial and will not last very long.

This week a post appeared on the community WhatsApp group; someone had sourced ready-to-use tarmac patching bags and would we like to buy 20 for US$380? There were a lot of pledges made and we have yet to see the product which is apparently made in South Korea but we are assured it will appear. I am really not sure how many potholes each pack will patch but I am reasonably certain it won’t be enough.

We had a meeting last year with a local opposition MP for a neighbouring ward and some engineers from the city council. They admitted that parts of the road were beyond simple repair and would have to be completely rebuilt. I mention that he is an opposition MP as we wouldn’t have bothered engagingly with a ruling party MP. It turned out there was little he could do. The engineers informed us that the road was earmarked for repair; “It’s in the top three but we don’t know when work will start on it and funds have been set aside”. Nothing has happened and we are not surprised. Zimbabwe is ranked 158th out of 180 countries by Transparency International in their corruption index – there are more important things on which to spend the public funds, even if it would save money in the long run.

A less direct method of measuring corruption in a country is to look for the proportion of luxury to ordinary cars on the road and it’s very evidently high. Last October on the way back from a vet in another suburb both Marianne and I spotted a new white Lamborghini sports car and I’m told there’s another yellow one about apparently belonging to the son of one of the vice-presidents. Then in December last year a Bugatti Chiron was spotted on the streets of Harare. It is apparently the world’s fastest production car and one of the most expensive at some US$3.4 million. This in a country that cannot afford the most basic of medical supplies to keep the government hospitals open. Yes, we are corrupt! The owner of the car has yet to be identified but I am reasonably certain he won’t be driving it up the road to my work anytime soon.





The odd couple

22 12 2019

One I recognized immediately – it was a crowned crane. I’ve never seen one in this area so was more than a bit taken aback but they are very distinctive birds. Quite tall, elegant as cranes always are and the distinctive yellow gold crown of feathers on the head adding a touch of glamour. It did a little bow to its companion, an attempt at a courtship ritual perhaps, but the companion was certainly not a crowned crane! “Stupid bird” I thought, “she’s not even one of yours”. I passed the binoculars over to Marianne and pointed out the characteristic “crown” of the crowned crane. “And the other one’s a white stork” I added. But there was a niggling thought that there was something not right about its colouring. There was too much black on it for a start and I didn’t often see white storks up close through binoculars. Anyway, we needed to press on – the dogs were getting bored and I didn’t want them to get the idea of chasing the birds.

I was still bothered by the bird I’d identified as a white stork when we got home so I got out the oracle, actually an app on my iPad for Roberts Birds, when I got home. There, on the same page as the crowned crane, was a bird that looked remarkably like the one I’d identified as a white stork – except it was a wattled crane. I was intrigued and more than a bit excited. I hadn’t seen one of these since I was a teenager growing up in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe.

I decided to be cautious; rather than announce to the electronic world that I’d seen a rare bird (they are listed as critically endangered in southern Africa), I’d go back and try and get photos with a good camera and telephoto lens. I was certain about the crowned crane so decided to ask Ant Fynn, who knows about birds, if they were common around Harare. He said no, not at all, since we’d lost a lot of wetland around the city. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself by mentioning the wattled crane as I’m no expert and haven’t seen one for 40 years. So after a brief executive meeting with the managing director of my company, me, we decided that decisive photographic evidence of these birds was far more important than work and I headed out with my trusty Nikon and not-so-big telephoto lens.

Crowned crane on the left, wattled on the right. Despite the size and species difference they did appear to be a pair.

I found them easily enough on a small stock dam some 600m from the morning’s sighting. It didn’t take a moment to positively identify the wattled crane. This time I contacted Ken who is a semi-professional birder and he was as excited as I was. I got the photographic proof, which showed the limitations of my telephoto lens at its limits (I did know that it’s not the best on the market but didn’t realize it was THAT limited), and had to be satisfied with that as the cranes would just not let me close. Curiously they appeared to be behaving as a couple.

Ken was as pleased as I was though he thought they would soon be moving on. The pairs of wattled cranes that bred on the dams of my youth returned for many years to the same site and often used the same nest. They were not often successful; I can still remember the excitement of my parents when a chick hatched and the disappointment when it disappeared prematurely. I think that often otters were responsible for raiding the eggs and any number of other predators could have got to the chicks.

Several of the birding community contacted me over the following days wanting to get the wattled crane on their check list. Asher was particularly pleased as he’d not seen one either since he was a youngster and also commented on their pair-like behaviour as did some others. Was it choice or happenstance? We’ll never know. We didn’t seem them again on Friday’s dog exercising so I guess they have moved on now.

Majestic in flight too. They have moved on. Wattled cranes need around 300ha of suitable foraging area to breed successfully.





60 and the bottle of wine

15 12 2019

A fine red wine blend

Marianne bought the bottle of South African Saronsberg Seismic 2009 red wine about 3 years ago; she had fond memories of it and thought it would be a good wine to put aside for a major celebration. The first occasion we earmarked was Mugabe’s death but when it came it seemed a bit of an anti-climax. He’d become irrelevant and it certainly didn’t create a beacon of hope. The current Zimbabwean president, ED Mnangagwa has seen to extinguishing that one before it could get going. So we moved the goalposts to the day when we would have paid off the bond on the house.

We decided to buy a house in 2016. Like anyone who’s ever rented a house long term you soon realize that you are just putting a lot of money into someone else’s pocket. There were other reasons to invest in a house. In Zimbabwe there is little if any sense in putting money into a savings account. If the government doesn’t steal it, inflation will make it worthless. Banking on the local currency crashing yet again, we decided to pool our hard-earned foreign currency savings,  borrow as much as we possibly could, and buy a house. After 6 months of despondent searching we settled with a house with “potential” (a real estate euphemism for needing a lot of work) and moved into town from the farm where I’d been renting.

The asking price was US$225,000 which we considered fair as the house was filthy and needed a lot of work but had a decent 2 bed-roomed cottage on the property that we reckoned we could easily rent out and help pay off the bond. We could also move into it when a bit older and rent out the main house for retirement income. We could only get a bond for $75,000 of the asking price as both of us were over 50 and we had to pay it off over 10 years. It sounds like a lot but I was banking on the currency losing it’s value as it had in 2008 when people had paid off multi-thousand dollar bonds for the equivalent of a few US cents. I was determined not to lose out again as prior to the 2008 currency crash I’d dithered about buying a house and lost out on a bargain.

Luckily the loan contract stated that the money was valued as US dollars or the dominant local currency of the day. At the time there were a number of legal currencies in Zimbabwe including the US dollar, South African rand, British pound and the local currency called the RTGS dollar if it was in electronic format or the Bond dollar if in cash notes. The latter were officially valued at 1:1 with the US dollar but very quickly started to trade at much less on the black market. Although the bank accounts were officially valued in US dollars it was soon evident that they were valued in local dollars (the reserve bank had made off with the US dollars) and nowhere near 1:1. From the point of view of paying off the house, that suited us just fine and in September I borrowed $14,000 of local money off my own company (it was about US$1,000 at the time) and paid off the bond. Somehow it didn’t feel sufficient enough of an achievement to open the bottle of wine. So we set the new goal as my 60th birthday.

I wouldn’t say that the 10 years since I posted Reflections on the first half have passed quickly but they have been eventful. In December 2016 I married Marianne, whom I met through friends who boarded my dogs whilst I was undergoing neck surgery to stop the rot caused by 2 previous surgeries that had gone badly. We moved in together some time later and I bought her a dog to help with the bonding process. It must have worked as we celebrated our third anniversary recently.

I also bought a new pickup. That’s probably not a big deal to many people who read this but it is the first new car I have ever bought and it was a necessity. My disability had been deteriorating noticeably and on at least 2 occasions I’d missed the brake in my old Mazda pickup. I’d recovered the situation without more than damaged nerves but at some stage there were going to be tears and dents. As a physically disabled person I can import a vehicle duty free with the proviso that it is automatic and of course I had to get a letter from a medical specialist stating the nature of my disability and that I needed an automatic vehicle (some vehicles are assembled in Zimbabwe but they are all manual). I chose to go through a private importer (rather than an official Ford dealer) as they were familiar with the system. Money was paid and after a considerable delay the vehicle arrived, complete with a hand-operated foot brake to ease the drama of stopping. It certainly is a pleasure to drive though not hugely economic on fuel use.

My brother, Duncan, came out from the UK to help celebrate my 60th birthday in the middle of November. Unfortunately my sister, who lives in the north-western USA, couldn’t make it but gave me a present of 3 nights in a cottage in Nyanga in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. We gathered some friends, filled up some containers with diesel (it’s still critically short) and headed off for the 4 hour drive. Whilst stopped at a traffic light in the dormitory town of Ruwa some 20km out of Harare we were enveloped by a cloud of blue smoke. By the time Duncan got out to check it had dispersed but it was definitely ours. The truck computer didn’t indicate any faults but we stopped at the next town and changed the fuel filter, which was dirty. The power loss didn’t improve so in the absence of any warning lights on the dashboard we continued to Nyanga.

The cottage, named Rocky Glen, was at the end of a road in a tree plantation. It was very comfortably furnished and the staff ensured that the log fire burned all day and most of the night which irked a bit as it was not remotely cold. It did add atmosphere for the Saronsberg wine which was very good. Nope, there’s no more 2009 vintage – I have checked their website!

In good Nyanga form it rained, though not so heavily that we couldn’t get out and do things which can be an issue in the rainy season. The road to the Gairezi River was surprisingly good, not least because it has been very dry in that part of the country too. The river was low and dirty from the overnight rain but Duncan was not put off and had a ritual swim. The rest of us watched as the clouds closed in and the rain started.

World’s View. L to R: Marianne, Maria Wilson, Duncan, self, Zak

The next day it was time to leave the quiet and solitude of the Nyanga mountains and head back to Harare and stress. First stop was the turbocharger repair workshop.

The news wasn’t good; a new turbocharger was required from South Africa and the currency was US dollars cash, and no paper trail. Whilst such deals are illegal in Zimbabwe one has to accept that for fully imported one-off items foreign currency will be required. I didn’t really have a choice as it was not a good idea to drive the vehicle and I cannot safely drive manual vehicles. A deposit was paid with precious dollars and in due course the vehicle was fixed after parting with yet more. As of writing this it hasn’t been ascertained what caused the turbocharger to fail but this particular engine is prone to having the turbo fail. Thanks Ford.

Fortunately there had been some rain whilst we were away so the swimming pool (also a makeshift reservoir for rain water collected off the roof) had risen a bit. The borehole has been failing since October and finally became useful only for drinking water in early November so the pool has been tapped for non-drinking water. Finally last Friday we had to buy in water as the pool was very low and the remaining water was more than somewhat dirty. Then the following day the rains returned and we’ve had a good week of some 140mm. The pool is back to two thirds full (about 40,000 litres) and we have 2 rain tanks totaling another 10,000 litres. We are self-sufficient for a while. Municipal water supply is erratic in Harare. We have not had municipal water since we moved in and those that do have it say it’s unusable for anything but watering plants. Lake Chivero, Harare’s main water source, is heavily polluted and the municipality has no money for water purification chemicals.

The Zimbabwe government doesn’t have much money for anything which is not surprising considering they stuff their pockets with whatever money they can lay their hands on. There has been a long running junior doctors strike that culminated in more than 400 being fired. They complained that they didn’t even get paid enough money to get to work and when they did get to work there was little if anything to work with. Those that can have left for other countries and the government has backed down and offered to reinstate the dismissed doctors no questions asked.  A very wealthy Zimbabwean businessman living in South Africa has offered to top up the doctors’ salaries with the local equivalent of US$310 per month but it’s not clear how many takers there have been.

It’s not just the healthcare system in a shambles. Air traffic controllers have also been on strike over poor pay conditions and unsafe equipment. Power supplies are still heavily restricted countrywide. The latter has got to the stage where the government is reportedly considering the nuclear power option.  That they are extremely complex to run doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest – much more challenging than supplying a country with fuel at which they have proved themselves utterly incompetent. Hopefully the cost will keep an African Chernobyl at bay. In the meantime the national supply authority, ZESA, has hedged it’s bets and installed a solar power system in its head office building. Oh the irony.

So what’s it like being 60? Much the same as 59. I did get a set of hearing aids from my brother, courtesy of the National Health Service in the UK. His hearing profile is much the same as mine, though mine is a bit worse thanks to a more extended military service. He just has to pay £50 a piece to replace his “lost” ones. Do they work? Yes. I can now hear the workings of my electric toothbrush but they haven’t cured the persistent tinnitus as I hoped they might. I might be able to get them reprogrammed here but otherwise they will just have to do.

Bette Davis is credited with saying “Getting old is not for sissies”. I know 60 is the new 40 and all that but I think we need a different standard for Zimbabwe. Life here is just difficult regardless of age and of course makes one feel older. Some days I feel like I’m well into my eighth decade (I don’t like to think I’m already into my 7th). Partly it’s a structural issue – an artificial knee is giving a lot of trouble these days and it’s not helped by less than successful neck surgery in 2010 that has exacerbated my disability. Mostly it’s the dismal state of the economy which even our government has said will shrink by around 6% in 2020. The Economist, in its annual predicting the coming year supplement, has predicted it will shrink by around 23%. How can one make any plans in this sort of environment?

I asked Marianne recently if she would opt to stay in this country if we were financially secure. She said probably. I said I would seriously at moving to where I could do the things I really want to namely paragliding. I am now dependent on other people to take off – a critical part of the sport – and there’s only a few people I’d trust to do that. In fact there are about 2 and neither of them are available. One has stopped flying and the other is not interested in helping out – I am seen as baggage. Quite often there is just nobody around interested in going flying anyway – such is the dire state of the sport. France would be good, paragliding is big there and there would always be people around to help and yes, I can get by with the language. Dreams.

Most people at 60 have a retirement plan laid out. No chance of that in Zimbabwe for most people.   There is a national pension scheme but the pensions don’t remotely keep pace with inflation so we are putting as much money as we can into improving the property in the hope that one day we can sell it for real money. So here we stay.

 

 

 





The power is on (for the moment)

7 09 2019

As I write this we actually have mains supply power. According to our neighbourhood WhatsApp group it’s because a dignitary is attending a function at a local sports club. By dignitary I mean someone with political clout. That way they can pretend that all’s well in the power supply situation when the reality is 18 hour power cuts every day. We are in this mess for several reasons, the main one being we have possibly the world’s cheapest power at US3c a unit (kWh). Until very recently it was 1c.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the days when we were using real US$ and nothing else it was around 10-14c a unit and power was plentiful. We could import what power we needed from Mozambique and South Africa and even if the rest of the economy was a mess, which it was and still is, power was there if you needed to use it. Then in 2016 the government decided to introduce another currency called the “Bond dollar” which locals quickly nicknamed the “bollar” or “zollar”. The government insisted it was equivalent to a US dollar and was backed by a bond from the Egyptian Afreximbank and it was there to reduce the problem of small change. It was a lie. There was no bond, those who could withdrew their real dollars from the bank and those who couldn’t watched as the value of their accounts was whittled away by the informal market exchange rate. Eventually the government admitted that the bollar was not equivalent to a US dollar and pegged it at 2:1. The informal market ignored it and the rate soared to 12:1  before the government made it illegal to trade within the country in anything but bollars which were now called new Zimbabwe dollars (though we have yet to see any actual notes). The official exchange rate has now risen to around 14:1 which is why our electricity is ridiculously cheap. We were informed earlier this year that our bank accounts that had been in US dollars were now in Zimbabwe dollars – and so was our real money stolen.

We now owe US$73 million to the power utilities in Mozambique and South Africa with no real hope of paying it back and getting ourselves reconnected (not surprisingly they refuse to continue to export power to us). We need to import power because local thermal generators have been badly neglected because they have not been charging enough for the power (the government regulates power and fuel charges). This means that maintenance has not been done and our main source of hydro power, Lake Kariba, has been over-utilised beyond its design limitations. To compound the mess last season there was poor rains in the main catchment area in north-western Zambia and Angola.

The effect of lack of maintenance cannot be over-estimated. Apart from effeciency loss in old switch gear and old machinery (turbines), transmission efficiency is also affected. Insulators get covered in dust, rain turns the dust to mud which then causes shorts to the supporting structure which heats and cracks the insulator. Local losses are around 12% (I’m told the internationally accepted level is 7%).

The local power utility, ZESA, has embarked on a programme of power cuts or load shedding as it’s known locally. Alternative energy suppliers’ businesses are booming. The Reserve Bank estimates that the diesel fuel import bill has jumped 20% since the power cuts started as people and businesses buy it for their generators – money that could have been put into importing power in the first place.

It doesn’t take a huge imagination to realize what the consequences of these draconian power cuts are going to be. Some of the bigger mines import their own power directly from South Africa but the smaller ones, which apparently are given priority, have to make do. Farmers irrigate their crops in the dead of night when the power comes on, usually between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. but this is often not long enough for a full cycle and I’ve heard of farmers abandoning their winter wheat crops which have demanding irrigation requirements. Tobacco seed sales were down 30% in April but this was as much to do with the government reneging on it’s promise to pay a proportion of the sales in hard currency as a lack of power. The early tobacco crop (tobacco is a major foreign currency earner) does require irrigating and supplementary power sources for the irrigation will likely make an expensive to produce crop excessively so.

Cell phone connectivity is now noticeably reduced as service providers have to rely more on backup power sources – usually diesel generators and the cost of airtime has gone up considerably.

We recently had six days with no power at all – just us and a neighbour across the street. Marianne went into the local ZESA offices to see whom she could get to come and have a look. A technician duly arrived and walked around the property then said he’d go and have a look at the sub-station (which supplies the suburb) and nothing happened. The next day the neighbour tried with no success. By now we were having to throw away food as our solar system couldn’t cope with running the fridge, deep freezes and other appliances and borehole pump 24 hours a day. So I went along to the offices, fully prepared to have to pay a bribe/sweetener to get something done.

I asked for the local manager with whom Marianne had spoken and introduced myself by commenting that we had more in common than he realised – we are both going bald. He laughed and I knew we were off to a good start. After explaining the problem I asked him what the future of our electricity supply was. Without saying anything he pointed to the ubiquitous portrait of the President, E D Mnangagwa, that seems obligatory in government offices. I replied “Please don’t point to that picture and tell me Zimbabwe is open for business”. The occupants of the office found it hugely funny. The slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business” was widely used by ED, as the President is known, in his election campaign.

“Are you and engineer?” I asked the manager.

“I am” he responded.

“So”, I asked him, “what happens when the water level in Kariba gets too low to be used for power?”.

“We turn it off” he replied.

“You mean the whole country?”.

“The whole country” he confirmed.

“Unless we can find some money to import some power. But that’s unlikely to happen so long as we have the world’s cheapest electricity?” I responded.

He nodded to E D’s photo without commenting.

That afternoon our power supply was restored and I hadn’t needed to part with any money – sometimes engagement is all it takes.

I don’t expect that the whole country will be turned off anytime soon. Certain areas in Harare, where we live, seem to be exempt. The grids surrounding the main hospitals and the President’s residence don’t get power cuts. A friend who lives close to the state controlled broadcaster, ZBC, never gets power cuts. Another friend who lives in a rural part of Zimbabwe in the east is on the same line as a senior ZESA executive never gets cuts either. That said I’ve told Marianne that we need to expect ever more draconian cuts – we don’t live near anyone or anything of political consequence.

Some four years ago I was living on a farm close to where I work. It was for me the perfect existence – close enough to town to be convenient but far enough away to benefit from the peaceful countryside. Whenever there was a thunderstorm the power went off and could take several days to get it fixed. I got fed up and bought a small solar system to keep the fridge and deep freeze running. I’ve always been a bit of a geek and liked the idea of a bit of independence from the grid and yes, I got a bit of a fuzzy warm feeling that I was doing something good for the environment.

The system worked well and it was upgraded by two panels when we moved into town. Then earlier this year as the load shedding was introduced the original lead-acid batteries had run their life and needed to be changed. It was evident that the power cuts were only going to get worse so we decided on another upgrade. Foolishly we bought locally manufactured batteries which only lasted 3 months but at least we could pay for them in local currency. The company that sold them to us did admit there was a problem and replaced them but we’d decided to go with an initially more expensive but much longer lasting lithium battery. Yet more photovoltaic panels were added with our closely guarded US dollars and now we have a nearly-off-the-grid system. It’s OK if we get a few hours of mains every night to charge the battery but if it gets to the stage where we’re completely cut off (no important neighbours to please) we are going to have to think of upgrading yet again. It will be money that could have been spent on a couple of really good holidays.

Panels are put onto the structure. Whilst I did most of the welding I had to get a specialist welder in to do the final work

The area where my nursery is has been relatively unaffected by power cuts. The research farm where I used to live is on the same grid and likes to claim some responsibility. I think it’s mostly due to the military barracks just down the road – can’t annoy those that keep the government in power now can we? Whichever it is it’s unlikely the situation will last so just before the recent slide in the local currency I invested in a solar powered borehole system whilst I had the money. Fortunately I have a young friend who has a qualification in solar systems and he helped me put it in by doing the design work whilst I did most of the welding of the structure. We did have to wait a month to get the electrics hooked up as the electrician was simply too busy doing other installations. In a rare moment of common sense the government has removed duty from solar panels and other associated equipment so those who can afford it are scrambling to install systems.

So far our system works fine, weather permitting. It cannot pump all the water we need so we are still reliant on getting at least some power to keep the water tank full and if the power goes off during the day, as it sometimes does,

there is a generator but it can go through 25 litres of diesel a day which of course is in short supply.

The price of power has recently gone up by up to 300% but it is still ridiculously cheap especially since the exchange rate with the US dollar has started to run again. There is no obvious way out of the mess.

The final wiring gets done. The system allowed for the original pump and motor to be used so required specialist knowledge





Mana Pools National Park – taking a break

30 07 2019

We were fortunate recently to be invited to Stretch Ferreira Safaris by the owner himself. I know him from school and he’d extended the kind invitation a while ago and it turned out they had a slack 3 nights at the end of July and could fit us in. The camp is in a prime spot on the edge of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park in the far north-west of Zimbabwe.

It’s certainly Zimbabwe’s glamour national park and not without good reason. The trees are massive, the game is plentiful (usually) and one can camp right on the banks of the big river. Hippos grunt and splash the night away and sunbathe in the day. In summer it’s oppressively hot but winter is cold at night and warm during the day and dry, which is discouraging for the tsetse flies and mosquitoes.

This last season the park had received very poor rains so there was no grass close to the river and a lot of animals had moved off to find better grazing (the browsers were less affected but a lot of tree leaves were out of reach so they’d also moved off). Still, it was a great break from the stresses of Zimbabwean life, absolutely no cellphone reception and we had a great time. Stretch (real name Andrew) promises to get his clients up close and personal with the elephants that he’s known for many years and he didn’t disappoint. Most of the bigger males have names; JB who’s very chilled, The Donald (Trump) who’s bad tempered and Boris (Johnson) who’s a bit of a clown.