The end-of-summer garden

11 04 2021

Aerial view of part of our property and house

It is the end of summer as I write this, the rains have come to and early end, and the garden is drying out and losing the vibrant green. The borehole has sadly not recharged enough to offset the previous 2 years of sub-normal rainfall so already we’ve had to start buying in water. This season’s rainfall was about average at just over 700mm so it’s been a good year for the garden.

We have 3 rainwater tanks of 5,000 litres each so for four months over the rainy season we were self-sufficient and the swimming pool has remained full thanks to the water harvesting system from the roof (blue pipes). We are being a bit optimistic by leaving the pipes in place but for the last 2 years we have had significant rain in April. Curiously we have had municipal water this month, albeit only a trickle, it’s been enough to keep the swimming pool topped up to the point where it can be filtered. It’s not to be relied upon as drinkable so it’s just as well that the borehole flow is good enough to supply drinking water.

That’s Zak lying next to the corner of the kitchen garden. He’s my three-legged Rhodesian ridgeback. You can find his blog here. That’s the remains of a cardboard box he’s lying next to – a dog toy. Not his, he’s so over that sort of thing, but Roxy or Tia’s. They are the others in the Roberts’ pack.

The solar panels we added and then upgraded a year after we moved in. It’s a total of 3,300 W which is more than sufficient to power anything we need during sunlight hours and the batteries can easily carry us through overnight if the day has been clear. The mains power supply is notoriously unreliable during the rains which is also the season of most cloud so we make sure we turn the mains on at night, to recharge the batteries, just in case. We use approximately US$1 a day of mains electricity.

The solar water heater is essential for any household in this climate. It’s so efficient that at this time of year the water frequently boils during the day. We do occasionally have to boost the heat with mains during overcast spells but it’s a comparatively rare occurrence – get one if you can.

Fuchsia on the verandah

Fuchsias, ferns and other shade loving plants thrive on the verandah which we added after moving in. The previous owners had zero interest in the garden and the verandah was just a concrete floor and some ugly walls which came down as soon as we had the money. In Zimbabwe we have fantastic weather (contrasted by an equally dismal economy) so it makes sense to spend as much time outside as possible.

Palms were an early acquisition to block out a very ugly electricity supply pylon. They have grown well and mostly fulfilled their purpose.

The veggie garden was also a new development on a vacant piece of the garden previously occupied by the remains of a car port. The garden shed was a car workshop. Veggie gardens are a bit of a luxury given that we have to buy water in and they don’t like waste water as we found out. Still it’s nice to go into the garden and select a succulent broccoli for supper

Mantis on a rose

Most of the roses came with us from the farm. Unfortunately they don’t always get the attention and water they need but can be spectacular.

A swimming pool was not on the list of essentials when were looking for a property. They are nice to have and I use ours regularly in the warmer months but they are a money sink in chemicals and this one leaks which is a pain. Despite lots of excavation and probing I’ve yet to find a leak. It will have a cover on it soon to reduce evaporation.

The avocado tree is a bone of contention. It doesn’t produce very good avocados and I have the means to top work (graft onto the existing tree) some really good quality cultivars. It means that it must be cut back and then for a few years will cast minimal shade. Marianne is allergic to avocados so she’s only in it for the shade but we have plenty of other trees that we planted after moving in (14 though we have cut down 6 that were in poor health) that are shaping up well.

View of the house looking north

Top amongst these is the Acacia (now Vachellia) abyssinica which has grown at least to 8m in the four years we have been here. We didn’t realize that it had been planted in the soak-away from the servants’ quarters and it grew so fast that it its second year it was knocked flat by a strong wind. A strong pole support for a year saw a full recovery and it’s already showing the flat top growth typical of its common name “Nyanga flat-topped acacia”.

The mulberry tree was inherited. It is prolific in production and growth. The latter is easily controlled by pruning and whilst I do really like mulberries, by the end of the season I’ve had enough. There’s only so many one can eat.

If it weren’t for the cottage we probably would not have bought the property. The main house was not in a good state and we gutted it of the lifting parquet flooring, repainted inside and out and re-tiled the bathrooms. The kitchen is still waiting. The house dates from 1960 and was built by a friend’s father and uncle. The cottage is relatively new and was built by the previous owners for their parents. It didn’t need much renovation and we lease it out. We will possibly use it when we retire and rent out the house. That’s a long way off, one doesn’t retire early (or on time by First World standards) in Zimbabwe unless one is financially secure and we are not.

Sabi Star or Impala Lily (it’s not a lily)

The kitchen garden is the site of an old garden shed in which was stored all nature of old engine oils and unknown substances. We tried using the soil but it had been poisoned so gave up and now everything is in pots or a custom-built flower bed of bricks. It’s home to kitchen herbs, lavender and an assortment of annual flowers.

I’ve always wanted a water feature and so the fish ponds were the result. They were stocked with some small gold fish types and various other fish that I sourced from my friend Gary in the border town of Mutare. There are even some sword-tails that can only have got there by mistake as I didn’t buy them. They are supposedly tropical fish but have proliferated in water that can get quite cold in winter.

A succulent of sorts

The fish ponds are surrounded mainly by aloes and other succulents that are hardy enough to survive with minimal watering. They’d better be hardy as they are not getting much water this coming year.

The main succulent garden (top picture) is situated in a part of the garden that has truly dismal soil. It’s full of aloes and other succulents that must do as they can to survive. Aloes are indigenous to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula so they should be OK. This year they have put on quite a show so far.

A showy cluster of aloe flowers

Sunbirds are nectar feeders and normally love aloe flowers but so far we have seen few. Maybe it’s because the garden has only become colourful relatively recently. We wait and hope.

Cosmos

Cosmos are also left to their own devices in the succulent garden. So far they have managed well. They survive well enough in the wild in the higher rainfall areas of Zimbabwe. Apparently they were introduced in horse feed to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. These were snaffled from an uncollected customer’s order at the nursery. One of the perks of being the boss.

Daisy-of-sorts

This is another uncollected order. It’s a daisy of sorts, we’ll see if it has what it takes to survive in the succulent garden.

Hoverfly on a daisy

Perhaps not surprisingly the insect life in the garden is not prolific and yes, I am frequently looking for photo opportunities. This daisy is something of a magnet for hover flies. Superficially resembling a bee it’s known as a bee mimic of which there are several. I do make an effort not to use “heavy” agro-chemicals on the garden to the point that the roses have suffered so I put it down to the newness of the garden.

The lawn is drying off and will in time go completely brown. It isn’t of course dead – come the next rains it will revive remarkably quickly. The kitchen garden will take a knock but be kept going by the waste water from the washing machine. Other ferns and things on the verandah will be kept alive no matter what. We’ll just have to hope the next rainy season is a good one and recharges the borehole but nothing is guaranteed in this part of the world – especially not the weather.

A gazania in the kitchen garden – fate uncertain.

The neighbours – I haven’t mentioned them. The one to the west has a husband who is a retired international cricket umpire. She makes ends meet by growing veggies for restaurants from the seedlings I supply her. We’ve never met the one to the north but I do have his phone number. I cannot show their gardens for privacy reasons but you’ll just have to take my word for it that there’s nothing illegal going on that I could see which was just about everything from the drone’s vantage point.





Dollar creep

28 03 2021

The Optimist – not and easy state of mind in Zimbabwe these days

Slowly and surely the US dollar is creeping back. It’s perfectly legal, as is the local Zimbabwe dollar, but it’s getting increasingly rare to be quoted prices in them. Even the road tolls, which were always quoted in local dollars, have now stated that prices will be in US dollars though one is welcome to pay in Zimbabwe dollars at the official exchange rate. The road tolls are set by a government body.

Fuel stations are more blunt; only US dollars are acceptable and if paying by a foreign currency bank account you have to be prepared to wait whilst it’s ascertained that it really is real dollars you are using.

A visit to Kaguvi Street in the city area known as “the cow’s guts” (it’s filthy, raucous and vibrant) to source a car part was enlightening. I was offered the piece of radiator hose – not the correct one but with a bit of cutting it would do – and told it was $12 and did I have the exact amount? No, I didn’t but suggested I could use my local debit card for the equivalent of $2. Nobody had suggested that I could pay in local currency even though the debit card machine was in full view.

A couple of uniformed police walked into my office a few weeks ago. They were very polite as befitting the public relations department. My first reaction was that I’d be in trouble for not wearing my mask, even though there was nobody else around. It’s required under Zimbabwe law that a face mask is to be worn anywhere outside the home, including your own car even if you are alone. But they weren’t interested in that. They were after donations in cash or kind for building an office at the Borrowdale (my “local”) police station. I was dumbfounded. I was not surprised that they wanted to replace the ramshackle office that they currently use – it’s very temporary and probably wouldn’t last another rainy season. I asked if they’d approached the “powers that be” for funding. They had and had been told to go out and approach the community. I gave them my usual rant that I already paid tax to this government so why should I pay again? They shrugged and looked embarrassed and asked again if I could give them anything, anything at all would be appreciated.

I asked if they knew what it would cost. An architectural plan and a budget spreadsheet were offered. It all looked professionally done and of course the budget was in US dollars. The total was around $14,000 which I thought was quite a lot for what was being planned but they assured me that they’d got the required three quotes. I wondered to myself whose relative had won the contract but decided to keep quiet. I said I’d think about it and promised to get back to them.

I didn’t have to call back as the next morning they phoned me. I said I’d get them five pockets of cement – one of the perks of a farming company is that just about anything can be put through the books so the aforementioned cement could be listed as an expense and come off my tax bill. What would I get out of it? The police at that station would owe me a favour and that, dear readers, is how Africa functions. Indeed, in the past I’ve got off a traffic speeding fine because the enforcing officer used to get cheap meat from the farm where I lived.

Later the following week when I dropped off the cement some off-duty policemen in plain clothes unloaded the pockets from my truck. I’d witnessed them negotiating some after-hours guarding work with an Indian gentlemen. All the figures were of course in US dollars. I didn’t ask what their government salaries were or what the currency was – stupid question really as it was plainly not enough to get by.

A few local stores still quote in local dollars but they are getting few and far between. Where possible I pay in the local money as the majority of my income is in that currency. Customers do pay in US cash (the local cash notes are as rare as they are useless – the biggest note is ZW$50 which is about US50c) so I hoard it to pay at least part of the wages bill. My company also has a US dollar account that I use for importing raw material. One customer does pay me this way and last week I received about $24,000 for a big gum tree seedling contract that I completed last year. The gum trees will eventually be harvested and used to cure tobacco so the initiative is funded by a levy on tobacco sales which is paid in real US dollars. Hence the fact that it can be used to import materials.

I noticed on Monday that the figure in the nostro account, as the US dollar accounts are known, had been reduced by some 20%. At first I suspected there had been a mistake and somehow the depositor had withdrawn the excess. I decided to ask my bookkeeper who is knowledgeable in these sort of things. “Oh no”, she laughed, “the Reserve Bank have taken 20 percent and given it back to you as local currency. Check your other account”.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing but sure enough, when I checked, there was the money deposited in my Zimbabwe dollar account at the official rate which is some 30% lower than the black market rate. Once again, the government is stealing our hard currency.

Still seething the next day, I mentioned this to my neighbour at work. She was not surprised. Her son is an export agent for fresh produce into Europe and the UK – the Reserve Bank takes 40% out of his account and pays him back in local currency. This is especially problematic as he has to book and pay airfreight in advance and they don’t want Zimbabwe dollars.

At the end of every year, along with various tax obligations, we have to provide to the local tax authority a comprehensive list of income, tax paid, allowances and bonuses of all employees who have paid tax over the course of the year. This is purely a fact gathering exercise – it has no bearing on the tax bill  – but if submitted late one can garner a heavy fine.

I haven’t up until now bothered with a specific wages software package as most of the time I employ 17 permanent staff and an Excel spreadsheet copes just fine. Income tax is calculated and paid on a monthly basis using a system known as PAYE (pay as you earn) and whilst a bit tedious there were only a few people paying tax. However, in 2020 the inflation has run well ahead of the PAYE tax tables and lots of people ended up paying tax who were earning less than USD2 a day equivalent in the local currency. This meant two weeks of sifting through spreadsheets and collating tables and filling in the required ITF16 form. This is not going to happen again so I’ve spent the last 6 weeks writing my own wages software package that will do all that with just a few mouse clicks. Writing the software that does the PAYE was enlightening. No surprise that not only is there a local currency table but there’s also a US dollar table! The tax threshold starts at $2.31 per day with a tax of 20% (less a 46c deduction). If you don’t believe me look here.

“The term “absolute poverty” is also sometimes used as a synonym for extreme poverty. Absolute poverty is the absence of enough resources to secure basic life necessities.

To assist in measuring this, the World Bank has a daily per capita international poverty line (IPL), a global absolute minimum, of $1.90 a day as of October 2015.”

Using the above definition (from Wikipedia), and it is a little dated, it might be fair to say that Zimbabweans start being taxed when they are not quite extremely poor. That’s how desperate our government is.

Of course it needn’t be like this. A report from the Daily Maverick newspaper in South Africa is particularly damning.

“The report focuses on business cartels because these are the vehicles used for state capture. One of the experts we asked to review the report pointed out that normally cartels work to undermine the state. In Zimbabwe, however, they are in league with the highest people in the land. #DemLoot, in the now-famous words of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.” The Daily Maverick

Last week I was chatting to a customer who was looking for advice on what crops he could grow. I gave him my standard spiel on finding a market first and then approaching me. Then I asked him what he’d been doing. “I’ve been in Afghanistan for the past 15 years and I’m tired” he replied. I wished him the best of luck.





The covid is back – this time it’s for real

7 01 2021

Phil is a big man, in all senses of the word. He farms chickens just up the road from my work and pops in regularly to buy seedlings for his veggie garden. I’ve never seen him in anything but a buoyant mood. He was slightly less so on Tuesday morning as the conversation veered to the current resurgence of the covid-19 in Zimbabwe and the newly enforced lock-down.

Zimbabwean ingenuity (or rule flaunting) at work. Petrol being offloaded at as small local filling station, sans safety procedures. The regular fuel tanker had broken down so they “made a plan” Zimbabwe style. The box in the foreground is an old petrol pump, pumping out of the bowser, stripped of its calibration equipment and metering. This to me epitomises the Zimbabwean attitude to rules.

“My father-in-law is in a bad way with covid” he said. “He’s got a heart condition that needs treating in South Africa but travel is out of the question now. I’ve managed to find 20kg of oxygen that should last 5 days or so but basically he’s waiting to die at home. He is 80” he added with a shrug.

In the first wave of covid Zimbabwe emerged mostly unscathed. The truth was that testing was sparse and deaths from the disease largely unreported but I couldn’t find anyone who knew anyone who’d died from the disease or contracted it. Conversations with my staff about 6 weeks ago yielded a complete blank. People were blasé – masks were badly worn if at all, social distancing was ignored, the curfew disdained. The government followed the South African lead almost to the letter and after three programmes of progressively more relaxed restrictions allowed life to return to near normality. We thought we were out of the woods or at least could see the beginning of the treeline. We were wrong.

Towards the end of December last year the indicators started to creep up. I don’t follow the local news and anyway, as I said earlier, testing is sparse, but reports of clinics and hospitals filling up with covid patients emerged on the social media. We ignored it and had a few guests around on New Year’s Day. We relaxed – the tier lock-down system in the UK that my brother and cousin were having to endure seemed very far away. It was a nice sunny day.

On Sunday afternoon the government Minister of Health (who is a former army general and not noted for his rationality) released a statement saying that as of Tuesday 5th January we were back into a 30 day lock-down. All non-essential businesses were to close and others to stay open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (agriculture was to continue as usual so my business is unaffected). Monday was a frenzy of shopping to make sure we had enough fertilizer and chemicals to at least last the next 30 days. A borehole switch control box had been hit by a power surge and needed replacing. It was easily replaced but expensive at US$280. Fortunately there was no damage to the motor.

The first day of the lock-down seemed like business as usual. There were just as many vehicles on the road, just as many people not wearing masks at all (or badly), the tyre shop at the local service station was open as was the taco trailer in the forecourt. The hardware supermarket across the road was closed in the morning and open in the afternoon. Soldiers at the local barracks were slashing grass outside with masks around their chins. Zak, my Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, needed to go to the vet around 10 a.m. Traffic was not light and the vet practice was busy. He’d had a bit of a cough and we were worried that his bone cancer had moved to his lungs as it can do. The X-rays were clear and we kept our social distance. Ant, the vet, snapped his mask on and off his mouth several times and said “I struggle to breath through this thing” but left it in place.

Yesterday I read my staff the riot act. Keenly aware that a similar lecture back in April had in time rung hollow, this time around I could say I knew someone (almost true) who was dying of covid, citing Phil’s father-in-law. They were suitably sombre. I emphasized that if anyone got the disease medical help would not be at hand. Government hospitals are under equipped and under staffed and nurses are recruited voluntarily to nurse patients. They are not forming queues. Private hospitals are full and beyond the pocket of the majority of Zimbabweans. Media reports tell of people with good financial resources who cannot find oxygen for any sum of money. This time the threat is real.

Arriving home for lunch yesterday Marianne told me that one of our guests on New Year’s Day had tested positive for the covid virus. A bit of basic maths and internet research (Harvard Medical School website) indicated that she’d likely been infectious on the day. I’d had no contact with her but Marianne had. A phone call to our doctor and we are now on Ivermectin, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc and are under instruction to self- isolate. Ivermectin use as an anti-viral is controversial but it’s regarded as a very safe medication and our doctor who is self-isolating as a result of one of her domestic staff developing covid is also taking it.

At the moment we are both fine and whilst Marianne works from home I am house-bound and writing a blog post though I have plenty of other projects to fill the time for the next week (the control box for the borehole motor is already fixed). Vaccination is a non- starter, not because I don’t want it (I do) but because Zimbabwe is utterly broke and the corrupt politicians who rule are far more interested in plundering the state coffers than running the country – they no doubt are hoping for a donation of vaccines so that they can continue looting. It looks like the way to herd immunity will be the natural route with lots of casualties along the way.

Phil, the chicken farmer, claims to have had covid. Some 6 months ago he told me that he’d just finished a lock-down as both he and his wife had contracted the virus. It transpired that actually his wife had submitted a test and received a positive result, Phil had declined to spend the US$65 and just assumed that feeling lousy for 4 days was the result of the disease. I’ve never seen him wear a mask since. He claims “I’m cured”. I keep my distance from him.





No Second Amendment

31 10 2020
Just some of the paperwork for firearms’ licence renewal in Zimbabwe

It’s quite difficult to get a firearm certificate in Zimbabwe. I am in the process of renewing mine and that has been quite demanding. Certificates have to be renewed every three years and in the past it has been relatively straightforward; fill in the form, pay the money and collect the documentation at a later date. That has now changed.

Last year I received an email from the Central Firearms Registry “encouraging” me to take in my weapons, a pistol and a shotgun, for profiling. Three rounds were to be supplied for each weapon, the police armourer would then fire the rounds and distinguishing marks photographed off the cartridge cases and, where applicable, the bullet. This would then be entered into a database to enable future identification of weapons used in crimes. As I was only being “encouraged” I ignored it. Now if one needs to renew certificates the profiling is compulsory.

My certificates are due for renewal on 1st November so three weeks ago I took my weapons and the requisite ammunition into the ballistics department of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department of the local police) in town. The weapons were duly handed over, receipted and I was asked if I could come back in one hour for the certificates. I facetiously asked the police officer if there was any in-building entertainment. I got a ghost of a smile – no, no entertainment was available. I said I’d be back the following week.

Two visits later and much misunderstanding I was in receipt of a cash payment that I shouldn’t have made at this stage and a list of requirements. I felt more than a bit daunted as I had to get the following done in two days before the current certificates expire at the beginning of November:
– a current set of fingerprints.
– two passport size photographs.
– a police inspection of the required safe.
– a letter from a doctor stating that I was in good mental health over the last three years.
– a letter from the government Agricultural, Technical and Extension (AGRITEX) agency stating I am a bona fide farmer and need the shotgun for vermin control. Curiously I didn’t need any letters for the pistol, just saying I needed it for home protection was sufficient.

At the Borrowdale police station I found the relevant department (Police Intelligence Unit) in a hot, cramped office.

Did I have the relevant fingerprint forms, two of them?

No I didn’t but was told I could find them across the road at a small shopping centre. A few minutes later I’d found the forms at a hairdresser’s which had a side business in charging phones too. I was relieved of the equivalent of US$1 for the two pages of poorly printed but legible forms. Curious to find out what the local exchange rate was I approached the money changer outside the corner of the shop. 80 local dollars in cash notes for one US dollar or 90 Ecocash (mobile banking money). Surprised at the relatively low rate I enquired as to why and was told that was what the legal rate was. I laughed and commented that I knew of hardly anyone who was using it. It’s well known that the street money changers are often employed by the fat cats in government but it’s a bit much to believe that they stick to the official rate as set by the Reserve Bank.

Back at the police station the finger prints were duly taken. The police had no transport of their own so we got into my pickup truck and I got chatting to the dour but pleasant police sergeant on the way to inspect the safe at my work. I had to ask if anyone at the police station, which has a sizeable staff, had contracted the Covid-19. Nope, nobody had. I presume that nobody had actually been tested either.

At my office the sergeant gave a cursory tug on the wall safe and pronounced it secure. Then she asked to look inside and gave it another cursory tug. I was glad she’d left it at that as it’s bolted into very soft farm bricks that wouldn’t have stood a serious inspection never mind a miscreant with a crow bar.

Back at the police station the sergeant said that the printer wasn’t working, it was out of ink cartridges and they couldn’t afford new ones. So if she sent me the file of the safe inspection to my phone could I print it out at home and bring a copy back to the police station for signing? And would I be able to help out with some bond paper (plain white A4 sheets) as they couldn’t afford those either? I reflected that things were in a serious state of affairs if the police couldn’t afford printer paper at the princely sum of US1c a sheet.

The next day, two copies of the approval letter in hand, I returned to the police station and handed over a ream of paper. The duty sergeant was delighted and very grateful. I cautioned him not to let his colleagues know as it wouldn’t last long.

The photographs were easily acquired at a local photographic shop and then I picked up the letter from my doctor stating I was of stable mind and I was into the final leg, or so I thought.

The local AGRITEX office is located at the Ministry of Agriculture where I had other business. Whilst I was waiting for another clerk a helpful security guard took my current shotgun certificate up the stairs (access restricted due to the Covid-19) to the AGRITEX office. Some time later an official appeared.

Where was the proof that I owned the land, specifically an offer letter (a letter from the government allowing the farmer a lease on the land)?
I didn’t have any – I rent the land.
Where was the proof that the farm is productive, for example delivery notes to the Grain Marketing Board?
I didn’t have any of those as I only grow and sell seedlings. I didn’t mention that I do sell seedlings to various government concerns as that likely would have necessitated a trip back to the nursery.
So how big is the farm?
10 ha. I could see the official was getting exasperated.
She shook her head and disappeared back up the stairs to reappear some 15 minutes later with the letter approving the renewal of the shotgun certificate.

The Central Firearms Registry is a short drive from the Ministry of Agriculture, I had the renewal in the bag – or so I thought. But I’d reckoned without the civil servant obsession with lunch hour. I’d forgotten the receipt for the certificate payment in my truck, yes that’s it in the photo bottom right. A whole $15 of local money that equates to about US15c. No small wonder the police cannot afford printer paper which costs about US1c a sheet if one buys a ream of 500 sheets. By the time I got back from the car with the receipt the firearms registry office had closed for lunch. There was nothing to do but wait.

Two o’clock and the clerk appeared and I was first in the rapidly growing queue. My finger prints still needed to be verified, would I be prepared to pay US$2 to get it done right away? I took that to mean that the “verification” would be a formality. I didn’t have the $2 and nobody had change so it had to go through the full process. I reflected that I didn’t have a lot of faith in the system as over the years I have given at least three sets of fingerprints to the police for various documents – why couldn’t I just get them scanned and a computer get the verification? I was tired at this stage and decided I didn’t need to labour the point. I accepted the receipt note for the application and left – I was told the documentation would be ready in two weeks or more.

In Zimbabwe there is no equivalent to the Second Amendment as in the USA. There is most certainly no right to bear arms. I am fully in favour of strict controls on firearm possession if it reduces weapons crime. I am sceptical that it will. The weapons profiling system should yield a searchable database of firearms but will it? The computers required need to be powerful and are only as good as the software on them. That is not going to be free and a police force that cannot afford paper is unlikely to afford the specialised software. Maybe it’s being funded by a foreign law enforcement agency.

There won’t be another renewal in three years time, the weapons are going to be sold. The shotgun was inherited from my father and is very old but not enough so as to be valuable. I have never used it. The pistol I bought for my mother back in 1978 when she was alone and vulnerable in a small village when the country was embroiled in civil war. I have fired it twice, at a tree, just for the hell of it. It should be easy enough to sell as it’s a good make.





Spring

11 10 2020

Normally I find going out to Mazowe to get import permits a bit of a chore but not this time. I guess I was just too pleased to get out of Harare and it’s farcical Covid lock-down. I took my time on the 20 minute drive to watch the countryside go by.

It’s desperately dry at this time of year despite being spring. The musasa tree (Brachystegia speciformis) colours were finished, they are spectacular for just a few weeks, and there was little evidence of the fire devastation normally found across the sub-region at this time of year. The image shown below indicates that other countries are ablaze as usual (that’s Zimbabwe in the middle of the image).

Sizeable fires in the sub-region (CSIR AFIS website)

The image comes off the AFIS website and is worth a look as it covers most of the world and offers fire prediction services.

The Plant Protection Research Institute in the Mazowe valley was quiet and had all the usual Covid screening processes in place. The trees in the car-park were in full bloom and were in a frenzy of bird activity.

Schotia brachypetala flowers. Everything loves them!

A member of staff helpfully identified the tree as a member of the Schotia genus (I found out later it was brachypetala species) which is indigenous so I stopped to have a look at the birds. There were at least 3 species of sunbird (nectar feeders) including the scarlet chested sunbird, the amethyst sunbird and the miombo double-collared sunbird and several other species I couldn’t identify. They were having a great old time with not a small bit of squabbling. The flowers were thick with bees and other nectar feeding insects too – not surprising as very little else around was in flower.

Having handed in my application for cotton seed importation from Israel (for a colleague who has business interests in the crop) I set about collecting a few seeds scattered around on the pavement. The gate guard soon came over to see what I was doing and offered to help. Curiously, the trees were in full bloom and producing seed from the previous season at the same time. The seeds have a fleshy aril (not shown) which is attractive to birds and the flowers are also eaten by monkeys. We live in a garden that has space for a few more trees so hopefully I’ll be around to see the tree seed grow out and form attractive flowering trees – apparently they grow quite quickly.

Schotia brachypetala trees in bloom

The gate guard waved a cheery goodbye with her covid mask around her chin. The indifferent police at the roadblock on the edge of Harare were similarly nonchalant – masks in various states of misalignment – along with most Zimbabweans who have shown scant regard for social distancing and frequently don’t wear masks at all. As of writing this Covid-19 has brushed us only lightly and has all but disappeared from the local news. As of 7th October there were officially 229 Covid-19 deaths. Given the disastrous state of the country’s medical health system this is almost certainly a low figure.

Earlier this week I drove past St Anne’s Hospital which was converted at not inconsiderable expense to a Covid-19 specialty hospital. There were all of 4 cars in the car park in the doctors only area and none in the visitors’ area. I’ve heard, unreliably, that there have been all of 7 cases that have gone through the hospital.

I covered possible reasons why the covid-19 impact might not be heavy in Where’s the Covid-19? post. Which aspect, if any, of this prediction might be true I’m not prepared to speculate but in the light of the lack of cases even the government has decided to relax travel restrictions.

It’s not officially over but…

Goodness knows the tourist industry needs all the help it can get but for many businesses it will be too late and I suspect only the most adventurous foreign tourists will travel in the absence of a proven vaccine.

The Zimbabwean economy still faces many challenges independent of a virus pandemic. It is almost entirely self-inflicted. The central bank and the Finance Minister are still trying to manipulate the laws of economics (and by extension mathematics) by controlling the exchange rate of the local dollar with the US dollar. Officially it’s around 81 of the local to 1 US$. Few if anyone is actually using that. It’s possible in theory to buy the hard currency on a government-controlled fortnightly auction (the rate is fixed) but actually getting the greenbacks is a challenge. The company my bookkeeper works for successfully bid for a tranche of US dollars but so far nothing has materialised.

It is perfectly legal to trade in US dollars or Zimbabwean dollars. The foreign ones are well circulated to the extent that they wouldn’t be acceptable in a first world country. However I’m occasionally surprised by the appearance of brand new, sequentially numbered notes.

The real stuff and new to boot!

Small denominations are, not surprisingly, difficult to find to the extent that businesses may ask one to pay the smaller amounts in local currency as they don’t have change.

The jacaranda trees that are ubiquitous in Harare are in full flower right now. They are showy, the bees love them and they care not a whit for Zimbabwe’s economy.

Jacaranda mimosifolia in full bloom

While I do have a preference for indigenous trees I don’t mind the jacaranda. It’s useful to the bees producing a mild, pale honey and is fantastic wood to work with if a bit dull. The flowers don’t do well in the rains and the roads become a carpet of mauve flowers that pop under the car wheels.

There’s rain around at the moment. It’s a bit early for the real season which starts mid November (usually) but it’s still welcome even if the early storms tend to be violent often with hail. So far it’s done a fair job of missing us.

The season ahead is looking promising.

https://iri.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/figure1.png
ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation (Columbia University)

If the la Niña forecast comes to be, as is indicated above, we stand a good chance of better than average rainfall over the next 5 months. Goodness knows we need it but it’s never as simple as the charts make out. More than a few times over the past 20 years that I’ve had my nursery business it’s been a disappointment. It doesn’t make that much difference to my business – commercial horticulture in this part of the world is dependent on a good irrigation system for success. Still, we’d like to have a good season to replenish our borehole in the garden. The rain gauge is out on its stand already – here’s hoping.

(el Niño conditions are indicated by warm currents off the coast of the Galapagos Islands (eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean) and commonly cause drought in this part of the world. La Niña conditions are the opposite and indicate wetter than usual conditions – see What is el Niño?)





The last cosmos

11 06 2020

The last cosmos of the season

This is a cosmos flower, the last of the season. It’s not indigenous but apparently was introduced in contaminated horse feed from Argentina during the Anglo-Boer War. It can be found in the grasslands (veld) of the high rainfall areas of Zimbabwe from about March into April. This one is in our garden and is not the species found in the wild which is Cosmos bipinnatus. This came from a customer at the nursery who had some spare and they have been self-seeding in the garden for a couple of years. I have no idea why its popped up now, very late in the season, but here it is making a defiant last stand.

The Zimbabwe dollar is also making a last stand but it is looking anything but defiant. The official exchange rate for the local dollar to the US dollar, i.e. if one went to the bank to sell US dollars, is 25:1. You cannot buy US dollars at the bank probably because the black market rate is around 82:1 so nobody is stupid enough to sell their dollars at the official rate. The banks just haven’t got US dollars to sell.

Fuel is also sold at controlled prices in Zimbabwe dollars. The current price for petrol is $22 per litre which your cellphone calculator will tell you is about US27c a litre at black market rates – probably the cheapest in the world if you have access to US dollars. The government, which does most of the fuel procurement and allocation to the filling stations has no US dollars. Well, not for fuel at least so what fuel does make it to the the pump generates VERY long queues.

The government DOES have US dollars to buy the senior military figures new Land Cruisers at around US$80,000 each. Apparently they were becoming disgruntled with their forever diminishing salaries and needed pacifying lest they felt like changing the government for a more pliant one. This comes hot on the heels of the Finance Minister’s recent trip to the USA with the begging bowl in full view and he actually admitted that Zimbabwe’s fiscal policies were not well thought out (“mistakes have been made” he said). Quelle horreur! The begging bowl returned empty. Zimbabwe’s elite are nothing if not thick skinned so no sooner was the minister back than another appeal went out for money to help with the Covid-19 pandemic. That too was unsuccessful. Nobody can, or will, explain where the money for the vehicles is coming from. Those of us who have Foreign Currency Accounts (FCAs) at the banks which as the name suggests are in real money, mainly US dollars, are feeling a little nervous. The Mugabe regime raided these accounts on two occasions and gave the owners local dollars at the official rate (yes, this is the second time down the tubes for the local dollar).

FCAs are a perfectly legal mechanism for exporters to keep their income for importing new inputs. Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic is raging the government has allowed anyone to trade in US dollars both as cash and between FCAs. The local dollar is also still valid but most people are skewing local prices to make it attractive for people to use US dollars. Last Friday I was buying some irrigation fittings at a local outlet and they admitted that they were using a rate of 92 local dollars to the US dollar. The black market rate was indicated at 72:1. It’s now 82:1 and sliding on an almost daily rate.

The cosmos will almost certainly pop up in the garden next year. I’m not betting that the Zimbabwe dollar will still be around. As for the US dollar – that genie is now well out of the bottle.

 

 

 

 





Where is the covid-19?

14 04 2020

The message is clear

Officially there have been 3 deaths due to the covid-19 (the causative virus is called SARS-COV-2) in Zimbabwe. Nobody really believes that – testing is sketchy at best but the point remains; the deluge has not arrived and nobody really knows why.

South Africa has a much more robust medical service than Zimbabwe and it’s top medics are also puzzled by the lack of a tsunami of covid-19. Their containment policy has been much more rigorously applied than Zimbabwe’s and testing has been widespread. Nobody is prepared to say that this has worked just yet, and planning for widespread infection goes on regardless.

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe we are taking precautions on a number of levels. I don’t do the shopping even when it’s not restricted but Marianne tells me that all the shops she goes to, which is just the food markets and pharmacists, have hand sterilizer for customers and it’s not always optional to use it. At the doctors’ practice I use it’s prominently displayed (picture above) and although its use wasn’t being enforced I’m pretty sure that someone would have called me out if I’d avoided it. It’s a sensible precaution along with the advice to social distance.

Having left the doctor with a script for my asthma control I went to a local pharmacy. On the way I passed by a noisy crowd outside the side entrance of a local supermarket. They were queuing for mealie meal (maize meal), the local staple food. It was a scrum of pushing and shoving – social distancing was the last thing on a hungry person’s mind!

There’s much we don’t know about this virus. The mode of transmission is assumed to be mainly by droplets and aerosols from infected people coughing or sneezing and to a lesser extent contact with contaminated surfaces. We don’t know if it will follow the seasonal pattern of the common ‘flu – there are indications from outbreaks in the southern hemisphere which is now coming out of summer that it won’t be.  This could be bad news for Zimbabwe or good news. We are just going into our winter which is characteristically cool and dry. We tend to be an outdoor economy and work in well-ventilated office spaces as there is no real need for heating or cooling, so virus transmission by aerosols is likely to be low. Indeed a study in the online journal PLoSCurrents indicates that influenza in the tropics is much more sporadic (not seasonal) in nature and the most usual mode of transmission is by contact not aerosols which are sensitive to temperature and humidity. Not good news for Zimbabweans for whom social distancing is an alien concept.

“There really is nothing else that can prevent this virus from spreading in the population outside of public health interventions like social distancing. It’s the lack of immunity in the population that is making people so susceptible.” (Andrew Pekosz, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University, USA.)

There is of course the possibility that the lock-down has been effective in preventing the covid-19 from really getting going. I don’t think that really is the case. While the roads are relatively quiet they are not as quiet as in South Africa – I have yet to encounter a road block. A friend in the USA who’s daughter is a doctor working in Liberia has commented that they covid-19 hasn’t really taken hold there either. Whatever the cause I see a real issue here if it doesn’t take hold like expected; the general population will become contemptuous of the warnings and let down their already low guard for the next time.

“Public health measures can only succeed if there is a high degree of social solidarity, which requires trust in public health agencies and their leaders.” (Mark A. Rothstein is the Herbert F. Boehl Chair of Law and Medicine and Director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and a Hastings Center Fellow.)

And there will be a next time. It could take the form of another novel virus or a resurgence of the covid-19. The virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed around 17 – 50  million people took 3 years to abate, so we should expect the covid-19 to be around for some time and a possible resurgence in the northern hemisphere winter is a real possibility. There’s also a possibility of a resurgence at the end of lock-down – a problem that South Korea may already be experiencing.

The tuberculosis vaccine, BCG, is mandatory for children in Zimbabwe and other African countries. There has been speculation that it could explain apparent anomalies in the spread of the covid-19 as it may confer resistance to other viruses. My friends in the medical profession are sceptical that it will be of much use to my generation as the vaccine is thought to be effective for a maximum of 20 years though that is hugely variable depending on, among other things, geographical location.  Trials are underway though it will be several months before the results emerge.

World UV intensity map

We have plenty of sunshine in Zimbabwe and are heading into the sunniest time of year; winter. It’s long been known that patients exposed to sunshine and fresh air recover quicker. UV light, which is also in abundance here due to our altitude and latitude, is an important sterilant and vitamin D generator which is also important for the immune system.  This all sounds like we should have an easier time of the pandemic, should it arrive, though I think this is far from a certainty. I am not taking chances and as an asthma sufferer I am high risk so will continue to take my medication. And wait.





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.