A short stay in Zimbabwe’s finest

18 05 2022

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

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

“Pain” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Paperwork

27 03 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the stands at the ART field day

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





Positive

11 02 2022
The lateral flow (antigen) test result

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themba – more gas than a blimp




The urban owl

4 02 2022
A bedraggled urban owl

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

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

“Yes, an owl. Whoo, whoo”.

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

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

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

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

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

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





Who’ll start the rain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This month’s ENSO forecast courtesy of Columbia University





Gentleman John

21 11 2021

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

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

“I got them from John” she added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Irrigation alley

21 09 2021

I watched Warren closely, fascinated. He took several careful steps intently watching the mostly full water bottle balanced on his left hand. It toppled and he caught it in his right hand. He turned around, retraced his steps back behind the wall and repeated the procedure. He scuffed a mark in the dry lawn with his boot and walked off at 90 degrees then walked back over the spot. The bottle fell again. He was divining for water in our garden.

I am no believer in witchcraft but Warren backs up his dousing with some science and he’d successfully sited a borehole for me at my work, just out of town, so we’d got him in to our garden to see if he could repeat the success.

A couple of months ago one of the two boreholes that my nursery relies on, started to give problems. It has been fine for the 22 years that I have been there so I was more than a bit concerned. I knew it was a water problem because the run-dry electronic protection system kept tripping. I responded by reducing the flow of the water to a measly 1,300 litres an hour. It can run for a day but at night the security guards, who are hopefully not sleeping, report that the ammeter on the switchboard by my office keeps dropping to zero indicating the pump has turned off.

The area where my work is situated is not great for ground water and there are no streams nearby. I rent the property and the landlords sank five boreholes to around 70m each when the land was bought in the early 1980s. One is useless and I have to share the other four with the other occupants who include another nursery, a rose nursery and a small domestic property. The prospects for new siting of holes are limited. Nevertheless, Gill, my landlady agreed to finance a new hole but I would have to pay for the siting and equipment (the latter would remain mine to take with me if or when I leave). Several water diviners, or dousers as they are sometimes known, were contacted and brought in. There was no agreement on where the water may lie. Only one, Warren, used a scientific backup (a machine based on electromagnetism) to what his water bottle told him and both indicated a likely source, so we called in the borehole drilling company that he recommends.

Electromagnetic profile of the rock at Emerald Seedlings. A break, or potential water site, is indicated at point 7 by the V shape. The colours are not indicative of water presence.

Payment was made up front and withing a couple of days they had arrived. Watching boreholes being drilled can be a stressful experience but I wasn’t paying and it was the first one I’d seen up close. The drilling mechanism is mounted on one large truck, about seven tonnes, and the compressor that powers it is on another. There is a lot of noise and dust.

The drilling rig in action.

Each pipe section that makes up the drilling column is six metres in length and mounted eight to a rotating carousel. It didn’t take long to drill to the 60 m that Warren had advised and water was found at 38m, almost exactly where the chart above indicates. It was not exactly a gusher at an estimated 1,000 litres per hour.

Material samples from the hole taken at 1 m depths starting top right to bottom left.

The actual process took only three hours as 60m is not a deep hole by today’s standards. In fact the hole at our house in the suburbs only has a 40m hole which was probably standard for the 1970s and quite adequate at the time when boreholes were unusual and municipal water flowed in the pipes. It never recovered from last season’s poor rainfall and now will only pump for an hour or less before emptying. One of the other diviners who came to my work was quite garrulous and told me he’d recently found and drilled (he had his own rig, or so he said) a “gusher” at 200m. It’s the first time I’ve heard of such a deep hole in the urban areas but 100m is pretty much the norm.

The foreman for the drilling company handed over the drilling report which clearly stated that the hole was an “excellent yielder”‘ and suitable for extracting water. I was surprised that 1,000 litres per hour was considered an “excellent” yielder and gave the drilling company a call. The manager explained that for a domestic hole, which is mostly what the company does, a 1,000 litres per hour was considered good but they did tend to be conservative in order not to disappoint customers and that we should get on and use it as it could take a season of pumping for a hole to unblock all the cracks and reach its full potential. It has taken a few weeks to get all the ditches dug for the pipes and the switchgear put in a box that is reasonably theft-proof, so it will all be turned on in the next couple of days and the moment of truth will be realized.

Warren applying science to his “witchcraft” in our garden.

Meanwhile Warren has submitted his report on the site he found in our garden and is reasonably positive that it’s a good site. All dousers make a point of saying on their report that it’s not an exact science and a good result is not guaranteed. Warren has more faith in his bottle than the electronics and admits that he doesn’t really know how the latter works. He keeps up to date with technology and recently contacted a European company that was advertising a machine for divining. Even at a cool 150,000 euros it was not guaranteed to find water. There just doesn’t seem to be the tech out there to find water accurately.

The profile from our garden. The desired break in the rock layers can be seen at point 2.

I asked the same drilling company for a quote to drill to 100m. They came back with US$4,100 which included the casing but not anything else. It’s not a small sum of money but if we find water it will substantially add to the value of the property and will take two years to cover the cost of the water we are now buying in for domestic purposes. We do occasionally get municipal water but it’s not reliable and goes into the swimming pool and then is pumped onto the garden to keep selected areas alive through the dry season. We certainly wouldn’t entertain drinking it as it comes from the heavily polluted Lake Chivero into which much of Harare’s storm water, industrial waste and sewage drains. The human excrement side of the pollution can be dealt with but not the industrial. Well, not in Zimbabwe where the water treatment works frequently runs out of cash to buy the aluminium sulphate used to settle the particles suspended in the water.

The suburb of Harare in which we live is known as Mount Pleasant. There is no “mount” of which I’m aware and the area is not known for a profusion of ground water. However the road along which I drive to work has some verdant verges that are profusely watered, so some properties do have good water. I’ve named it Irrigation Alley and it’s not unusual to see upwards of eight sprinklers (yes I did count them) watering the verges and the road. In fact this morning there were 14 working along a 1.3km stretch of road.

Marianne is on several neighbourhood WhatsApp groups that discuss these sort of things and appeals to irrigators of verges and roads to conserve water so the rest of us with marginal boreholes, or none at all, don’t have to buy so much water. Their response is “it’s my water and I’ll do as I like with it”. That’s technically true as all of us with boreholes pay an annual licence fee that allows unrestricted usage. Community spirit in this respect is in short supply.

After much dithering we have decided to go ahead with the borehole in the garden. The money has been paid and the drillers have made an inspection and think that the site is a good one. They will be back in due course and I’m not sure if I will stay around to watch. Of course it will make not a jot of difference if I do watch but there’s a lot riding on this.

At work we finished the electrics on the new borehole today and tomorrow we should be able to get the pumping gear down the hole and see if we have something useful or not. No doubt the irrigators of Irrigation Alley will be watering the road and the verges as normal.





Real man uses worms

15 06 2021

Only in Africa do you find signs such as this. I presume the proprietor was referring to the common use of fishing lures and that real men wouldn’t dream of using anything but his earthworms, but I didn’t stop to find out. I was on the way to Mana Pools Game Park in the Zambezi Valley and I was keen to get there.

It was another 41/2 hours along the somewhat hazardous main road to Zambia before I finally arrived and could relax a bit. A lot of the heavy traffic has now diverted via the new Kazangula bridge that links Botswana and Zambia above the Victoria Falls but one still needs to be quick-witted for over-bearing heavy trucks and wheel-rim bending potholes.

I arrived at “Stretch” (real name Andy) Ferreira’s camp on the edge of the Zambezi just as he and a guest were heading out for the afternoon game drive. He’s been working in the Zambezi Valley and Mana Pools area for some 30 years and promises close up encounters with a lot of the game. Many of the elephants have been given names and know his voice. Under absolutely NO CIRCUMSTANCES should inexperienced people approach elephants like you see in some of these photos (it’s also illegal to do so without a licenced guide).

Four nights later, refreshed and relaxed, I was ready to brave the road back to Harare.





A bug on weed

31 05 2021

A stink bug sitting on industrial (hemp grade) cannabis

Glossary of terms:
CBD – cannabidiol – the principal cannabinoid in cannabis
THC – tetrahydrocannabinol – the main psychoactive ingredient of cannabis
Cannabis – hemp, “weed”, “dope”, “grass”, “ganja”, marijuana – not all species are narcotic
GMP – Good Manufacturing Practice – certification required to export pharmaceutical quality products (in the context of this article)

Yes, that really is “weed” on which the stinkbug is sitting. I wouldn’t recommend smoking it, the weed that is, as it’s industrial grade cannabis which is grown for the fibre content and has no narcotic effect. Stinkbugs should absolutely not be ingested – they taste as bad as they smell, which is vile.

The Zimbabwe government has been pushing the various cannabis crops (hemp fibre, CBD oil and THC) as potential export crops and Stewart and I were at the Tobacco Research Board (TRB) to see what research they’d been doing. Stewart works part time for the Commercial Farmers’ Union and was trying to persuade me to write a growing guide, I knew how little I knew and was resisting but was still interested in finding out more about the crop.

The lead researcher was a young, dynamic fellow by the name of Munyaradzi or just Munya for short. He was passionate and knowledgeable about the crop. He quickly explained that they were just looking at the industrial or hemp quality cannabis at the TRB – the CBD oil and THC varieties, which have up to 0.3% THC and more than 0.3% THC respectively required onerous security which was not feasible. Industrial cannabis merely requires a fence and lockable gate so they were interested in getting small-scale growers into growing the crop.

The TRB had imported a number of different cultivars of the industrial hemp from origins as diverse as China, France and the USA. Some were clearly not suited to the relatively short Zimbabwean days though Munya did admit that it was early days and the seed had only been sown in January. Extending the day length with lights is practiced by the growers of the CBD and THC strains which keeps the crop from flowering too early. He told us that they’d approached the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) of the police to see if they could visit areas in the west of Zimbabwe where the THC version of cannabis has been grown illegally for many years to see if they had any selections that may be useful as he felt they’d certainly be climate adapted. Apparently breeding out the THC would not be difficult and yes, the police had approved the idea in principle.

Industrial hemp is quite widely used in the automotive and other industries that required cladding but the real money, Munya said, is in the CBD oil and THC. Unsurprisingly the buyers require the product to be GMP certified which requires stringent quality controls and regular inspections by a certified inspector which Zimbabwe doesn’t have. If it’s to be used for medicinal purposes the crop also has to be grown organically. A neighbour to the TRB who is growing the CBD cultivars has had to destroy his entire product so far as he cannot get it certified. Currently there are not a lot of major players in the industry but Munya predicted that it was going to get going within a few years.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Zimbabwe government has other ideas. On Thursday this week they introduced a bill (SI 127 of 2021) forbidding anyone from trading in Zimbabwe dollars at anything other than the official rate of 84:1. The legislation has been around for some time but was not enforced. Now apparently it will be, with punitive fines for those who choose to ignore it. Most businesses have been pricing in US dollars and then multiplying by around 125 to get the Zimbabwe dollar price. This makes it attractive to pay in US and then more imports can be sourced. There is a government “auction” in place where one can bid for US dollars but the price is fixed, so it’s not really an auction at all, and there’s no guarantee of getting the hard currency. That there has to be an “auction” at all is indicative of just how short hard currency is. Forcing businesses to trade at the official rate is only going to make goods very expensive in US dollar terms so people will use Zimbabwe dollars and imported goods (most things) will become scarce. This graphic from a local asset management company says it concisely. “Decline in economic activity, stagnation, loss of confidence in local currency, and increased probability of second collapse of local currency”. Yes, we have been here before.





It’s still a beautiful country

23 05 2021
Centenary – northern Zimbabwe

Graeme farms near the very small town of Centenary in northern Zimbabwe. He is one of the few white commercial farmers still left in the area. He and his father didn’t escape the land redistribution exercise in the 2000s unscathed and now he leases back some of his own land from a new “owner”. His philosophical about it – “You do what you have to do” he said, shrugging. He doesn’t let relatively small issues like that get in the way of his larger vision – which is refreshing in the generally downbeat Zimbabwean business environment.

Graeme has 70ha of avocados and that’s just on his farm. He has plans to recruit small scale growers to increase the total area up to 250ha. That will be a lot of fruit. I’m told he’ll reap 20 – 25 tonnes of marketable fruit off each ha. I do wonder where he will find the labour force to do that as driving around the countryside there was precious little farming going on.

The pack-house is not yet built and both he and his father are off on a trip to South Africa to look for a grading machine that will cost something close to half-a-million US dollars. He did admit to me that his marketing programme was still very much nascent but several South African marketing companies had heard of his plans and were courting his business.

On the way back to town we stopped on a very quiet road to take the photo above. There were no other vehicles. The countryside was still beautiful with large trees. Closer to town, in the Mazowe Valley, the bush had been heavily chopped for firewood and there were few big trees.

My covid “passport”

Covid vaccinations in Zimbabwe have been surprisingly well organized. The programme did get off to a slow, erratic start with only a few medical centres offering the service. It has since been streamlined and numerous clinics and hospitals around Harare are open.

I had my vaccinations done at a rather dilapidated clinic in the neighbourhood which has been closed for some years but which opened for the purpose of vaccinations. Curiously there is a large, relatively new, solar panel array in the car-park. I couldn’t find out who’d put it in or what it’s purpose is. Getting the vaccinations was straightforward – all they needed to see was my identity card which all Zimbabweans carry. I didn’t have a choice of vaccine. All vaccines in Zimbabwe are distributed by the government and are free. The government doesn’t have any money for this sort of thing so I presume we are part of the COVAX programme – the various partners of which have logos on the vaccination “passport” that I received.

My neighbour at work, Sue, is a retired public health doctor who spent many years in the local sector. She couldn’t shed any light on who was behind the organisation of the vaccination programme but did say we have a good government laboratory. I took the opportunity to ask her to speak to my staff, none of whom have had a vaccination. My foreman told me there were several rumours doing the rounds of WhatsApp, one of which was a plot to depopulate Africa! Sue agreed, she has vast experience in this sort of thing having been involved in vaccination drives in the 1970s that curtailed measles. All concerns of my staff were answered and I sensed a reduction in the anxiety level but we’ll see if that translates into visits to the local clinics for the vaccination.

Pure delight!

The annual Husqvana-sponsored Mud Run is normally held in February at the height of the rainy season. Proceeds go to a local cancer charity, KidzCan, that sources cancer treatment for disadvantaged children. This year it had to be delayed because of the Covid epidemic so was held last Saturday at a disused golf course near to where I live in Harare. It’s on the edge of a wetland and despite the dry season the course took little water to get the desired muddy conditions.

Anti-covid measures were noticeable in restricted access to the course though masks were optional on the participants (ever tried breathing through a muddy mask?). Participants were sent off in well-spaced batches starting at first light so the photography opportunities were sparse but the delight at being out was noticeable.

It’s difficult to ascertain that status of the Covid epidemic in Zimbabwe. During the last lock-down we all received weekly status reports by SMS but these have since stopped. Schools have been back in the classroom for around 6 weeks now and I regularly see school children on my way to work flaunting masks and social distancing. My staff are certainly wary and I don’t have to remind them to wash hands or wear masks. Will there be a “third wave”? We will have to wait and see.