Taxed if you do, taxed if you don’t

27 06 2022
Export fruit that didn’t get taxed (bought for cash off a neighbour)

Zimbabwe’s dollar is crumbling for the second time. It last fell off the charts in 2008 so you’d think our finance ministry would know better. Apparently not. Inflation in local dollar terms is back in triple digits and, like the rest of the world, inflation in real money is also a problem – but one we can live with. The real problem is tax.

Given the problem with the local currency the reader would be correct to assume that those who can export products to bring in hard currency would do so (the breakfast bowl of fruit above were probably not export grade but they were delicious!). However, keeping the fruits of one’s labour is a bit more difficult. The government takes 40% of these export earnings and pays back the exporter in Zimbabwe dollars at the official exchange rate. As things stand the official exchange rate is around 360 Zimbabwe dollars to one US dollar whereas the unofficial rate, the one nearly everyone uses to price what you see in the shops, is about 650:1. So exporters are losing about 20% of what they get in as hard currency. If they then use this hard currency in an electronic transfer the receiver is also subject to handing over a portion, in this case 20%, to the government at the official rate.

One doesn’t have to be an exporter to have a Foreign Currency Account (FCA). My company holds one and I have received US dollars into it for some time now from a company for whom I grow gum tree seedlings which will, when mature, be cut for firewood for curing tobacco. They get US dollars in the form of a levy from tobacco exports. Yes, I can even go to the bank and draw out the money as cash though again there is a 3% levy on this which the government takes. Naturally people prefer cash deals which are not then banked though there is only so much one can “hide under the mattress”. Safe deposit boxes are a preferred option to the former but at the moment they are at a premium.

These FCAs also existed under the Mugabe regime but on two occasions during our hyper-inflationary period of the local currency they were raided by the central bank and the owners were paid out in Zimbabwe dollars which very quickly became worthless. The inflation in October 2008 was estimated at 4.3 million percent for that month. This is not so long ago that people have forgotten and there is a steady queue of customers in my local bank withdrawing hard cash, risks and levies notwithstanding.

Of course not all transactions require US dollars. The local currency is still used and indeed, the government has stipulated that customers must be allowed to use it if they want. Of course everybody makes it very attractive to pay in US dollars by offering a rate heavily stacked against the Zimbabwe dollar. One hardware outlet is well known for offering a discount on top of this, so they can say to any inquisitive official that they are using the official rate, but only if you actually ask the checkout person.

VAT is not particularly high at 14.5%. However, transactions over 500 Zimbabwe dollars (less than a US dollar) attract a tax of 2%. A number of transaction types are not taxed. These include tax payments (what, no tax on tax?), wages, insurance payments, medical aid payments and various others. One bank I deal with has a comprehensive list of non-taxable transactions, the other has a very short list for no reason that I can discern.

The Zimbabwe banking system is surprisingly sophisticated in some respects and dismal in others. Everything can be paid for online, taxes, transfers, insurance, social security. It doesn’t all work very well though and as a part-time programmer I am constantly irritated by lazy design and weak code. It is even possible to buy car licences online and the government can see from a database that one’s vehicle insurance is up to date. The paper discs for display on the vehicle are then delivered by courier to one’s address which rather spoils the efficiency.

Like nearly everywhere else in the world we have been affected by the Ukraine/Russia war. At the beginning of the year fuel was around US$1.25 per litre (it is ONLY available in US dollars!). Now diesel is $1.87 per litre and about 40% of that is government taxes and levies. No small wonder that inflation is running rampant. I saw a Reserve Bank announcement last week that the Zimbabwe dollar lending rate had been increased to 200% in an attempt to block speculative borrowing. It will have little effect – you read that here.

I have been paying my staff in a mix of local and US dollars for some time now. This month they approached me to increase the US dollar proportion. It wasn’t difficult to say yes given that my local currency accounts will hardly cover my own salary let alone their wage. Clearly they don’t have faith in the local dollar, unlike the President who is insisting it’s here to stay. For those with a bit of time on their hands try typing this into Google: “zimbabwe multi currency system to stay herald” (exclude the quotes). It’s farcical. Note that The Herald is the government-owned newspaper, so it parrots the state line.





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.





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.





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.





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.





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.





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.





60 and the bottle of wine

15 12 2019

A fine red wine blend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 





The metaphor

2 02 2019

Looking back where we’ve been?

This photograph is perhaps a metaphor for the future of Zimbabwe, heading back into the darkness from the light. The future is dark – the light of the sunset is the hope we all felt when Mugabe was ousted in a popular coup in November 2016. That is fading and it will soon be dark, just a memory. The rain on the mirror are the tears of the nation, beaten into submission by the current regime for daring to vent its frustration at the deceit and disappointment and cursing its own gullibility.

Or is it just a pretty scene that I saw this evening in my rear view mirror, driving away from Komani Microlight Club where I go with a friend to fly model aircraft and get away from the stresses of living in a crumbling economy?

You choose.