Easter break on the Turgwe River

23 04 2019

It’s not often that we both manage to get away together over Easter but this year we were lucky. Despite the kennels that we trust being full we managed to find someone to come and house-and-dogsit over the weekend. We have  been to the Humani Ranch camp on the Turgwe River before in December 2014 but this time we had downgraded from the rather expensive chalets to the glamping section with a group of friends from Mutare on the eastern border. It was comfortable enough.

It was a long 6 hour driver to the camp in the south-east of Zimbabwe but there had been recent rain and the countryside was greener than it had been a few months earlier. The recent cyclone Idai had expended most of it’s force before getting to this part of the countryside so a few bridges had experience damage but had already been fixed. The bush was thick and water plentiful so we didn’t see much game and that we did was very skittish. The Savé Valley Conservancy, of which the ranch is a part, is also a hunting area and most game did not wait to see if we were friendly or not. Still, it was good to get out of Harare for a while and enjoy the bush.

 





A productive morning

26 03 2019

Life and business are difficult in Zimbabwe at the moment – fuel queues, shortages, excessive prices – so it’s nice to be productive even if it’s purely to satisfy oneself. I got up early this morning to take photos on ART Farm where we run the dogs. I’d seen some potential photos yesterday when the mist was down and there was dew on the fence and the spider webs were glistening jewels of water drops. I was lucky. Not only was the mist there again but the fence had insects on it and because of the cold they were still! Movement is the enemy of macro photography so I was really lucky.





A punk spider and a cyclone called Idai

24 03 2019

This spider was tiny, about 5mm across, but what a radical punk shape!

The first golden orb spiders appeared at the beginning of this month – well that’s when I first noticed them. I have no idea what type of spider this is in the photo (it’s nothing like a golden orb spider). It was tiny and all I had was my cellphone so it had to do. I have not seen it again.

I am always pleased to see spiders as it usually means we’ve had decent rains and there are enough insects around to feed them, but this season has been distinctly unusual. It has been typically erratic as el Niño seasons are. It started well enough a week later than usual but February, instead of being the wettest month of the season, turned out dry. That was for Harare which has been better off than most of the country which has been very dry indeed. Then two weeks ago a low pressure system developed over Malawi and caused substantial flooding. It moved off into the Mozambique channel between Mozambique and Madagascar and became a full-blown cyclone and was named Idai. Moving off it brushed the big island, turned around and headed towards the Mozambican city of Beira.

Red areas indicate flooding

It made landfall last Thursday with winds of 170km/h and hammered the city (it was estimated that 90% of buildings sustained damage). American weather forecasters predicted rainfall of around 600mm which turned out to be an under-estimate.   Photographs estimate that 3000ha just inland from the city has been flooded. A friend sent me this audio recording from someone she knows in Mozambique in the town of Chimoio (WARNING: CONTAINS STRONG LANGUAGE) By Friday it had started to rain in the eastern Zimbabwe town of Chimanimani. Over the next 48 hrs they received 850mm of rain – pretty much their annual rainfall. Hillsides moved, houses were washed away and bridges disappeared under the onslaught. Power lines collapsed. The death toll is still climbing and people are unaccounted for. Further south the town of Chipinge was hit by high winds. It’s a horticulture area and damage to macadamia and avocado orchards has been extensive.

The response of ordinary Zimbabweans has been amazing. Collection centres have been set up in Harare and food, blankets, utensils, water and containers have been donated. Animal welfare organizations have also donated food and international organizations have helped out. The air force sent a helicopter which promptly broke down. Engineering companies donated equipment and expertise. Private individuals have used their helicopters, motorbike enthusiasts have gone to help find alternative routes into the cut-off areas. A photo has been circulating of an old woman who walked from her home the other side of Harare to donated cooking pots – she didn’t have enough money for the bus. For once people have been queuing to donate items instead of queuing to buy them.

Zimbabwe is heavily dependent on the port of Beira for imports and exports. It’s not clear what the damage to the port is but the ramifications are going to be extensive. It was reported that the pipeline that Zimbabwe uses to import most of its fuel had been damaged. However I know someone in the fuel business and he assures me that the pipeline is not damaged but the control station for the pumps in Beira has been devastated. Fortunately it’s run by an international company that is feverishly repairing it but the word is out that we might run out of fuel and the queues at the filling stations in Harare are long and chaotic.

Two days ago some youngsters who run a vermiculite exfoliating plant came to see me. We use the vermiculite at the nursery to dilute and stretch the supply of coir pith that we use as a medium for the seedlings. There are other locally produced media, one being composted pine bark, which is collected from sawmills where it is stripped off the logs before they are sawed so the saws don’t clog. The main source is in Chimanimani and is run by the Tobacco Research Board (TRB), mainly for use in the production of tobacco seedlings. The vermiculite company had been notified by the TRB, whom it also supplies with vermiculite, that its supplies had been badly damaged and that it would not be needing much vermiculite for this season’s crop which will be sown in June. This is very bad news for the tobacco farmers who use the pine bark/vermiculite medium to grow their seedlings (most seedlings are still grown in the traditional seedbed method). Quick to spot an opportunity they were wondering if the imported coir pith (called cocopeat by the trade) that I use would be suitable for growing tobacco and could it be blended with the expanded vermiculite that they produce. Yes, it can and I have used it successfully but we are fast running out of time. It is also cheaper to use coir pith imported from India than composted pine bark from South Africa (another option). We will see what transpires. Tobacco is a big foreign currency earner for Zimbabwe and thus is considered a strategic crop.

There was plenty of warning when and were the cyclone was going to hit. It was accurate information too. Weather forecasting has come a long wMozambique Major Hurricane Historyay since cyclone Eline hit Zimbabwe back in February 2000. Cyclones, as hurricanes are known in the southern hemisphere, rapidly lose power over the land as they need water as their power source (the water is sucked up as vapour, condenses releasing latent heat of condensation which draws up more water vapour) so they rarely get as far as Zimbabwe though they can cause significant rain as far inland as Harare. There was plenty of time for an evacuation to safer ground and when asked why the government did not effect this the reply was that the opposition MDC would have used the opportunity to accuse the army and police of using force and rape to make people move.

The opposition to the government used fake news to smear. A picture was posted of a sofa being offloaded from a helicopter claiming it was for the President to sit on when making the obligatory visit. It was an unrelated photo from Malawi (I did notice the registration on the helicopter was not from Zimbabwe, South Africa or Mozambique). The President did of course make a visit and all aerial activity had to stop whilst he was there.

The Department of Civil Protection (DCP) is the government arm tasked with disaster management. Its 2019 budget is $2.36 million (local dollars) which is less than the budget for state residence staff ($3 million). Its capital expenditure budget is all of $100,000 which might just buy a 4×4 pickup. There is a $3.4 m budget allocation for a loan scheme for chiefs to buy vehicles. Not surprising where this government’s priorities lie – politics is way ahead of looking after the people.

In a way it’s quite sad that the general public, who are only too well aware of the lack of interest for the welfare of the people, stepped up to the occasion is such spectacular fashion. It effectively lets the government off the hook and they will continue to spend money on themselves. That is not to say that they will miss an opportunity to gain political capital by handing out support to favoured sectors of the affected community. This tactic has been extensively employed in the past, especially when drought relief has been necessary, which in the grandest of ironies is going to be necessary again this year.

Here in Harare we’ve had about half the rainfall we’d expect in a normal year but elsewhere it’s been far less. There’s been widespread crop failure and the WFP estimates that about 5.3 million people are at risk this year. Droughts, erratic rains and cyclones are nothing new to us in southern Africa and can be dealt with by decent planning – something that is spectacularly absent in the current government. Just a week before cyclone Idai hit a video was widely shared on the social media of a pediatrician at a big local teaching hospital in tears because even the most basic medical supplies had run out – for want of syringes chemo-therapies had to be halted. Yet still the President, E.D. Mnangagwa, took himself and an entourage off to Dubai on business and then hired a jet to fly him back after the cyclone hit. At an estimated cost of US$200,000 it could have bought a lot of syringes. Bad as the Mugabe regime was it did not have this attitude to profligate spending. No, we don’t want the Mugabe regime back but good governance would be nice. Sadly that is a quality that is rare in African politics.

 

 

 

 

 





Cruise control and other stories

1 03 2019

Just plain hot

My business is in trouble. Commercial seedlings are no longer a specialized business thanks to the Tobacco Research Board. Some years ago they imported a large, new machine to mold expanded polystyrene into seedling trays. This was mainly for the tobacco industry that had to wean itself off methyl bromide that was traditionally used to sterilize seedbeds for growing tobacco seedlings.

The deadline was 2015 after which methyl bromide could only be used for very specific purposes under the Montreal Protocol. The idea behind the trays was to grow the tobacco seedlings in a medium such as composted pine bark and float the trays on shallow ponds of water with fertilizer mixed in. This is not new technology – I was involved in a project of this nature in 2000 – 2001 in Malawi. It works well and results in a much more even crop than the traditional seedbeds which can also be cleaned of weeds with another volatile chemical, ethylene dibromide or EDB.

Unfortunately most tobacco farmers found the lesser performing traditional seedbeds easier to cope with and the large machine was churning out seedling trays that had only a small market. So the TRB started promoting growing vegetable seedlings in the trays and supplied all the know-how to boot. Now there are numerous small nurseries around Harare and the market has been saturated. The quality is likely poor but the prices are low and that’s all that seems to count around Zimbabwe at the moment.

Grafted avocado seedlings are being sold at a premium in South Africa at the moment and there’s growing interest in Zimbabwe in producing anything for export. Both macadamias and avocados fit the bill and are very profitable so I had the idea last year of growing, grafting, and selling avocado seedlings which I can hopefully sell for real US dollars. Seed was duly sourced and sown and took rather a long time to germinate, likely due to the long and unseasonably cold spring (as low as 11°C in mid October which is just about unheard of). By Valentine’s Day some 2000 seedlings were big enough to graft so I decided to take the trip myself to an estate just south of the small agricultural town of Chipinge in the south-east of the country to collect the graft (scion) wood.

I left on the Saturday just after midday and got onto an unusually quiet road to the eastern city of Mutare, and engaged the cruise control. Since I bought the vehicle just over 2 years ago I have only ever used it for curiosity purposes – Zimbabwe traffic is just too erratic normally but since a fuel increase of 165% the roads have become much quieter. On the entire 2¾ hour trip I probably passed no more than 20 other vehicles. It was positively boring.

The fuel price increase was followed by street violence and protests, the army shot and beat people at random, the world tut-tutted, called for restraint and after a few weeks calm returned as the government knew it would. Now about a month later fuel is still short, the government has finally admitted that the local currency is not equal to a US dollar and has pegged it at 2.5 to the US dollar. It still cannot be bought in the banks and the street rate is 4:1.

Monday morning and the road to Chipinge from Mutare where I’d been staying with Gary and June was also very quiet. Gary told me it was largely due to the appalling state of the road further south and the weight restriction on Birchenough Bridge over the Save River. Once again it was cruise control time.

I haven’t been to Chipinge for perhaps 20 years so I was keen to see how much I remembered. The region is fertile, frost free and normally quite wet. Horticulture was certainly in evidence with large plantations of macadamias, avocados and bananas in evidence. It was all very dry and by the time I got to the estate just south of the town (though maybe it was small enough for village status) the drought was very evident.

By the time I’d got the cuttings packed in the cooler boxes it was after midday and hot. I drove back into the Save Valley and watched the temperature gauge climb. A few times it peaked at 40°C but not for long enough to get a photo.

I remember the heat of the Save Valley well from my days in the Rhodesian army in the bush war in the late 1970s. Patrols became centred around when one could take another drink and how long the water in the bottles would last. For a while we were based at a small irrigation scheme at a place called Nyanyadzi. There’s nothing to mark the spot now – it was only ever a temporary camp but on the other side of the road some 2km distant is a small group of hills that I remember vividly for the second most unpleasant event of my military stint (the most unpleasant was getting shot). I stopped, opened the driver’s window to the oven-like heat and took a photo.

There’s a story in those hills

We walked out one evening under the cover of darkness, two “sticks” of four troops, lightly armed with rifles and two machine guns and climbed onto the hill in the right of the picture. We passed the day quietly and then again, after supper of tinned rations, moved out when it was dark. Our stick descended into the valley behind where the other stick set up an ambush on a path and we climbed the hill behind to set up an observation post (O.P. in military terminology) overlooking an inhabited area. We each found somewhere we could sleep, unpacked our sleeping bags and sat around talking quietly.  Fireflies started to appear and after a short while there the most anyone had seen.

Suddenly there was a muffled “kerchooonk” explosion.

“What’s that?” I hissed to the dark shapes around me.

“That’s a mortar!” replied Dos who’d been a soldier in the Mozambican army and knew exactly what a mortar sounded like from his service in the civil war there.

“Take cover” hissed corporal Nico rather unnecessarily.

There was no cover to take – the surface was hard and stony but still we tried, scraping away the best we could, hearts pounding and counting the 20 seconds or so before the mortar bomb exploded. Mortar bombs are bad news on hard surfaces  where a half sphere of shrapnel is created (they are not very effective on soft surfaces where the explosion is directed upward) and very bad news if they hit a tree branch. A sphere of shrapnel is created and is particularly lethal. We were in dense woodland.

The mortar bomb exploded in the vicinity of where we’d spent the day. Another came out the tube, and another. We counted the seconds after each launch and flattened ourselves into the ground as best we could, desperately hoping that the bombs would fall elsewhere. Finally after it became evident that we were no longer on the top of that hill the enemy put down searching fire to draw a response from us. At one point there was a huge explosion as a recoil-less rifle was fired and then a prolonged burst of machine gun fire. Then all was quiet. Some half an hour later we heard voices as the enemy walked along a path not far from where we lay. The next day, obviously compromised, we scoured the bush for souvenirs of the attack (on top of the hill to the left in the photo) and then walked back to base. It seemed likely that the guerillas had assembled their heavy weaponry to attack our base but then chanced on an easier target – us.

I rolled up the window, put the air-conditioning on high and continued back to Mutare. To this day I can never watch a firefly without remembering that terrifying hour on a nondescript cluster of hills in the Save Valley.

Note: It is standard practice in counter insurgency (COIN) warfare never to sleep near where you’ve had your last meal for just the reason described in the story above – you may have been spotted. You always move out after last light and settle elsewhere, often in a place which you may have seen earlier which can be in an ambush position on your own trail in case you are being followed.

 





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.

 





It’s all in the picture

15 01 2019

Sniffing around after the rain – there’s a longer story hiding here though.

This picture is not as boring as it might seem at first. There’s a lot of good intelligence to be gleaned from it.

The swimming pool

It’s overflowing – the result of at least 56mm of rain over lunchtime today and a failure to take the overflow pipes off the gutters that feed the rain from the roof into the pool. We need to collect the water off the roof as the borehole is not fantastically prolific – it has been tested at 900 litres/hr which is OK for domestic purposes but not enough to keep a garden attractive and a pool topped up. So the lawn, such as it is, is seasonal and only really gets growing in the rains.

The pool was most certainly not a priority when we were looking for a house to buy just over two years ago. Harare has a mellow climate; not too hot and never really cold though European friends do find the Zimbabwe winter cold as the houses are not geared for heating. The winter only lasts about two months so what’s the point? Winter is also our dry season and the skies are usually clear so it’s easy and pleasant to sit in the sun. Summers are also not very hot. This November it only got to 33° C on a few occasions and while it can be humid it’s seldom humid and hot. Pools are also expensive to maintain especially as all the chemicals are imported and Zimbabweans are famous for price gouging – but more of that later.

So we got a pool with the house, like it or not. I like it – I used to be a good swimmer until the medical fraternity botched two neck operations and I lost a lot of shoulder strength as a result. I still get in the pool when I can but serious swimming is in the past now. I’ve read that getting old is about giving up the things one likes doing – I guess it comes to us all at some stage. The pool also leaks so needs topping up often and being in the agricultural business I could buy the piping through the company, a perk of the work. Yes, I have tried to find the leak and the entire pool piping system has been dug up on several occasions to little avail. The pool is old, built (or should that be dug?) in the 1960s, when the preferred method was to dig a hole and line it with 20cm of reinforced concrete. No doubt there is a tiny crack somewhere which is nearly impossible to find. It also needs painting but that would require complete draining and a lot of confidence in the weather forecasters getting their predictions right for a good rainy season as the borehole won’t handle that volume of water – about 70m³ which is big for a domestic pool. I know the age of the pool because a friend used to come swimming here as a youngster and he tells me that his father and uncle built the house.

The rains this season (it runs from mid-November to mid-April or so) have been erratic and very patchy. That’s fairly typical for an el Niño year which this is. The first rains in this area were about a week late which is significant if you are planting a rain-dependent maize crop. There have been week-long dry spells since and what rain that has fallen has been very localized so this storm was welcome though the pool filter was not in danger of sucking air. We also collect the waste water from the back-washing of the filter and the domestic washing machine and that is used on the garden.

When we moved into the house I bought a small well pump for the purpose but 10 days ago it just stopped working for no apparent reason. It’s been left at the supplier’s workshop where I was told “It’s not expensive so it might not be worth fixing”. They didn’t have that model in stock so I inquired the price of a slightly smaller one and was told $640 (local currency) or US140 cash. Cleaning up my desk on the weekend I found the original invoice from two years ago when all we were using was US dollars – $96. Thanks for the profiteering DripTech.

The grass

Yes it hasn’t been cut for some time. The lawnmower has been making a LOT of noise recently on being started so rather than deal with a permanently dead (I know it’s a split infinitive) mower it was shipped off to the local repair shop to join the queue. Yes, we queue for everything these days. The message came back this past Friday that yes, it is repairable and would be $200 local. We gulped and then decided that it was a lot cheaper than a new mower (around $1,000 at the local hardware store) so gave the go-ahead. This morning Maianne phoned the workshop to be told that they couldn’t source the spares as it was too risky to venture into town with the current disturbances.

At midnight on Sunday fuel prices more than doubled and the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, flew out to Russia and the far east with begging bowl in hand.  The trade union movement, ZCTU, and opposition politicians immediately called for a shutdown for three days this week to protest the nearly impossible cost of people getting to work and violent protest has ensued. Social media has reported numerous incidents of shops being looted, vehicles burnt and an unconfirmed video of a police station in flames. Mainstream media has reported that people have been shot but numbers have not been confirmed.  My foreman tells me that he’s heard of police and army personnel also threatening shops that were open and forcing them to close. Messages have been doing the rounds of WhatsApp strongly suggesting that all businesses, public transport and schools close for the time being. The language suggests that they are coming from the ZCTU but no-one is claiming ownership at this stage (it’s Tuesday as I write this). Mnangagwa has been seen getting off a privately chartered jet in Moscow which cost some US$60,000 per hour. We are talking real money here.

WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have been blocked but are easily circumvented with a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Curiously, while watching YouTube late last night, I received two automated phone calls – one from a private number and the other from a number I didn’t recognise – telling me that my access code to Twitter was a given six digit number. At the time I thought it was a hack and quickly put my phone onto flight mode. Maybe it was a way of bypassing the block. I’m not sure I’ll ever know now but I do know the grass is going to be uncut for a while longer.

Twitter block in place

 





It’s chaos out there – but we have plenty of fuel

9 01 2019

One of the less congested fuel queues around town

I passed W coming out of the gym this lunchtime just as I arrived. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. I know he works for a fuel distribution company so couldn’t resist asking how business was going, given the chaotic fuel queues around town.

“Oh it’s madness” he replied, shaking his head and laughing at the craziness of it all. “I couldn’t even get past the fuel queue at the intersection of The Chase and Golden Stairs road. Some truck had managed to totally block the road”.

I felt relieved that I’d taken a different route and made a mental note to go back the way I’d come, the road was appalling but free of congestion. “But what’s causing the chaos, the usual lack of money?” I asked.

“Of course. The government is utterly broke. They are insisting that the bond, RTGS or whatever you want to call the local money is equal to 1 US dollar when we all know it’s not.”

“So is there really a fuel shortage?” I asked.

“Oh hell no” and he laughed ironically. “You know all those fuel depots around town?” and he mentioned several though I only knew of the one on the Mutare road to the east. “They are all full, right to the brim. The fuel all belongs to private importers and they are ONLY accepting hard currency”.

“So if someone comes to you with real money you can sell them fuel?”

“Oh yes” W replied. “We are doing quite a lot of business with people who have Nostro accounts (foreign currency accounts holding export earnings). I am sure we can help you out. We can bypass all the nonsense. I must dash, see you around” and he was gone.

I wasn’t actually asking to buy any fuel – I don’t at the moment have anywhere to store fuel as I bought a couple of thousand litres in February last year when we had a similar panic. It didn’t last long but I am glad now that I bought it. Anyway, I’d found out what I needed to know – namely that the government was only half telling the truth when they claim that we have plenty of fuel in the country. We do, they just cannot afford to buy it. The solution has to be a return to the US dollar as the official currency but that is not going to happen anytime soon. There are not enough of them to support the economy. The government would have to admit the local currency is not on parity with the US dollar (current street rates are about 3.7:1 which makes our fuel very cheap indeed) and work out how to demonetize the local money. It’s not going to happen soon and like a customer said to me yesterday – “the future looks bleak and there is no rabbit in a hat to pull out this time. It’s going to be a tough year ahead.”