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

 





Roses don’t like rain

19 12 2018

Raindrops on roses are – damaging (and kitsch)

Rain is not good for roses, well not on the petals. The leaves tend to get black spot at this time of year too. To say they don’t like it is, of course, a bit of an anthropomorphism – it would imply they have feelings and I don’t think they do have any.

The rains started a bit late this year. The first rain recorded at the nursery was on the 23rd November when the middle of the month is considered normal. So far we have had 192mm which is almost double the  97mm recorded for the same period last year. This does not mean we are in for a normal to good rainy season. An el Niño event remains possible in the Pacific so anything could happen from now on. It usually means we are in for a very patchy distribution of rain though in the past this has also been true for a la Nina event which should mean heavier than usual rain.

It’s easy to be critical of the weather forecasting system but it is much more accurate of late than say 10 years ago. I use The Weather Channel and last year it predicted the start of the rains accurate to the day. That’s a massively useful tool for farmers who generally

Reasonably accurate

plant their maize in Zimbabwe to take advantage of the rains. While some do make use of supplemental irrigation it is generally too expensive. This afternoon thunderstorms were predicted with 100% certainty over Harare at 17h00 and a small one has just passed overhead at 15h00. That’s impressive forecasting though last Monday was also predicted to have a 100% chance of rain and it was bone dry.

The government has, so far, been totally predictable in it’s mismanagement of the economy. We are still floundering hopelessly in a morass of confusion with the currency. Some German friends have just visited in their overland vehicle from Namibia – they park it in Windhoek during European summer. They managed to grasp the absurd situation of having an ersatz local currency officially pegged at 1:1 with the US dollar but accepted by nobody, including the government, at that value (duty on imported cars must be paid in US dollars). Most foreigners I meet remain puzzled even after I’ve given my best explanation.

I really don’t need the rain for my business. The groundwater of course needs to be replenished as we are dependent on two rather mediocre boreholes for all our water but rain on the seedlings promotes leaf disease that I can do without. Most seedlings are under plastic which protects them from the worst of the weather but the high humidity is still a factor. A lot of the plastic needs replacing now but as a totally imported product it will need to be paid for in US dollars that I just don’t have.

Quite a few businesses will now only accept US dollars for payment. That’s doable if one has a near monopoly but I don’t have that luxury. As a result I am charging less than what it will cost to replace my raw materials but I need the cash flow.

Along with the rains comes the power cuts. We’ve already had one of +48 hours. Normally the batteries and solar panels would cope but the the former are now tired after 3 years of use and last two hours just powering the lights, never mind the fridge, freezer and borehole pump. Replacing them is a daunting prospect requiring digging into our real money resources. The power cuts are not nearly as bad as they were when I bought the system – how badly do we want the peace of mind? Can we last out the worst of the rains when the faults mostly occur? Should we save our money for the inevitably rocky ride ahead as the economy is likely to get much worse before it gets better? Decisions. In the meantime my brother arrives from the UK in two days for the Christmas season. Not surprisingly he is not that keen on the rain either but at least it will be warm – of that we are certain. Let’s hope the rains are good and the flowers will just have to deal with it and look a bit tatty.

Frangipani – not normally this tatty





No quick fix

14 09 2018

“It’s one of the best shows we’ve had for a very long time” commented Merv as we walked into the show. He should know; he’s bee a stalwart of the Zimbabwe Orchid Society for many years. I had to agree. I do like to visit the biannual orchid show at the Mukuvisi Woodlands park in eastern Harare when I can and in the few years that I’ve been a regular visitor it’s the most spectacular show I’ve seen. It’s also nice to escape the depressing state of the nation for an hour or so and pretend that in some respects at least – we are normal.

Not much has happened since the election and in fact some aspects of the new government led by ED Mnangagwa are decidedly familiar. There a lots of new faces in the cabinet. The minister of finance really is an economist, the Minister of Sport is Olympic medalist Kirsty Coventry and the Minister of Health does not have the medical qualifications that he claims.

Professor Mtuli Ncube (a graduate of Oxford no less), the finance minister, is on record as saying he wants to clear Zimbabwe’s foreign debt as quickly as possible and wants to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar. There is no time limit specified for the latter – a wise decision. The last version of the Zimbabwe dollar was officially abandoned in February 2009 in favor of the US dollar when the former became worthless due to the second highest inflation in history. I really don’t see the point of this; it will simply replace our infamous bond dollar with another of a different name. The black market will still exist and nobody will trust the new currency such is the level of distrust in the system. Some say we should adopt the South African rand being that South Africa is our neighbor and biggest trading partner. However, there are simply enough rands to support the Zimbabwe economy and it is by no means clear that South Africa will agree. Of course a currency must be based on something which in our case is our exports as the manufacturing base collapsed with the Zimbabwe dollar and is still moribund. Export horticulture is the hot ticket to get into but takes some years to build up export crops and recover the farms neglected under ex-president Mugabe’s ruinous land redistribution policy. No quick fix there. Mining, another mainstay of the economy is also down and will take some time to build up pending investment from outside the country. It was also not immune from Mugabe’s policies – one of my foreman’s sons did his accounting attachment at a German run graphite mine in the north east of the country which was shut down for some time last year because of political “issues”.

At the last count 28 people have died from the current cholera outbreak – mainly in Harare. Such is the state of the economy that the finance minister has launched a crowd funding exercise to raise money to treat the outbreak. It is unlikely to have a lot of success given the controversy over new vehicles for ministers and the public’s mistrust of all things governmental.

Obadiah Moyo, the new health minister, whose claims to various medical qualifications have been questioned has certainly got his work cut out with the new cholera outbreak. What is certain is that he did successfully run the Chitungwiza Hospital for several years. Someone I know went there last year and said that although it was threadbare it was clean and functional. Perhaps we should give him the chance to prove himself. Good luck to him – he’ll need it.

Kirsty Coventry has several Olympic swimming medals to her name but I’m not sure how that qualifies her to be the Minister of Sport. Cricket, once a source of national pride, is in disarray after the recent firing of the entire coaching team for not getting the playing team into the World Cup. A crucial match was lost due to rain causing a complicated, and some say unfair, formula being implemented to calculate the winner. Corruption is rife and players are demoralized. And that’s just cricket. Good luck to her too.

Droughts are a perennial problem in southern Africa and it looks like the coming rainy season (November to March) is at best going to be erratic. An el Niño weather condition is nearly a 70% likelihood for our summer – not a good sign. At our house in the suburb of Mt Pleasant we have not had municipal water since we moved in just over 18 months ago. We had our borehole tested earlier in the year and were told it could handle 900 litres an hour – adequate for domestic purposes. A tank have been installed to catch water from the washing machine and another 5,000 litre rainwater tank is planned to add to the two others we already have. The borehole is only 40m deep which is shallow by Harare standards so we are not confidant it will last especially as I see a lot of green verges being heavily irrigated further up our road. Fortunately our hole is 180mm diameter, large enough to get a drill down if we need to go deeper assuming there is water to be found by drilling deep.

We visited my sister in June in the USA – She lives in Spokane in Washington State. A friend of hers asked me if we in Zimbabwe thought the USA “crazy” – she was referring to the Trump administration. I replied that we were just to busy trying to survive in Zimbabwe to view the Trump administration as anything more than entertainment. No, we are in this for the long term – no quick fix to this particular mess.





Moving on

31 01 2017
final-view

Probably the best view near Harare

We moved, my wife and I, at the end of December into suburbia. It was not a move for me born of desire but one borne of necessity. The house where I’d been living for the past 14 years was not for sale and even if it were there was no guarantee that it would have been a solid investment situated as it is on a farm outside of Harare which will eventually be incorporated into Zimbabwe’s capital city.  Water supply might have been an issue. Currently it comes from further down ART Farm nearly 1,500m away so a source on the property would have had to be found.

I’d been happy there planting 15 indigenous trees on a property of around 1ha (yes that is a measure of contentment to my mind) but I knew that eventually I’d have to invest in a more solid property in town. So when Marianne became a permanent fixture in my life I suggested that we pool funds and look for a house. With the Zimbabwe economy sliding to a near comatose state we reckoned, and were told, that house prices were in a buyer’s market and the time was ripe to start looking. It has been a slow process – some 8 months to be exact.

Area was a concern as my work is to the north of the city and of course we were hoping to find somewhere easily accessible for exercising the dogs. We got on the internet and started looking. We were not flush with money and I insisted that we borrow as much as possible as we didn’t want to leave ourselves destitute should Zimbabwe totally collapse and we needed to find refuge elsewhere. Yes the loan would be expensive at 16% interest but worthwhile to risk someone else’s money rather than our own.

Having ascertained that we could get a loan for $75,000 we started the search. There were not a lot of houses on the market and what was there was often in very poor repair and over-priced. With the increasingly dire water shortage in the city a borehole was a prerequisite so any properties that didn’t have one didn’t merit a visit. The list of potential properties shrank and then became zero. Finally we saw a property that had some potential, or so Marianne thought. I was less enthusiastic but there was nothing else. The law had changed recently so that owners living outside the country could no longer repatriate their money from a house sale so were deciding to keep their properties – or so we were told. We paid the deposit, signed the agreement of sale and started looking for contractors to start the renovations.

By the time we started the move we were hopelessly over budget and of the firm opinion that artisans were in very short supply in Harare. And the rains had started on time (that’s a big storm in the photograph) and I’d got a policeman to admit that the new bond notes weren’t real money and didn’t make good toilet paper. Now 3 weeks later the rains have not let up, the contractors are still clattering around, we are even further over budget and my dear sweet Ridgeback, Kharma, has developed full-blown bone cancer and doesn’t have long to live. Yes, welcome to the suburbs.

This was only predicted to be a mild la Nina season but so far it’s been anything but. ART Farm where I used to live has already had more than its average annual rainfall with the wettest month, February, still to come. Major rivers in the east of the country are in flood and Lake Chivero,  Harare’s main water supply, is spilling. The roads are dreadful – it’s no longer possible to dodge all the potholes so one just has to slow down and accept that it’s necessary to drive through some. The tobacco crop will not be great quality – with all the rain the leaf becomes thin and light once cured. The maize (the staple diet) is at risk from poor pollination as it is wind pollinated and needs to be dry for that.

And the policeman. Yes, that was different. A removal company did the major moving but there were still pot plants and other assorted items collected over the years to move so I borrowed a trailer and made many trips without incident past an illegal roadblock of 2 policeman (there have to be 3 or more) who couldn’t have looked more bored. Then one day there was an altogether more professional bunch there complete with patrol car.

“I am <name given> of the Highway Patrol, this is our car” he added pointing to a small, newish police car with POLICE in 20cm high letters on the side. “You have not got a light on the number plate of the trailer”.

“Oh, really?” I replied knowing full well that I didn’t have one.

“I can show you if you like”.

“No that won’t be necessary. How much is the fine?”

“$20”. Right, $20 for no number plate light. Ridiculous but I’ve researched this before and had no intention of arguing the point.

“So you will accept bond notes even thought they are like toilet paper?” I countered instead.

“Ah, but you must embrace them” he said  parroting the official line.

I looked in my wallet and to my horror noticed that I had only a $50 note and a few $1. “If I give you real money I want real money change”.

He laughed, took the proffered note and counted out my change in US dollars and green bond notes. On handing me the US notes I asked “So this is the real money?”.

“Yes” he admitted.

“So you are admitting then that the bond notes are like toilet paper. Have you ever tried them for that purpose?”.

“Yes, but they were too hard!” he joked.

Well, at least he had a sense of humour.

We had a big storm last night and on the way to work there was grass caught on the railings of the bridge over the Gwebi River, near it’s source on the Borrowdale vlei. It had been over the road in the night. The nursery had received 80mm of rain but speaking to others it emerged that the eastern suburbs of Harare had received nearly double that. Despite the fact that this is a neutral el Niño/la Nina year we are having exceptional rains. Or maybe it’s just a normal rainy season like I remember from my youth.

The renovations to the house are almost complete and we’ll all breathe more easily once the contractors finally clear out. We still find badly painted doors, taps not centred over the bath, tiles with HUGE  gaps behind them and of course a monster pile of rubble and trash to dispose of. The swimming pools is clogged with leaves (we should have drained it but were worried about being able to refill it) and we had to replace a burnt-out motor on the filter.

One day it will all be sorted but poor Kharma will not be around to see it. She did not cope well with the move and still panics a bit when she cannot find me. Her leg that was healing so well with the assistance of a dog physio took a turn for the the worse just as we moved. We called in the physio again but she could find nothing wrong then last Sunday she stopped eating. Panic. Thinking it might be biliary (a fatal tick-borne disease) I rushed her to the vet but he could find nothing wrong and asked that I take her back the next day for X-rays and blood tests. The results were bad; the cancer had proliferated in her leg and had also moved to her lungs. When she’d broken the leg last year the vet had been suspicious but could find no sign of cancer but now there is no doubt; she’s on borrowed time. The anti-inflammatories are helping control the pain and yesterday I found someone who could supply cannabis “oil” which has certainly brightened her mood (yes, the supplier said, it really did have THC in it as she’d tried it) and she eats with gusto and is pleased to see me but I know that each day is a bonus. Poor girl, she’s been such a good friend and companion and I dread the day she tells me she’s had enough.

Today I received a copy of a new Statutory Instrument from my ZIMRA (tax authority) account manager. The government has put VAT on basic foodstuffs; meat, fish, rice and maize meal. They really are desperate and it should provoke a riot but it won’t.

 

 





The drought of ’92

10 12 2015
Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Zimbabweans have a curious attitude to the rainy season; they almost think it’s a right and are somewhat puzzled or even hurt when I say no, I don’t think the rains are going to come this year. Of course we will get some rain but it’s almost certain there will be a drought.

In 1992 we had a drought. At the time I was working in Penhalonga in the high rainfall eastern area of Zimbabwe. I was doing freelance programming; there was plenty of work but it did not pay well as people were not convinced of the value of it so I left and in 1995 (another drought year) started an agricultural job near Harare.

The photo above was taken north of Mutare in a high rainfall area called Watsomba. I don’t recall the actual date but you can see there is hardly a blade of grass to  be seen. In those days Zimbabwe still had a vibrant agricultural sector and despite the ravages of the drought nobody went hungry because the commercial farmers (mostly white) knew how to use their resources well and besides, drought is endemic to southern Africa so there was plenty of stored water to irrigate crops.

This year a drought is likely but there’s a major difference; there are very few capable farmers left. Most were driven off their land by the Mugabe government in 2000 – 2002. Many of the former commercial farms lie derelict and ironically, the dams (reservoirs) that ensured plentiful crops and established Zimbabwe as a regional food exporter are still mostly full. There are two reasons for this – there are few farmers to use the water and those who can prefer to pump the water for more profitable crops than the staple maize. Pumping is also expensive these days as most of the country is enduring long power cuts so diesel pumps have to be used. One of my customers told me that he gets up at midnight, when the power comes on, to irrigate his tomatoes. “You can get quite a lot of irrigation done in four hours before they turn it off again but the labour force is not very keen” he added.

The electricity situation is only going to get worse. Lake Kariba, which normally supplies most of the country’s hydro power is critically low so the turbines are running below capacity. The lake is low due to poor rains in the catchment area of central west Zambia and eastern Angola and this inflow only occurs around April. The Zambians have also over developed the north bank power station and the lake simply cannot keep up. Zimbabwe also has a large thermal power station at Hwange in the west of the country but generating capacity is down due to lack of maintenance and capital development (the government is broke) and despite being right on top of a large very high quality coal deposit they just can’t seem to get it together.

Money was borrowed from Namibia to fund electricity development in Zimbabwe but now the local utility, ZESA, has taken out another loan and we have to export more power to Namibia to pay it back.

The internet did not exist in Zimbabwe in 1992 so there was not a lot of opportunity to research the causes of drought. Now the current el Niño is well covered both locally and worldwide. Looking back at the history, this year’s temperature rise that defines the phenomenon looks to be very similar to that of 1992 (1995 was not quite as strong though we were saved in this part of the country by cyclone Bonita that savaged the eastern districts) but perhaps a bit stronger. That’s not good news at all.

I don’t have a photo of the same area taken in 1993 but I do recall that the area recovered very well. That’s cold comfort right now (it’s blazing hot as I write this with temperatures in the mid 30 degrees and few clouds to be seen) as we still have to get through another 12 months before we can hope for a normal season.

In the meantime I am installing a solar powered system capable of running all electrics in the house bar the water heaters (it’s not my house otherwise I’d install solar water heaters too).  I actually am connected to a reasonably reliable grid due to the proximity of a military baracks but I just like the idea of being independent and, yes, I’m a bit of a geek too.





Smoke and fire

7 09 2015
Smoke and sun

Smoke and sun

Sometimes, at this time of year, the sun sets before it gets close to the horizon. This photo was taken up at Nyanga in the eastern highlands two weekends ago. I was up there again this last weekend to take photos of the msasa trees whose colour can be spectacular but there was just too much smoke around and the colours were very muted. And yes, the sun actually “set” before it got to the horizon.

This is the dry season in Zimbabwe and the bush burns. Not just in Zimbabwe but the surrounding countries too are ablaze. This year the winter has been unusually long and unusually dry. Nyanga being on the eastern escarpment overlooking the Mozambique flood plain does often get winter rain. It’s not heavy but the mist and rain, or guti in the vernacular, can last for days. This year it’s been rare and it shows in the dryness of the bush.

There is a strong el Niño forecast for this season and that is not good news for us. Not because it is likely to bring a drought – droughts after all are endemic to southern Africa and we have survived droughts in the past. Now we don’t have the resources to survive a drought because the commercial farms are largely derelict and the dams (reservoirs to others) that should be used to irrigate crops are underutilized. There is of course an irony here. The nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Kariba, is worryingly low. We share it as a hydro power resource with Zambia and it’s capacity is normally stretched to the limit so when the rains are weak in Zambia which is the main catchment, as they were last season, the lake doesn’t fill. Both countries’ economies are heavily dependent on the lake for their power so now there is already squabbling over what’s left and our already punitive power cuts are getting worse. Not good news for a nation that is already crippled by economic mismanagement.

msasas





Interesting times

23 11 2012

“How many sowings of my order have you done?” the customer asked over the phone.

“Just the one so far” I replied.

“Don’t do any more. I have been invaded” he said, “I will come and get the other tins of seed at another time”.

This was not the first time that this had happened but he’d always managed to get rid of the land-grabbers. I wondered what had changed that he was not expecting to stay. It was quite a blow to my income as he is easily my biggest customer and there is never a problem getting the money. Driving past the farm later yesterday I noticed that everything was quiet and the main gate locked. I knew he’d been planting a sizable potato crop and hadn’t finished. In the past we’d both wondered how long he could carry on farming as it is certainly a juicy target – nice house, 3 centre pivot irrigation systems, good water and close to town. I’d been a bit critical of his lack of crop rotation, essential on a heavily utilised farm such as this one, and he’d replied that he had no idea how long he would be on the farm so he was farming it as hard as he could. I thought this a little short-sighted at the time but maybe I was wrong. Today a few tractors could be seen at work but there was no saying for whom they were working.

The rains are very late this year. They should have started 10 days ago but so far there have been a few sporadic showers. There are a few showers forecast for early next week but nothing significant. This is supposedly a  mild el Niño year with minimal disruption to the normal rain pattern. Mind you, the last 2 years have been la Nina years which should have given us good rains and they were anything but. It is really not looking good. Short season maize (the staple food is maize) will need to be planted which does not yield as well as the longer season type and supplementary irrigation will almost certainly be needed. Droughts are endemic in this part of the world and at one time we were well equipped with good farmers who could cope with them. No longer. Most have been kicked off their farms and in many cases the farms are now derelict. Next year is also a general election year and in the past the incumbent party has used promises of food in drought years to “persuade” voters to vote for them. Looks like it’s going to be the same situation and a lot more interesting than most people want.