Double standards

15 11 2015

I usually only buy the newspaper when I need newsprint. It’s useful for mopping up excess oil after frying fish and Marianne had bought some calamari rings for Friday supper.

The Zimbabwe Independent is actually not a bad paper and insofar as I can tell gives a reasonably balanced opinion on the local political situation.


It’s no secret that the Zimbabwe Government is broke so I was more than a bit surprised to see that it had made a substantial bid for a majority shareholding in a local mobile phone company that was going to cost some US$40 million. A bit further down the page one can also read that a civil service audit report has recommended substantial reductions in the wage bill which gobbles some 80% of revenue.

Perhaps the government thinks spending $40 million that it doesn’t have is going to earn enough to avoid laying off large numbers of its supporters. This is unlikely given the appalling record of the government to do anything well except line the pockets of the faithful.

The 11th November came and went with little fanfare in the papers about remembering Armistice Day. In this part of the world it is also known as the anniversary of Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) that broke Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known) away from British colonial rule. Most years it passes with little if any comment but this year was the 50th anniversary. I must admit I’d forgotten about this until I saw it in the social media.

The state controlled press in the form of The Herald newspaper wasted no time in reporting that “unrepentant Rhodies” in other parts of the world had been celebrating this anniversary (Rhodie is a derogatory term for ex-Rhodesians). One ZANU-PF (ruling party) spokesman, Cde Simon Khaya Moyo (Cde is the abbreviation for “comrade” that only the party faithful and state press use) went so far as to reiterate that “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again”. He was apparently referring to social media posts in Australia advertising celebrations for the 50th UDI anniversary. Quite why he felt threatened by people having a party half the world away is not made clear.

Why anyone would want to celebrate the UDI is beyond me too. I was nearly 6 at the time and almost certainly looking forward to what my parents promised to be my last birthday party in 6 days time. The UDI culminated in a bush war that took my father’s life and very nearly took mine. I most certainly don’t look back on Ian Smith with any fondness even if he was right that the Mugabe regime would ruin the country. He was most certainly wrong to declare UDI but I don’t lose any sleep over it; I have more important things to consider like my birthday in 2 days time and just making ends meet.

About the units

9 05 2015

Zimbabwe (Rhodesia as it was then) went metric in 1970. We were using the old imperial system up to then; acres, pounds, ounces, miles, feet and inches etc. The property my mother owned in Penhalonga was measured in morgen. The metric system is far easier to use. Like I mentioned to my sister in the USA it’s all in base 10 and length and mass are related. Want to convert metres to kilometres? Move the decimal point! Despite all this, 45 years later, relics of the old system remain.

Yesterday in the industrial sites of Harare I was shopping for hardware essential in our annual maintenance programme. I blithely asked for 25kg of 6 inch nails! I could have asked for 150mm nails and everyone would have known what I was asking for but try saying “150mm” and then “6 inch”. Much easier to say 6 inch! Relics exist elsewhere too, nowhere more bizarrely than in plumbing. Old style copper and steel piping is measured in inches and refers to the internal diameter. PVC piping is measured in mm and refers to the outside diameter. It is a blatant conversion of the old system; 50mm is 2 inches, 32mm is 1¼ inches etc. Speed and distance are all firmly metric as is temperature and mass. ºF is utterly meaningless to me though I can grasp pounds weight and speed if I think about it. That the weight of the recent UK royal baby was measured in pounds didn’t mean much except that I think it was in the normal range.

One day the world will actually share the same system of units and we will look back at the old system with puzzlement and wonder why we put up with it for so long. That it costs the USA (and presumably Liberia and Burma) vast amounts of money to not metricate is beyond doubt. The only disputed fact is how much.

For a fascinating and entertaining read on the invention of the metric system (amongst other things) read Chet Raymo’s “Walking Zero”

Nothing new, or, Whatever happened to Aiden Diggeden?

16 02 2012

The police are everywhere these days. I see them under the big tree on the way into town trapping those who are careless with their speed. Other favourite spots include stop streets and certain traffic lights that people like to run. Mini busses are favourite prey and in Mutare they even pay a “levy” of around $5 which ensures that they are not pulled over for other infringements. It’s all part of a strategy to self finance the police. Spot fines tend to be inflated as most people are unaware of what they should be so several of my friends carry a schedule of the gazetted fines just in case. My friend Gary was in the local post office in Borrowdale this week having come up to Harare so that June, his wife, could have an operation on her broken leg. He got chatting to a gentlemen in the queue who seemed to know a lot about the subject. He told Gary that the police would even go so far as to release prisoners to do certain “work” and then they police would get some extra income, the prisoner would get a cut and go back to jail.

I mentioned this to Derek who had been in the  (Zimbabwe used to be called Rhodesia) CID (Criminal Investigation Department) of the Rhodesian BSAP (British South Africa Police) for many years. “Oh that’s nothing new” he said. “In the 1960s there was a certain criminal called Aiden Diggeden who was something of a folk hero around here. He was in jail in Bulawayo while there was a wage train robbery and the investigating officer noticed that Diggeden’s fingerprints were at the crime scene. A bit of investigation revealed that one of the prison warders had been letting him out at night to go and commit crimes and they would share the takings”.

Helen, Derek’s wife, was in the same class as Aiden at Chaplin School near Gweru and she said that his career in crime started when his step-father would not give him pocket-money so he would commit petty crime to get himself and his friends sweets. On several occasions her father gave him pocket-money.

Diggeden was a natural athlete and escaped Rhodesia to South Africa where he qualified for the South African Olympic team as a gymnast. An off duty Rhodesian policeman on holiday in South Africa saw him in a press photo under another name so he was extradited back to Rhodesia. He used his athletic prowess on several occasions to escape jail and used to keep fit in his cell by running up the wall and somersaulting back onto his feet.

On a well-known occasion he and another prisoner broke out of the jail on Enterprise road. They had managed to smuggle in some pieces of hacksaw blade and fashioned them into crude tools by inserting the pieces into the end of an old ballpoint pen. This was used to cut through the bars from the outside and Diggeden wrote a letter to Helen to ask her for paints, presumably to hide where they’d been cutting. They also sawed the frame of the door into pieces and put them back so that they were not discovered. Strips of canvas were stolen out of the prison workshop where canvas bags were made and on the night of the escape ladders were fabricated from the canvas and pieces of door frame. The attempt ran into trouble when Diggeden’s accomplice fell and broke a leg so Diggeden picked him up and left him in the chapel and tried to escape along the prison walls wearing canvas shoes also fabricated from canvas scraps to protect his feet from the glass on the wall. By this time the alarm had been raised and Diggeden’s route was blocked. Climbing up to the eves of the prison roof he hung by his hands and moved along to a trapdoor and then swung up into the roof. He was eventually apprehended in a water tank in the roof where he’d been hiding for 3 days.

“Diggeden was eventually deported to the UK where he got into more trouble and was locked up in Wormwood Scrubs” continued Derek. “I also heard that he got involved in crime in Canada and South America. Last I heard he’d committed suicide after getting tired of a life of crime and incarceration, but I am not sure about when or where” Derek concluded.


5 04 2010

Now in her 74th year, Els is still a strikingly good looking woman. By her own admission she likes to talk but I suspected that she was also lonely and she’d certainly had an interesting life so I just sat back and listened. I’d taken a small present of a digital camera and a wind-up torch that Sybille had left over to her riding school on Saturday and I’d nothing else to do.

In the early 1970s she came out from Holland to what was then Rhodesia to stay with a friend in the Nyanga area and at a function met her future husband. Two months later they were married and moved onto his remote farm in Nyanga North, some 35km north of the village of the same name. A thoroughly resourceful woman she set about fixing up the run down homestead and raising a family in what she described as the happiest time of her life – her children had free range of the farm and she felt very comfortable out in the bush (“…the silence, oh the silence was marvellous!”).

My father and mother met in the same area also having come out from Europe (though some 20 years previously) so we enjoyed chatting about some of the characters in the area though they were a generation earlier than me. There was Major Mac (McIllwaine) who could always be found by the fire in the reception area of Troutbeck Hotel. Legend has it that the fire has never gone out and Els remembered that he could never remember her name either. There were also the Wyrley-Birches, one of the white pioneer families of the area in whose first house running water meant the stream through the middle of the house. My father (who’d known them well) once told me that when a favourite dog died Colonel Wyrley (as he was known) would have the dog skinned and the skin put on the back of  a chair in the lounge. I didn’t believe him, my father loved to tease, but I remember a particular visit as a teenager to their house below Mt Inyangani and sure enough, there was a retriever type skin on the back of a sofa!

As the war in Rhodesia escalated Els and her family had to move off their farm and her husband got a job at the Clairmont Estate near Juliasdale, south of Nyanga village. It all went tragically wrong one afternoon and he was murdered whilst checking up on a potato spraying operation in 1979. Ignoring family pleas to move back to Holland, Els moved to Harare where she established her riding school (she’d worked  and qualified at a riding school in Holland where she’d taught the current Queen Beatrix and has a photo of the young queen on a horse) and where she still is today. She mentioned to me that her eldest son, married with children and working in Holland, was coming back to Zimbabwe as Holland was in his opinion no place to raise children – he missed the space in Zimbabwe. Els grew up in a house which had no garden and she was not allowed to keep pets. We sat on her verandah and admired the tortoise lumbering across the lawn and the 80 m or so of garden to the gate that was out of site.

Yes, despite all it’s problems Zimbabwe can still be a great place to live – if you have a reliable income! Harare probably has one of the best climates of a capital city anywhere – it is seldom more than 35 degrees C and rarely goes below 10 and then only at night. Crime by South African standards is very low, most people are very friendly and there are still fascinating people like Els to talk to!