It’s still a beautiful country

23 05 2021
Centenary – northern Zimbabwe

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

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

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

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

My covid “passport”

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

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

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

Pure delight!

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

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

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





The covid is back – this time it’s for real

7 01 2021

Phil is a big man, in all senses of the word. He farms chickens just up the road from my work and pops in regularly to buy seedlings for his veggie garden. I’ve never seen him in anything but a buoyant mood. He was slightly less so on Tuesday morning as the conversation veered to the current resurgence of the covid-19 in Zimbabwe and the newly enforced lock-down.

Zimbabwean ingenuity (or rule flaunting) at work. Petrol being offloaded at as small local filling station, sans safety procedures. The regular fuel tanker had broken down so they “made a plan” Zimbabwe style. The box in the foreground is an old petrol pump, pumping out of the bowser, stripped of its calibration equipment and metering. This to me epitomises the Zimbabwean attitude to rules.

“My father-in-law is in a bad way with covid” he said. “He’s got a heart condition that needs treating in South Africa but travel is out of the question now. I’ve managed to find 20kg of oxygen that should last 5 days or so but basically he’s waiting to die at home. He is 80” he added with a shrug.

In the first wave of covid Zimbabwe emerged mostly unscathed. The truth was that testing was sparse and deaths from the disease largely unreported but I couldn’t find anyone who knew anyone who’d died from the disease or contracted it. Conversations with my staff about 6 weeks ago yielded a complete blank. People were blasé – masks were badly worn if at all, social distancing was ignored, the curfew disdained. The government followed the South African lead almost to the letter and after three programmes of progressively more relaxed restrictions allowed life to return to near normality. We thought we were out of the woods or at least could see the beginning of the treeline. We were wrong.

Towards the end of December last year the indicators started to creep up. I don’t follow the local news and anyway, as I said earlier, testing is sparse, but reports of clinics and hospitals filling up with covid patients emerged on the social media. We ignored it and had a few guests around on New Year’s Day. We relaxed – the tier lock-down system in the UK that my brother and cousin were having to endure seemed very far away. It was a nice sunny day.

On Sunday afternoon the government Minister of Health (who is a former army general and not noted for his rationality) released a statement saying that as of Tuesday 5th January we were back into a 30 day lock-down. All non-essential businesses were to close and others to stay open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (agriculture was to continue as usual so my business is unaffected). Monday was a frenzy of shopping to make sure we had enough fertilizer and chemicals to at least last the next 30 days. A borehole switch control box had been hit by a power surge and needed replacing. It was easily replaced but expensive at US$280. Fortunately there was no damage to the motor.

The first day of the lock-down seemed like business as usual. There were just as many vehicles on the road, just as many people not wearing masks at all (or badly), the tyre shop at the local service station was open as was the taco trailer in the forecourt. The hardware supermarket across the road was closed in the morning and open in the afternoon. Soldiers at the local barracks were slashing grass outside with masks around their chins. Zak, my Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, needed to go to the vet around 10 a.m. Traffic was not light and the vet practice was busy. He’d had a bit of a cough and we were worried that his bone cancer had moved to his lungs as it can do. The X-rays were clear and we kept our social distance. Ant, the vet, snapped his mask on and off his mouth several times and said “I struggle to breath through this thing” but left it in place.

Yesterday I read my staff the riot act. Keenly aware that a similar lecture back in April had in time rung hollow, this time around I could say I knew someone (almost true) who was dying of covid, citing Phil’s father-in-law. They were suitably sombre. I emphasized that if anyone got the disease medical help would not be at hand. Government hospitals are under equipped and under staffed and nurses are recruited voluntarily to nurse patients. They are not forming queues. Private hospitals are full and beyond the pocket of the majority of Zimbabweans. Media reports tell of people with good financial resources who cannot find oxygen for any sum of money. This time the threat is real.

Arriving home for lunch yesterday Marianne told me that one of our guests on New Year’s Day had tested positive for the covid virus. A bit of basic maths and internet research (Harvard Medical School website) indicated that she’d likely been infectious on the day. I’d had no contact with her but Marianne had. A phone call to our doctor and we are now on Ivermectin, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc and are under instruction to self- isolate. Ivermectin use as an anti-viral is controversial but it’s regarded as a very safe medication and our doctor who is self-isolating as a result of one of her domestic staff developing covid is also taking it.

At the moment we are both fine and whilst Marianne works from home I am house-bound and writing a blog post though I have plenty of other projects to fill the time for the next week (the control box for the borehole motor is already fixed). Vaccination is a non- starter, not because I don’t want it (I do) but because Zimbabwe is utterly broke and the corrupt politicians who rule are far more interested in plundering the state coffers than running the country – they no doubt are hoping for a donation of vaccines so that they can continue looting. It looks like the way to herd immunity will be the natural route with lots of casualties along the way.

Phil, the chicken farmer, claims to have had covid. Some 6 months ago he told me that he’d just finished a lock-down as both he and his wife had contracted the virus. It transpired that actually his wife had submitted a test and received a positive result, Phil had declined to spend the US$65 and just assumed that feeling lousy for 4 days was the result of the disease. I’ve never seen him wear a mask since. He claims “I’m cured”. I keep my distance from him.





Snakes and rabies

6 12 2012

In the 7 years that I have been in this house  I have only ever seen a live snake in the garden once and that was a very small boomslang (a timid but venomous tree snake) that did not wait around to be examined. So at lunch time when my domestic servant pointed out a largish charcoal-coloured snake in the rockery I was intrigued. My first priority was to get Kharma out of the way as I had no intention of finding out if she was snake-savvy or not. Dogs often are snake aware and Gary, whose farm I visited last weekend, has a ridgeback that is adept at killing snakes. My mother had a Jack Russell that thought it was a snake killer but on two encounters with cobras came off second best with venom in its eyes. My mother washed the dog’s eyes with water and gave it antibiotic eye drops and it recovered just fine. Cassie, my first dog (see Canine Chronicles on the right) was bitten on her face by what could only have been a puff-adder when I was living in the Chinhoyi area. After a couple of hours she looked more like a Shar Pei than a labrador but she recovered fine after I took her to a helpful farmer who gave her a big shot of penicillin (all the vets in the area were at a party). The next day she had cortisone injected into the bite area and after 5 days I couldn’t tell she’d been bitten. She lived another 13 glorious years without incident.

I told Kharma to get inside the house. She thought she was being scolded and sulked off down the verandah. I asked her nicely and she obeyed. I called the farm manager who said he didn’t have a shotgun handy but would come and have a look. I phoned Dave who knows about snakes but he didn’t answer. Gary seemed to think it could be a cobra or a black mamba but I was almost, but not quite, certain the latter don’t occur around here. The difference is important; cobras are not particularly quick or aggressive and mambas are both quick and aggressive. A bite from either can be fatal.

I caught a cobra by the tail once but I did have a major advantage on it. It was on a smooth concrete floor in a flower packhouse and couldn’t get any grip. I wasn’t sure what it was but knew that very few snakes can climb up their tail so just picked it up by the tail and put it in a fertilizer bag. I do know people who will catch black mamabas but they are fleet of foot and quick of reflex which I am most certainly not.

The farm manager arrived and was none-the-wiser as to what snake it was (it was uncooperatively hiding its head behind a rock). Some more farm workers arrived and looked dubiously  at the snake and one went off to find a stick with which to dispatch it. I offered to go and get my shotgun which is kept at work as required by the licence. Dave phoned back as I got to the pickup and said it was almost certainly an Egyptian/snouted cobra. I was called back to the front of the house and the snake had been killed; it was a cobra. Not a big one and I felt a bit sad that it had come to this. They have been around a lot longer than us so have a right to be here but I could not risk Kharma being bitten.

Kharma of course did not understand what all the fuss was about but was ecstatic to be let out and go for a drive in the pickup. She was less than ecstatic to arrive at the vet for her annual injections and rabies booster. Rabies vaccines are not normally required to be administered annually but while at Gary’s last weekend he recounted the recent incident he’d experienced with a rabid horse. Ignorant of the symptoms he’d initially thought it might be the equine equivalent of biliary, a blood parasite that in dogs is frequently fatal. It was only when the horse started attacking his dogs that he realized it was likely rabies. They have had a number of incidents this year with rabid stray dogs and one of his cows caught the virus and had to be destroyed. The carcase was buried in an old alluvial gold mining pit near the Hunyani River and promptly dug up by locals and eaten! I haven’t seen any rabid dogs around here but the vet told me that there have been a few on the north-east of town so we thought it prudent to keep Kharma up to date.

Snakes, by the way, don’t get rabies.