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





A nice idea

3 02 2015

Towards the end of last year Zimbabwe was abuzz with the news that bond coins were going to be introduced. The news was not well received and, despite strong denial from the Reserve Bank, rumours abounded that it was an attempt by the government to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar. I had seen one or two but up until today had not actually received any as change.

Small change

Small change

Small change is in notoriously short supply in Zimbabwe. South African coins (2 RAND lower right) have been useful in that they are roughly 1/10 the value of a dollar (so the 2 RAND coin is valued at 20c) but obviously they have to be bought at least the face value plus some sort of commission. The bond coins, which are minted in South Africa, are pegged at equal to the US dollar though they have no value outside the country. They certainly cost less to produce than their face value. A nice idea and certainly preferable to receiving ball point pens or sweets as change which was the case. People receiving lots of coins, such as the mini bus drivers, can go and change the coins at the end of the day for paper money at a bank. Except, as Shelton tells me, most refuse to accept them.





Perspective

14 09 2014

We descended below the clouds some 20 minutes out of Harare airport. A bit of mental arithmetic made that some 100 km or so depending on the speed of the aircraft. I wasn’t in a window seat but had a reasonably clear view of the countryside and kept an eye open for irrigated crops, their intense green easy to spot at this time of year against the brown of the veld. Nothing. One or two old centre pivot irrigation fields were detectable by their characteristic circular pattern but now they were derelict. Plenty of dams though and they were mostly full in this, the dry season. Yes, I was definitely home.

congress

The keynote address at the first day of the International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane

The International Society of Horticultural Science holds a International Congress every 4 years in a different country.

This year it was in Brisbane, Australia and I decided it was time to go and see just where horticulture was going. It was impressively well organized in the modern conference centre on the south bank of the Brisbane River. More than 3000 delegates attended over the 5 days that it was run and the range of topics covered by the symposia necessitated a fair degree of choosiness. Presentations varied from excellent to hopelessly technical with a few mediocre thrown in for good measure. While I didn’t find anything directly relevant to my business it was worthwhile and my curiosity was well satisfied (or more precisely – saturated) by the end. The final dinner was a festive affair with a good band, dancers, magician and plenty to eat and drink. Rather depressingly I found myself to be of the average age – where was the future of horticulture which as one of the keynote speakers pointed out will be the future of feeding the world (horticulture is defined as being intensive agriculture)?

After the congress it was time to catch up with friends – some of whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years when I was last in Australia, doing the backpacker “thing”. I made some last minute changes to the itinerary and needing to book a flight to Canberra from Sydney I pulled out the smart phone in Brisbane airport and 3 hours later in Sydney got onto the plane to Canberra. Australia works. First world (not sure why I was expecting anything else but it really works). Of course first world functionality comes at a first world price and my friend Peter whom I visited in Orange (also in NSW) told me that Australia is now officially the world’s 4th most expensive country to live in. I can believe it. A small (by Harare standards) 3 bedroom house in Orange will go for some 5-600,000 Aus dollars and the gardens are miniscule! A meal for 3 of us at a good restaurant, though certainly unexceptional, in Brisbane cost $160 without alcohol. It would have been about $75 in Harare. It’s all to do with high labour costs I am told. That and the vast mining industry that powers the Australian economy.

Pasture land around Orange

Pasture land around Orange

That is not to say that agriculture is insignificant either. Australia has some 13 million ha of wheat production, mostly for export. Zimbabwe was once self sufficient in wheat and exported maize. Now we import both. Unlike Australia where most extensive agriculture is going the corporate farming route with vast tracts of land being farmed, Zimbabwe is heavily reliant on the small scale producers. The mostly white commercial farmers were kicked off their land in the early 2000s – hence the idle dams and land that I saw coming into Harare. In Australia most extensive agriculture relies on rain whereas in Zimbabwe irrigation is essential, especially for winter/dry season production.

canola fields

Canola (oilseed rape) near Orange, NSW

Oilseed rape (Canola) was abundant in the short trip we did around Orange, again mostly farmed by corporate organisations. This is not a crop we grow in Zimbabwe and unlike Zimbabwe, most states in Australia have embraced GMO crops. With labour costs that high GM farming is very attractive (most of the GM crops we saw were of the Roundup Ready® variety – i.e. weeds can be controlled by herbicide sprayed over the crop but the crop is unaffected). GMOs are banned in Zimbabwe though I know that they are imported illegally from South Africa where they are commonly grown.

Back in Queensland with another friend also called Peter we did the rounds of the farming area. The soil is much more fertile in the Darling Downs region than in most of Australia and it is used to the maximum. Again, mostly without irrigation and the maximum use of mechanization to keep labour costs down.

A few people at the congress in Brisbane asked me how many staff I employed. 14 labourers, 2 foremen and 8 contract labour. They looked stunned especially when I explained the size of the nursery. A nursery of similar size in Australia would employ perhaps 4 people. We are still third world here.

Being driven back home from the airport I couldn’t help but compare the filth of the Harare streets with the immaculate ones of Brisbane. BrizVegas, as the locals like to call it, is spotless. Like any modern, first world city, there is also lots to do there. There are two art galleries, a library that offers evening courses in, amongst other things, film making and of course lots of shows that are booked out months in advance. We don’t get much in the way of quality international entertainment here in Harare except perhaps for HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) once a year and it’s relatively easy to get tickets there.

Brisbane from the river - there's real money here!

Brisbane from the river – there’s real money here!

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

BrisVegas from the south bank of the Brisbane River

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

A sculpture at the Gallery of Modern Art. I got this one, a lot was less comprehensible.

Back home the dogs were ecstatic, the lawn was dead from lack of water (it regrows in the rains), there was dust everywhere and the nursery was just fine. It had been good to get a perspective on the real world out there but it was also great to be home.

 





I have seen the future

7 11 2013

Entertainment in Harare can be a bit lean – the West End we are not. So people get creative. Drinking is a popular pastime with the sports clubs and various bars, especially on a Friday night. Most middle-income families have satellite TV with all the usual channels that one could find in Europe or the UK. I have found the satellite TV with its endless repeats and bad films tedious so opt to get my entertainment from the internet and in the form of DVDs from Amazon UK. They take 10 days or less from the UK and if I’m lucky, which mostly I am, I don’t get charged duty provided I keep the orders small.

The internet is not bad in Harare. As I live just out-of-town I don’t have access to the genuine broadband from the newly laid fibre optic cables that have been going in for the last year or so.  I rely on WiMax which is generally OK though occasionally it just loses the connection. I could get the ISP techs to come out and redirect the aerial but that would mean killing the bees in the chimney onto which the WiMax aerial is attached, so I just put up with it.

I collected a number of DVDs from the post office yesterday and, last night, being thoroughly unmotivated, sat down to watch the latest Star Trek film. I should explain I am not a “Trekkie” but I have seen one of two a few years ago so thought it would be quite fun to see how things have changed. Well, I have seen the future according to Star Trek and it is good. Some 200 years in the future we will still have a role in flying complex spacecraft which still have engine throttles à la current airliners. The aforesaid spacecraft will have beam weapons that still miss and humans will still fly them through impossibly small gaps that a computer just could not manage despite being able to beam crew members up to distant locations. Pretty girls will still be wearing impossibly short skirts (a pity I won’t be around for that) and medical staff will be wearing starched white safari suits. The baddies will still be speaking with a plummy English accent and over-acting the part and the goodies will be led by an arrogant American who learns humility through self-sacrifice. Quite familiar and not at all bad. The future that is, I definitely won’t be buying another Star Trek DVD.

It seems the Minister of Finance in Zimbabwe is struggling to see or imagine what the economy might be doing next year. He has postponed presenting a budget this year and has said it will come out early in the New Year. My guess is that he simply hasn’t got a solution for the lack of money in the economy. Employment is still falling and I know of at least two people made redundant from companies that have closed in the last 6 months. My company had an excellent September and dismal October. It’s not often that the deposit summary that I print out for the bookkeeper only runs to one page. In fact, I think this is the first time it has ever happened. The future I am seeing here is not great.

It is not all doom and gloom of course. The Acacia karoo outside my bedroom (that I planted 9 or so years ago) has been in splendid bloom and alive with insects, all living for the present. I caught this wasp, plundering nectar. Its future is now and I bet it doesn’t give a hoot for tomorrow.

A wasp feasts on Acacia nectar

A wasp feasts on Acacia nectar





Grapes of wrath

5 09 2013

“2 million face hunger” the newspaper billboard blared.  It didn’t say where but I assumed it had to be in Zimbabwe. It was certainly nothing new and the newspaper headlines here are notorious for being misleading.

Topping up on supplies in the supermarket a bit further along the road I noticed some grapes. “Produce of Egypt” it said on the side of the box.

gyppo grapesWell things couldn’t be too bad if we can still import Egyptian grapes I thought. So I bought some. They tasted good for “grapes of wrath”. The skins were a bit tough but tasty, yes. I guess the producers were not concerned where their grapes went – just so long as they still have a market.

The hawk moth I found outside the bank. I had no interest in finding out how tasty it was but given the rather contrasting background I wouldn’t be surprised if a more natural predator had a go.

hawk moth





The election part 2 – where to now?

7 08 2013

As Helen said to me on Saturday; “If it’s such a landslide victory for ZANU-PF where are the celebrating crowds?”. They certainly weren’t on the street in Harare. Or anywhere else that I have heard. A client coming through the airport on Sunday night said the officials there were in “shell-shock”. The stock market, that perennial barometer of things economic, reacted on Monday by dropping 11% in value. Austin muttered at the gym that once again we’d failed to grasp the scale of what ZANU-PF was capable of doing. German Embassy officials I spoke to on Saturday commented that it was a blatantly fraudulent election and yes, it would be declared fraudulent in a court of law. But perhaps not a Zimbabwean one. The USA, UK and EC have described the elections as deeply flawed.

As I type this on Wednesday morning 2 ZEC (Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) officials have resigned in disgust.

Jacob Zuma, the South Africa president, has endorsed the results as “free and fair” as has the African Union observer team. Other African observers have declared various degrees of reservations on the veracity of the outcome.

Botswana is asking for an audit (their president, Ian Kharma, and ours have never seen eye-to-eye).

ZANU-PF are crowing that they “have a mandate from the people” to change the constitution with their 2/3 parliamentary majority and will be enforcing the 51% indigenous ownership (that means black Zimbabweans) of all companies. Hence the stock market slump.

Most Zimbabweans I have met are continuing as normal. Yesterday I watched as a group of older women bought roses in the next-door nursery.

My doctor said she’d not prescribed any more Prozac than normal.

On Saturday night I attended the first graduation of the current Dance Foundation Course (DFC) for which I am a trustee. Politics could not have been further from anyone’s mind. The students had great fun showing off their new skills, proud families celebrated and even the guest of honour, the US Ambassador relaxed a little. So to answer the question in the title; I suppose we will just wait and see as we have been doing for the last 45 years.





Licorice bootlaces

9 05 2013

I stuck my tongue out at the rear-view mirror; it wasn’t black like it should have been. I was only slightly disappointed. I’d found the licorice boot laces (they were more like ribbon cable than the knotted boot laces I remember from junior school) in, of all places the aquarium shop, and I was well pleased. The car in front of me pulled onto Harare Drive from Drew Road and was immediately pulled over by the police standing under the trees showing off their bright yellow traffic armbands. I made a show of stopping longer than necessary by the stop sign and then turned left as another car opposite me turned right and pushed ahead of me. I muttered a curse and then another as a policeman pulled me over.

“Who had right of way at that intersection?”

“I did because he was cutting across the line of traffic” I replied wondering if this was my provisional licence test over again.

“But he was already in the intersection”.

“How do you know where the intersection is if there are no white lines marking it?”. I was not going to be bullied in this one.

“But you did not stop at the stop sign”. A change of direction, if you will.

“Yes I did, you were not watching”

“I need to see your licence”.

I passed it over knowing that I could not now just drive off.

“If you want to challenge this then we will have to go to court”.

“No problem”. Now I was committed.

“I will go and get an officer to come with you to the traffic centre”. He was giving me a chance to back out and pay a fine.

“Please do”. I dug in my heels and he wandered off to his colleagues.

I really was prepared to go to court over this. Whilst I was not at all sure if the white  line was necessary I thought I could at least get a story out of this and if I really dug in I could call his bluff as I was pretty sure he did not want to go to court and answer awkward questions. I phoned my insurance broker to see if he knew and watched the cops in the rear view mirror. Trevor couldn’t help so I settled down to wait. The police were chatting amongst themselves, wasting my time – I suspected. Finally another strolled over.

“What happened there, why didn’t you stop behind the stop sign?”

“I did. I could see you here with your yellow arm bands. Why would I not stop? I know this is your favorite spot. You need to hide a bit better”.

He seemed to find this hugely funny.

“Here is your licence, you can go” he said, passing it over.

“While you are here”, I replied as he turned to go, “what about the white lines, aren’t there supposed to be white lines?”

“Yes, there are. But they are difficult to find in Zimbabwe these days”.

Notes on dealing with the police in these situations:

– always be polite

– never lose your cool

– be committed!

– know your rights.

Stop signs are there to tell you to stop. The solid white line marks where you have to stop not the sign. The white line MUST be there!