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!





Celebrating 33

17 04 2013

Tomorrow Zimbabwe will be 33. And there will be celebrations. Those cynical people who have never visited this amazing country may ask what we have to celebrate. I will answer them.

  • We have 3 big South African supermarket chains with outlets that would not look amiss in South Africa – spotting the Zimbabwean produce can be a challenge though.
  • We have  plenty of fuel at competitive prices.
  • We have the biggest fertilizer company in South Africa selling  their top quality fertilizer.
  • We  have manageable inflation. Officially it is 4.5% but it may be a little higher than that in reality.
  • 10% of the population is employed!
  • We have a stable currency (not our own) in the US dollar
  • We have the world’s best climate along with Malta.
  • We have been a democracy longer than South Africa. There is a slight financial problem in funding the next general election this year but we will make a plan for the shortfall of $100 million or so.

I mean really, with all this, who needs an economy?





The referendum – to vote or not

14 03 2013

Referenda (that’s plural of referendum)  are rare in Zimbabwe, unlike in Switzerland where they are distinctly popular. So Saturday’s referendum to accept or discard the new draft constitution should be a big deal but I am predicting the turnout will be poor.

All three of the major political parties have endorsed the draft constitution and are pushing for a yes vote so it’s pretty much fait accompli. I have had a look at the document (easily available online) but at some 88 pages of a pdf file have just cherry-picked the more pertinent points.

Despite being born here I have no birthright to Zimbabwe citizenship:

Chapter 3. Section 36

  1. Persons are Zimbabwean citizens by birth if they are born in Zimbabwe and, when they are born:
    1. either their mother or their father was a Zimbabwean citizen; or
    2. any of their grandparents was a Zimbabwean citizen by birth or descent.

    As both my parents were British I don’t qualify so I have to look under Section 38.

2. Any person who has been continuously and lawfully resident in Zimbabwe for at least ten years, whether before or after the effective date, and who satisfies the conditions prescribed by an Act of Parliament, is entitled, on application, to be registered as a Zimbabwean citizen.

Which seems to indicate that I have to apply! As I already am a citizen under the previous constitution this might not actually apply but I find it amazing that I cannot be a citizen by birth. There cannot be too many countries in the world where this applies.

The death penalty still stands which it did not in a previous version (it has been a long and tortuous path to this version).

Chapter 4. Section 48. Right to life

  1. Every person has the right to life.
  2. A law may permit the death penalty to be imposed only on a person convicted of murder committed in aggravating circumstances, and:
    1. the law must permit the court a discretion whether or not to impose the penalty;
    2. the penalty may be carried out only in accordance with a final judgment of a competent court;
    3. the penalty must not be imposed on a person:the penalty must not be imposed or carried out on a woman;  and
      1. who was less than twenty-one years old when the offence was committed;  or
      2. who is more than seventy years old;
    4. the penalty must not be imposed or carried out on a woman;  and
    5. the person sentenced must have a right to seek pardon or commutation of the penalty from the President.

    I do find it bizarre that the death penalty cannot be carried out on a woman – surely this is preferential treatment and not “equality”.

Under section 72. Rights to Agricultural Land:

  1. Where agricultural land, or any right or interest in such land, is required for a public purpose, including:
    1. settlement for agricultural or other purposes;
    2. land reorganisation, forestry, environmental conservation or the utilisation of wild life or other natural resources; or
    3. the relocation of persons dispossessed as a result of the utilisation of land for a purpose referred to in subparagraph (a) or (b);

    the land, right or interest may be compulsorily acquired by the State by notice published in the Gazette identifying the land, right or interest, whereupon the land, right or interest vests in the State with full title with effect from the date of publication of the notice.

  2. Where agricultural land, or any right or interest in such land, is compulsorily acquired for a purpose referred to in subsection (2):All agricultural land which:
    1. no compensation is payable in respect of its acquisition, except for improvements effected on it before its acquisition;
    2. no person may apply to court for the determination of any question relating to compensation, except for compensation for improvements effected on the land before its acquisition, and no court may entertain any such application; and
    3. the acquisition may not be challenged on the ground that it was discriminatory in contravention of section 56.
    1. was itemised in Schedule 7 to the former Constitution; or
    2. before the effective date, was identified in terms of section 16B(2)(a)(ii) or (iii) of the former Constitution;

    continues to be vested in the State, and no compensation is payable in respect of its acquisition except for improvements effected on it before its acquisition.

The government can still compulsorily acquire agricultural land (not urban). This is by any standard non-democratic and contrary to Chapter 1, Section 3 – Founding Values and Principles:

2. The principles of good governance, which bind the State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level, include:

  1. a multi-party democratic political system;

If this all seems heavy going – it is, so check out a summary at the kubatana website.

It is worth noting that this draft constitution has only been available to the general public without access to the internet (most of Zimbabwe) for 3 weeks when it was published as a supplement to The Herald newspaper. This is not nearly enough time to analyse and digest it to any significant degree so I must conclude that the government has a vested interest in rushing it through. Why are the other political parties, who were at the end of last year very much against this constitution, now supporting it? I have no idea what sort of deal has been cut behind closed doors to prompt this sort of U-turn.

When I dropped Shelton off at the University of Zimbabwe I asked him if he was going to vote. He paused and then said; “No. It’s fait accompli and I suspect most people will boycott it. It is very flawed”.

Will I vote? No, I don’t think so. I agree that it is fait accompli and the best way of registering my displeasure is to contribute to what I hope will be a dismal turnout.

P.S. It is now Saturday, the day of the referendum. David Colthart, the minister of Education, Arts and Culture, has just been quoted on the BBC. He said we really have no choice for if we don’t accept this less-than-perfect constitution we will revert to the truly odious previous (i.e. the current) one. David  Colthart is a lawyer by training, a constitutional lawyer no less. So I guess he has a point.  It was also remarked on the same program that adoption of the new constitution is no guarantee that it will be respected by the powers   that be.

 





Relics – an old tractor and the CFU

13 02 2013

Agriculture House is situated on Marlborough Drive in the suburb of the same name on the north-west of Harare. It was once the home of the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), the union that in its day represented the majority of commercial farmers in Zimbabwe. It was a powerful organisation that was a thorn in the side of the government for many years. But that was a long time ago and today my footsteps echoed in the large, silent entrance hall where I’d come on anything but agricultural business. I walked around the tractor on the plinth and up the stairs to a long, dark corridor.

Yes, that is 1917 on the front of this old Fordson tractor!

Yes, that is 1917 on the front of this old Fordson tractor!

Finding the door I needed I knocked and entered. I’d come to collect a tripod mount that I’d ordered from the UK through a small company based in the building. I got chatting to the woman who’d served me. It seemed that the CFU had sold the building some months previously and now it was now administered by a government company that let out offices to anyone who had need of them. This was not a new development – the CFU had the same practice when it was there but it had been busy and bustling then.

Once the farm invasions had started the CFU membership dried up and it became a relic of its former glory. I’d been a member through my company but got fed-up with the lack of service and did not bother to renew my membership some 8 years ago. At one stage it had a very good technology section that in itself made membership worthwhile but when I phoned the Agricultural Labour Bureau up with a labour problem and was referred to the National Employment Council (a refereeing body between employer and employee) I realized it was time to go.

Walking out of the sprawling complex I wondered why the tractor had not been taken. It has 1917 on the front so it might be worth something. Now it was also just a relic of a bygone era when Zimbabwe’s agriculture industry had held the region’s respect for its farming skills and exports.