Thursday, 30 May 2019

No.84 - A valley in Zimbabwe, 2001: what's changed?

This account of one of my many visits to Zimbabwe, which I recently rediscovered, was published in the East Cape Weekend on August 18 2001, under the headline "Stoic, friendly people survive amid the chaos".  So what has really changed under Mnangagwa's government, 18 years later?

The valley sweeps down from high forested mountain-sides to a flat but narrow floor which leaks into Mozambique. It carries all the scars and memories of its history. Ancient burial-caves keep respectful Shona peoples warily out of the forests; there are leached-out lime-pits and gold workings. There are steeply twisting roads, power-lines, barbed fences, coffee and nut plantations. Along the border rakes the still visible scar of the minefield, relic of the Rhodesian war, the “second Chimurenga”. Twenty years on, mines still explode occasionally, some poor baboon dies. Human smugglers have long since carved clear paths across the fields.

Across the border is the site of one of the dust-ups between the first British invaders and the Portuguese in the 1890s. Local black people were simply overridden in those wars. Now they – or the Mugabe government – are out to “get their own back” – a “third Chimurenga”, some have called the latest land-grab.

It is mid-2001. I walk down the valley road familiar from many visits. Geography dictates that this is a tight-knit community, though really a multinational one: there’s a Swede, and a Jamaican, whites of British and Afrikaans descent, Shona landowners from both sides of the all-but-irrelevant border, an Ndebele lawyer. There are farm workers, a doctor, crafts-people, retired folk, a couple of store-keepers, a hotelier. Their properties are small or steeply inaccessible. It’s not in the front-line of the violence racking Zimbabwe’s big commercial farms. But it’s still under siege, a fragile haven threatened in many less obvious ways – a microcosm, in fact, of the way the majority of Zimbabweans are living right now.

As I walk down the road, ragged Mozambicans greet me in hesitant Portuguese. One reeks of fish, dried and humped up from the coast, to be swapped for mealie-meal. Another is loaded with clothing: in the flea-markets you can buy, very cheaply, heavy duvet jackets, inappropriately supplied by Canadian relief organisations to Mozambican refugees; they end up worn by rich Zimbabwean students at South African universities. On the red clay banks of the road, old election slogans are carved and still visible, all Zanu-PF. The opposition MDC have confined themselves to spray-painting on the backs of road-signs. The region voted solidly MDC a year ago: some blame this for the fuel shortage, the government deliberately starving opposition strongholds.

I notice, bizarrely, that the cats’-eyes on this mist-bedevilled road have all been dug up. The story emerges that it’s not the eyes the thieves are after, but the aluminium mountings. They’re melted down – for coffin handles.

“Aids,” says K (names and details have been changed to protect identities). “It’s taken sixteen of my workers in the last year.” K runs a small factory on the border. Because it’s a lucrative little export business he has been able to wangle enough fuel to run his trucks – just. But you can see the strain in his florid, intense face.

“It’s getting harder and harder. No forex. Bad fuel situation. Producers can’t get their stuff to me. No spares, theft from the factory on the rise. I had to fire my building foreman for smuggling my cement across the border. That’s where the real building is happening. But these people are desperate. Never mind the whites, most of us can get out if we have to. But my workers can’t. Prices are rocketing. I pay twice the minimum wage, but I’ve had to stop subsidizing their kids’ schooling, so many just aren’t going any more. It’s a disaster for their generation. Mugabe doesn’t see what he’s doing. If he wants us to go back to the 17th Century, he should get out of his f…ing Rolls Royce and his f…ing Armani suits and go back to the 17th century himself.”

“Mugabe knows exactly what he’s doing,” asserts D, a retired Scot who keeps himself and a couple of workers alive by supplying vegetables to the valley hotel. “He’s bloody clever the way he keeps himself in power. He knows how to manipulate his people – with this”, he says raising a fat Scots fist.
D is leaving in two weeks’ time, going back to Scotland. He’s one of those tough engineers who’ve been through the gamut of African states of independence: Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, finally Zimbabwe. But he’s had enough. The hotel is cutting back, tourism has crashed.

“I can’t make ends meet. Before, I could still earn more than I can on British pension. Not now. And I had this,” he sweeps his hand across the vista of forested mountainside. “Fantastic climate, fine people, never had trouble with my workers in 22 years. Even now they don’t agree with Mugabe’s nonsense. Mugabe knows it; he’s deliberately unleashed anarchy. He’ll declare a State of Emergency and rule by decree.  And he wants us whiteys out. You, too.” He points meaningfully, sadly, at my chest.

Mugabe has more than succeeded: From 180 000 whites in 1981 the white population is down to about 50 000 now – about one half of one percent of Zimbabwe’s total.

F fulminates: “We’re such a tiny minority, it’s ridiculous. Mugabe can’t even begin to seriously believe we’re a threat to him. It’s not about us at all. He’s scared he’s going to get the chop because of what he did in Matabeleland. He checks out [ex-Yugoslavian leader Slobodan] Milosevic and so on, and thinks, I’m going to die in the saddle, or else.”

F is particularly incensed because he’s a third-generation Zimbabwean, albeit white. He’s almost a caricature, comb in sock, bush hat, an attitude towards blacks that hasn’t changed since the ‘60s: “We always knew they’d bugger it up. But I can’t go anywhere else. This is my country. I’ve given it all I’ve got.”

In fact, he is going elsewhere – he’s moving his small irrigation firm to Mozambique, where he’s welcomed with open arms. Too many farmers have stopped ordering equipment -  but just across the border it’s full steam ahead. I suggest to him it’s a little premature to bail out, even now.

“It’s an insurance policy, okay. And why not? There’s no paperwork, there’s petrol for Africa, the roads are better, people are planting. But I’m telling you, there’s a hundred families already over there, waiting to come back the moment Bob’s gone. Lots of people here are saying it can’t get any worse. But look at Angola, Uganda, look at Mozams ten years ago. It can get a helluva lot worse.”


V puts her head in her hands. She’s maybe 50, but still looks like a hippie. Her long hair trails in the coffee she’s served herself in her coffee-shop on the valley road.

“I can last maybe another year,” she says. “Then I’m broke. You’re my first visitor in a week. It takes one murder in the international press, and we small fry are sunk.” 

She’s a one-time political science major who now also runs a small pottery, employing a dozen women. She can’t sell much locally, but finds ways of getting stuff overseas, squirreling away smidgens of forex.

“Even two years ago I wouldn’t have thought of operating this way. But Mugabe is making criminals of all of us. And just to think, back in the ‘70s when I was a student in London, I helped raise funds for Zanu-PF. I got arrested in Trafalgar Square for baring my boobs in an anti-Smith demonstration! You can understand it in a way. Now whites feel exactly the way the Africans felt for so long – no help to be expected from the police, the courts; that desperate helplessness. What the whites were doing back then was evil, but what Mugabe is doing now is also evil. Funny how Smith and Mugabe both believe in a British-led international conspiracy against them. Like they’re twins. You know, I think Mugabe’s mind is the most colonized mind in the country. He can only think in terms of racial binaries – and that’s a form of thinking that colonialism invented.”


M owns a meagre 30-hectare farm. “The bank owns me!” he laughs, “but Mugabe doesn’t realise that if he sinks agriculture, he sinks the banks.”

You can’t imagine anywhere less suitable for the resettlement project. Twenty of his 30 hectares are forest and rock rising at 45o. But M’s property has been designated by the government for compulsory acquisition; three times he’s fought it, been de-listed. Next list, he’s back on. In September 2000 a bunch of people moved on to a strip of land, partly on his property, partly on the next, all previously cleared grazing land.

“That’s old Z’s place; he’s an African and he got designated, too! It’s chaos. And are they war vets? Landless peasants? No, they’re the army. They got a tractor from the Districts Development Fund (paid for by taxpayers). Men in uniform – with jobs already – were ordered to dig. One of them came up to the house, and said ‘teach us to grow flowers’.” I said, “First, you buy seedlings, and shadecloth, and the drip irrigation system. To buy that, first you go to the bank and borrow Z$500 000 (R55 500)”. That’s the last I heard of that”, he chuckles. “But there they are, ploughing up my doorstep, practically. They’ll get one crop of mealies, maybe two, then they’ll have to go somewhere else. What a waste!”
He gestures at an area of land on the opposite slope. “Look at that – unutilized, riddled with wattle and gums. It desperately needs clearing. But do they take that? No, they want the cleared land. Lazy sh…” he mutters darkly then muses, “It’s funny, they’re all gung-ho to get rid of us foreign people, but they don’t give a stuff about the foreign trees. But it’s the trees that will do the most damage in the long run.”
Humour isn’t dead. There’s a story about a pantomime they wanted to stage: “No Whites and the Seven War-Vets.”

Back on the road, I meet a soldier. He’s young, unarmed, and a little tipsy. He greets me effusively.
”I saw some other soldiers working the lands there,” I tell him.
He grins, “Yah! Those are our lands, we have taken back the land.”
“Do you stay there now?”
“Ah no, I stay in town, at the barracks.”
“Are you a war veteran?”
He straightens up. “Yah!”
“How old are you?”
He thinks. “Twenty.”
“So you were born in 1980, the same year as Independence?”
“1981,” he corrects me sternly.
“Ah, same as me,” I joke; he points at my greying hairs and laughs uproariously.

At the little farm store, I find some youngsters playing soccer with a bundle of plastic bags tied together. Apart from the game, and the backdrop of msasa trees, I could be in Harlem: the baseball caps, the dreads, the numbered T-shirts and ‘Harvard’ sweater, even the rapper-jive walk and gestures of the hands. What has happened to their Shona-ness? I think. Mugabe can fulminate all he likes about great Western conspiracies, but it’s these subtler trends that will long outlast his brief regime.


At first I think I am at the wrong house, or perhaps the Swede has been bought out by this elegant, articulate and attentive Shona man who rises from a deskful of papers. But no, he is the house-keeper; the Swede is in Sweden. And what about the upcoming Presidential elections?

“Mugabe will not lose,” he says mournfully. “He has the police, the army. Even the judiciary now.
The opposition are not together, they are na├»ve. So how can he lose? It’s terrible, what is happening. People are beginning to starve. So eventually he will lose. It will come round again, behind him, like a jackal, chup!” And he laughs hugely. These people laugh so much. Then he frowns and adds, “I don’t think he understands morality.”

I ask him why he isn’t doing something more in line with his intellect, teaching or something. “Oh no, I am happy with the quiet life; I just get on with things, I think a lot. But maybe this is the problem with us Shona people; we have to be pushed very hard before we get angry. But we can get angry. As the white people discovered.”

And he gives me a straight, amused look. “Meanwhile, we just try to live with what we have.” There are amazing smells coming from the kitchen. I look at my watch. “I won’t delay your lunch.”
“Oh,” he waves self-effacingly. “I’m just trying out a Thai vegetarian recipe. Will you join me?”


Saturday, 11 May 2019

No.83 - New poem: "Election Day, 2019"

Election Day, 2019

After three decades of lowering mist, a bright day
of sunlight through pine-needles, and steam off rotting fungi.
The geese are voting one way, the guineafowl another.
Left-wing drongos, dark on the wires, taunt the tabby electorate
with their forked tails, their obsidian eyes and promises.
No one believes them any more, or trusts the clouds.
The dogs bark, but the vervets’ rhetoric baffles them.
The bees have compiled their poll, but no one knows
how this day might end for them.

What does the wind think, tainted with the smoke
of loitering desires? Or the sea, tasting saltier to itself
than at any time in its leviathan memory?
Or the noonday sun, burning its hole through the sky?
Or the river, its bounty irrevocably mingled with toxins
and blood? Or the leaves left behind on the floor
of the broken forest, like the remnants of slaves?
Or the doubloons of light on the shadowed lane,
the pointless riches of overthrown kings?

A nameless man is sweeping dead leaves round
and around the parking circle; his toothless
broom splinted with someone else’s rough idea.
Curtained windows and erythrinas observe indifferently.
The night is falling, echoing with uncertainty.
The stars are counting themselves up, the heavens
impassive but for the comets inserting themselves
in the slots in the galaxies. All said and done, the sky
looks much the same. Leaves go on falling through the wind.

(c) Dan Wylie

Sunday, 5 May 2019

No 82 - Cyclone Idai hits Chimanimani

Tempe van der Ruit and her husband Doug, residents of Chimanimani, were swept up in the chaos of Cyclone Idai. Here is her vivid and affecting account:

All photos courtesy Doug and Tempe van der Ruit
Our poor beloved Chimanimani really got hammered by Cyclone Idai.  It was hard to comprehend how a night of heavy rain could have had such a devastating effect.  The mountain behind our house, called Green Mount, got the brunt of the storm.  In three days we had over 750 mms of rain but the damage was done between eight p.m and midnight on Friday the 16th of March.  We were anxious about the heavy rain, thunder, lightning and wind but the worst thing was the ominous low roar. Doug looked outside with a torch and said the sound was water - sheets of it, flowing all around the house.  Every stairway a waterfall.  He was wrong.  The sound was water and mud and rocks moving.

In the morning all seemed well bar a few trees down in the garden – or so we thought.  But it was not long before we discovered that in fact Chimanimani had been flooded, not only with water but with mud and rocks from huge landslides. Green Mount is etched with red scars on every side.  We were just incredibly lucky.  Our house is high enough to be safe, but every valley had changed into a sea of huge rocks and mud and water.  Any house built close to the valleys was broken or gone, including Heaven Lodge, just down the hill from us (half of it was washed away). Our other neighbour up the valley from us, Joshua Sacco's turquoise house was full of mud with a tree in the sitting room window and a waterfall meters from the house.

Down the road - which we could not use because it was washed away - the poor people of the high density suburb Ngangu had suffered more.  Many many houses had washed away.  And it happened so suddenly in the middle of the night that many were lost and dead, many others were injured.  I cannot imagine how terrifying the night must have been for
them.  I imagine the terrible roar and then add the sound of people screaming.  Folk floundering around in the mud and rain trying to find children and each other.  Others trying to take injured people to the hospital or to the Catholic Church. 

We had no electricity.  Wires were strewn all over the village.  We could not get to visit each other at first as in every place where the roads crossed even a culvert, they were washed away and covered in rocks. Doug's famous video of the road and the golf course strewn with rock went viral.  "Golf course gone!" The phones would not work except at our house as we have a generator and a satellite dish.  The only one working in the village so in no time our house became the centre of communications for everyone.

Doug called Bob Henson in Harare; he owns a little helicopter.  The rain continued till Monday when at last Bob arrived in the helicopter and he took Doug to see the district.  More and more bad news came in. Huge floods all the way to Mozambique.  Whole villages washed away at Ndakopa where the Nyahodi River meets the Rusitu.  And terrible damage to all the roads into and out of Chimanimani.  We felt utterly bleak. Shane Kidd opened up his sawmill, helping the people of Ngangu with money to feed the homeless and wood for coffins.  The council managed to open a road between the hospital and the graveyard so that the fifty-odd dead could be buried. It was a strange and terrible funeral.  Just streams and streams of people coming and going and tractors going back and forth bringing coffins. At the same time people were digging and more than one coffin went into each hole.  More died in the south, washed into Mozambique, buried in mud, and many will never be found. 

Doug and Bob did what they could bringing in doctors and medicines and evacuating patients but on Wednesday Bob had to go.  Luckily after that more, bigger helicopters arrived.  The support from everyone in Zimbabwe and from South Africa was unbelievable.  Especially generous was Strive Masiwa of Econet.  Doug is a Gideon and it seemed God had prepared him for just such an event.  He knows the names and whereabouts of every single school and clinic in the district and this information was invaluable as he and a group of fantastic volunteers set up a command centre in Mutare to coordinate rescue operations.  Doug loves flying in helicopters but it was an extremely stressful, adrenaline-filled ten days and when he came back he was ready to collapse.  There were also frustrations when operations had to stop for the president to visit.  He needed five helicopters for his entourage. And various generals, colonels etc had to be flown by helicopter into the "field" and often all they wanted to do was to take selfies on their phones of them next to the helicopter in whichever disaster-stricken place they were.

Meanwhile our house continued to be full of people, locals at first, but after a road was opened from Chipinge into Chimanimani, we began to have all sorts of visitors.  Journalists and 4x4 drivers and helicopter pilots. We met many wonderful people but looking after everyone with no electricity became exhausting.  And then the droves of aid organisations arrived in the village, too.  They are still here.  The village is full of tents and big white Toyotas with aerials and about ten different aid organisations displaying their logos on the doors.  The homeless ( hundreds of them) are still living in schools, and the hotel and the club.  They are refusing to move into the tents because they say that the last time the government moved people into tents they never gave them new places to build.  The relocation of all these people is a huge problem.  They don't want to leave Chimanimani but with all the landslides there is no place suitable to relocate them to.

The roads are being repaired slowly.  But all the work we have seen so far has been temporary repairs.  We can even drive down Skyline now which seems miraculous as Doug showed me a picture he took from the helicopter  and Skyline looked like a cliff with a waterfall from top to bottom; where the road was half way down the cliff there was not a sign.  But they (the Chinese?) cut into the cliff and there is a road, though it has tight corners and is not suitable for big lorries. So our sawmilling future looks bleak – besides the fact that the sawmill still has no electricity.  And when it rains the Skyline road is muddy and slippery, not for the faint-hearted.


Amy Durkin contributes this harrowing account:

Our friend Daniel came by yesterday morning with his terrible story of Cyclone Idai
He was with his children in the village the week end before the deluge. His 5 year-old son Ian had asked him repeatedly: “Please father can I come home with you ….” And Daniel had replied that only one more week of school remained and he must stay.
On leaving his kids on Monday morning he was oppressed by a terrible feeling of foreboding… Ian only agreed to stay if he was given a loaf of white bread! Dan set off only to find that he could go no further than the clinic. There he sat in a trance till midday.  He berated himself and set off home. At home the confused feeling of doom continued to dog him: he couldn’t do any work, just yearned for his children.
             On Thursday morning his wife Mai Yolanda set off to the village with Rob, their 3 year-old son. Normally Rob stayed home with Dan but this time he wanted to visit his siblings in the village.  Mai was going to the village to attend parents’ day on the Friday 15 March. Thursday afternoon it started to rain with heavy winds. The winds continued through the night, taking off our goat house roof. On Friday the wind dropped and the rain came down with unprecedented force. Michael only realised the missing roof mid-morning. Poor goats were huddled in the corner drenched! Fortunately the thatched part of the house remained and he could chase them into shelter.
By Friday morning Dan was overwhelmed by this feeling of foreboding.  He struggled up the hill in the driving rain – there being no signal at his house – to phone Mai to tell her to get the kids and come home now! But he could not get through; he tried without success several times during that fateful Friday. Nine o’clock Friday night: Mai opened the door to find out what the strange noise was. To her amazement cars were floating by. Her last thought was; But there is no road in front of the house! Then a torrent of mud and water poured through the open door, pinning her to the wall and washing the three sleeping children out into the wild night. She was screaming for help when three men looking for their mother came to the rescue. While they were struggling to free her there was a terrible rumble as huge boulders loosened from the mountain started to crash down. They tried to run away. Only one man survived. Yolanda managed to cling to a banana tree till neighbours with a torch saved her and took her to the clinic. All that was seen of Carlos was a hand sticking out of the mud. He was plucked out by a man thinking he had found his son.
         The nightmare of that night is difficult to imagine: the wild pouring rain…the darkness…the screaming….the fear as yet another mud slide followed the rocks.
Little Rob was washed in through someone’s window. A woman strapped him to her back as they prepared to flee their crumbling home. By the time they made it to safety the towel and little Rob were gone.
On Saturday morning Dan heard rumours that 2 of his children were missing. He set off to find out what was going on. The rain had eased to a light drizzle by lunch time so Michael let the goats out to graze. Poor animals had had no food since Thursday 12pm. Then Dan came by on his way down to the village and told Michael of the disaster in the village. Dan went to the clinic where Yolanda lay motionless wrapped in a blanket. But she could talk but not move: she had injuries to spine, neck and pelvis. Carlos lay with eyes closed, his injuries unknown. How long can you lie submerged in mud and survive? Dan and a couple of friends set out to find little Rob’s body. Sniffer dogs had identified possible sites near the ruins of his house. The first excavation revealed a broken sewerage pipe, the second a cage with six broilers, two shivering but still alive, and the third dig uncovered a dead dog. Rob’s body was never found. Ian, who had pleaded to go home just that Monday, was found 10km away, quite dead.
The image of Daniel’s kind, gentle face deeply furrowed with much suffering keeps going round and round in my mind. His ready smile replaced by a puzzled frown! I just need to share his story to try and find some peace. Daniel is one of the few people I trust and respect. A man of integrity and kindness. Never one to ask for favours even if life deals him hard blows. Go in peace my friend!

Now we see there are more terrible storms - poor Natal flooded and cyclone Kenneth heading for the north of Mozambique.  God help us. Poor earth.