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The little gem
Saturday 28th November 2009
Dear Family and Friends,
As you approach the capital city the view is of men and women bent over and digging. Everywhere people are digging holes and dropping pips into the ground as at last the rains have arrived. After so many years of hunger and then a cruel and punishing eighteen months when there was no food to buy in the shops because of chronic misgovernance, we don't take anything for granted anymore. If there's a place to grow food for a single meal, people are clearing that space. Within a few metres of railway lines and roads, outside people's homes and alongside every stream and river bank the land is being turned over. Around cemeteries, next to water and sewage works and even in between and underneath massive electricity pylons, mealie madness has gripped urban Zimbabwe.Water siltation, soil erosion and environmental protection have gone completely by the wayside and authorities seem not to care as our towns and cities have been turned into a maze of unplanned, un-contoured, hotch potch food growing plots. Scrappy strips of cloth, empty plastic bottles and rusty tin cups and bowls planted atop sticks, demarcate people's plots.
No one, it seems, has any confidence at all in Zimbabwe's ability to grow food on farms again this year. As people scramble desperately to plant on roadside squares, the madness goes on with renewed vigour on farms. This week we heard, not in the State media but on short wave radio, how farms in Chegutu are under attack by politicians. One farm employing over 1400 people was being forcibly taken over by a senior political player despite High Court Orders and SADC tribunal rulings protecting the farm. On this one single farm 20% of the country's wheat used to be grown. A quick glance at the recent list published in the Zimbabwean newspaper of multiple farm owners within Zanu PF says it all. Included are Ministers, Governors, the Commissioner of Police, Head of prisons and numerous other senior officials Agriculture has had no choice but to move into urban areas while the farm grabs continue. It has become common to see sunflowers, wheat and sweet potatoes growing on urban roadsides. Outside one new suburb approaching Harare someone has even planted tobacco along the roadside.
Closer into the capital city the filth starts and doesn't stop all the way into the centre of Harare. Streets named after famous Zimbabweans and regional leaders and heroes are a disgusting disgrace. The roads are lined with litter: plastic, glass, tin and paper are everywhere. Great piles of uncollected garbage sit waiting for local authorities to collect -ten months after they took office. Mounds of empty drinks tins, seething with clouds of newly hatched mosquitoes are to be found everywhere, you can almost see the malaria epidemic waiting to happen, not to mention diarrhoea and other water borne diseases.
And then, amidst the dirt and the grime and when you least expect it, you see the little gem that has the ability to raise a smile. Outside State House, in full army camouflage uniform, helmet on his head and holding an AK 47, a young soldier is behaving a bit strangely. He's sort of swaying and nodding his head and for a moment you think he must be sick. His camouflage jacket opens a fraction and then you see it. He's got a shiny iPod clipped into his belt, a little wire crawls up his chest and ends in an earpiece. The protector is listening to music while he stands guard!
I end this week on a note of congratulation and recognition for Jenni Williams and Magadonga Mahlangu who have just been awarded the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award by President Barack Obama. We are so proud of you.
Until next week, thanks for reading, love cathy
Saturday 21st November 2009
Dear Family and Friends,
The one non-political word most likely to cause animated, angry outbursts in Zimbabwe is 'Zesa.' Officially the acronym stands for Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, more appropriately it is known as Zimbabwe Electricity Sometimes Available.
We've now had three grim, gruelling weeks of power cuts where the lights go out at 4 or 5 in the morning and stay off until 9 or 10 at night - every day of the week and weekend. Normal functioning has become almost impossible. Food bought with precious US dollars is going rotten in silent fridges; geysers are cold and there is no way to put a single hot meal on the table as zesa is non existent at breakfast, lunch and supper times.
Only receiving a few hours of power in the middle of the night we expected our bills would have reduced by three quarters but this isn't happening. Business and residential areas alike, Zesa bills continue to be more than most people earn in a month. Unexplained and incomprehensible is how you go from having a credit balance one month to owing 700 or 800 US dollars the next. Small businesses already struggling to stay open are getting bills ranging from 5,000 to 12,000 US dollars a month. It's become commonplace to get home and find you've been disconnected or, in my home town, to find that Zesa employees have actually physically removed MCB's (Mains Control Boards) from your house.
The worst comes when you emerge from a 16 hour power cut, cold, tried and hungry. The lights flicker once, twice and then stay off again - it's a fault on the line. Even though Zesa have a 24 hour fault service, they say they no longer attend at night, or before 8am in the morning, and so you wait. By the time they go looking for a fault (after you have picked them up in your car and driven them round and round) and they have effected the repair, you still don't get anything done as you are back into the standard 16 hour power cut. If there is more than one fault on the line then you can go on like this for days, staggering from power cuts to faults with the briefest flicker of lights in between but not even enough time to boil a kettle.
In out of town areas, people are going without electricity for multiple days, even weeks. One rural friend said they'd had no power for over a week. The only commercial farmer still operating in the area had recently been evicted by an army man and now there was no one with a vehicle prepared to travel the 20 kilometers to town to collect Zesa workers to fix the broken line.
Sitting here writing this letter by hand I try and remember the last time I saw Zesa doing any maintenance in my suburb. I decide it must be about 5 years ago when they came door to door and cut overhanging branches, cleared around poles and checked their lines. I fume at this thought and also at the information that a junior Zesa worker in his early twenties and without tertiary education is currently earning 800 US dollars a month - nearly seven times more than a degreed teacher or nurse. Perhaps that's why our bills are so high?
Until next week, thanks for reading, love cathy
Will I be back?
Saturday 14th November 2009
Dear Family and Friends,
If you think things are back to normal in Zimbabwe, just walk into a bank. Its something I haven't done for many months and flipping through my last cheque book reminded me of the mayhem of our banks less than a year ago. My cheque stubbs look like something from a crazy kindergarten. There's a payment for a telephone bill of four hundred million dollars, another to a dentist for forty one billion dollars. There's a deposit of four trillion, six hundred billion dollars and another page showing a balance on hand of fourteen trillion dollars. One page is
slashed through in red ink with the words : "NB: Aug 08: 10 zeroes removed by Gono." And then, in October 2008, also in red ink on a cheque stubb are the words: "Can't get in bank, queues of thousands."
It seems like a lifetime ago but in fact its just a year ago that this was happening and now of course Zimbabwe doesn't even have its own currency - thanks to Zanu PF and Reserve Bank Governor Mr Gono. Zimbabwe's much talked about sovereignty is long gone when it comes to the economy and now we buy and sell in US dollars and South African Rand. Having been taught since childhood to save, save save, I decided it was time to get back into the banking habit.
I was the only customer in the newly refurbished international bank in my home town last week. Yes I still have an account, they told me after tapping in my numbers, but it's no longer valid. The balance left there in January 2009 of trillions, or was it quadrillions, is gone - apparently eaten up by devaluation and ledger fees, not converted to 'real' US dollar money. A new account number has been allocated to me, the bank said but it's dormant and requires a deposit of 20 US dollars to bring it to life. No, the bank say, the money left in my account doesn't qualify to activate the new account, you must deposit REAL money they insist. Once this has been done I enquire about a cheque book - oh no we haven't got any yet I'm told. And an ATM card - oh please, what planet am I on to be asking such an insane question!
A week later with the account open and activated I take a deep breath and embark on the first withdrawal. I am the only customer in the bank and my shoes click loudly as I cross the polished floor. The lady at the enquiries desk is applying her make up and doesn't stop as I stand in front of her. She won't tell me if my expected transfer has arrived. She says I have to fill in a slip before she can tap the number into the computer. She doesn't have any slips, I've got to get them from a man sitting at a desk back at the entry door. I walk back across the banking hall, the man is busy chatting and laughing to someone on the phone. He ignores me until he is finished. I fill in the slip back at the enquiries desk while the lady carries on with her face decorating, mirror in hand, lips pouted.
Finally with a completed cash withdrawal slip in hand I approach the only teller on duty. I am still the only customer but have to wait because the teller is busy - chatting to a friend. At last I'm noticed, the friend steps aside and I am served. My greeting to the teller is ignored. My slip is checked, ticked and stamped and then all the information is copied, written by hand into a ledger. This fools me completely because the electricity is on and the computer screen at the tellers side is working. The teller takes my ID, withdrawal slip and ledger book and disappears. When he reappears he says : 'What about my commission?' What commission I ask, saying I wasn't informed there would be a commission and saying that I know the depositor paid bank transfer fees and commissions at the other end. "No," he says, you have to pay a commission." I am then told to deduct the amount and change and counter sign all the amounts written in words and numbers on the now stamped and signed withdrawal slips to allow the bank its commission.
Finally after 17 minutes and now with one other customer in the bank, the money looks like it may be forthcoming. The teller shouts out through the bullet proof glass to someone in the back to bring him bank notes. They only have small denominations it turns out and finally these appear in a locked steel box. Checked and rechecked below the counter, the teller finally pushes a pile of notes across to me. No, I say, I wish you to count the notes to me. "What?" he says. I repeat my request and he rolls his eyes and with an audible sigh, the bank notes are counted to me. 26 minutes later and again the only person in this very well known international bank, I leave.
Will I be back soon - I don't think so. This is the face of Zimbabwe for investors and tourists, what a shocking disgrace both for a country and an international bank.
Until next week, thanks for still reading, love cathy
Blink and you miss it.
Saturday 7th November 2009
Dear Family and Friends,
You can sum up the two major events of the past week in a sentence: diamond suspension: not happening; action on unity government:
another deadline, yes another one. Poor Zimbabwe, disappointed and let down again and sadly we are not surprised about either the blood diamonds or the blood stained politics.
You can't sum up in a few words the present, desperate situation regarding agriculture. I went on a short journey this week, heading south east through countryside once alive with agricultural production: tobacco, maize, fruit, potatoes, cattle and sheep. Now, almost a decade into land reform, the view is of destruction..
Roadside woodlands of indigenous Musasa and Mupfuti (Prince of Wales' Feathers) trees are being hacked down by Zimbabwe's new farmers. Instead of ploughed or growing fields, the view is of raw tree stumps overseen by men in scrappy pole and thatch huts. The tragic irony is that this is open woodland area and all around there are deserted, unused fields. The new caretakers of Zimbabwe's
countryside have not grown any food to harvest and so instead they are slashing, burning and destroying yet more land. Even more ironic is the fact that in the dams visible from the road, there is still water for irrigating and so drought or a lack of water cannot be blamed for no production.
Further along the journey eastwards there is a Grain Marketing Board depot. Once thriving, bustling places now the red roofed building with flags fluttering, has no customers or activity. A single cream and brown ox, harnessed to a rusty two wheeled cart stands outside flicking flies off his back. On farms which at this time of year should be, and used to be, green with tobacco or maize as far as the eye could see, now there are deserted unploughed fields and a few mud and thatch huts.
Grasslands once crowded with cattle, sheep and even game animals are now empty. For almost the entire 120 kilometre journey the roadside fences are gone and handfuls of scrawny cattle with huge horns graze on the verges. At the railway line which crosses the main road a faded rusting sign reads: 'Flashlights not working.'
Then, between kopjes, comes a single brief glimpse of a green field - blink and you miss it. The sign- board on the road gives it away, it is one of last original commercial farmers that has managed to hold on.
In white paint on a rock high up in a kopje someone has painted the word 'Jesus.' The image sticks in your mind as after a while you try not to look at the legacy that Zanu PF have given to Zimbabwe and try not to think about what they have done to our children's heritage. And you try not to concentrate on how hungry people are going to be or how the assault on producing farmers continues day after day because of the colour of their skin.
Until next week, thanks for reading, love cathy.
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