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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Monday, May 21, 2012

Lake Chivero, 40km west of Harare

What a glorious campsite beneath the open canopy of Msasa trees besides this huge dam. Above me grey-billed hornbills are giving their plaintive cries and the fish eagles are calling as they fly overhead. A troupe of monkeys joined us for breakfast; they are SO endearing that I can forgive them for the occasional theft if our guard drops for a moment. At Vic falls, one 'college graduate' stole a screw-top jar full of ... Jo Hall’s extra hot chutney! We never did learn what happened if –or when it unscrewed the lid! 

I felt I needed a ‘natural break’, a pause from all the disparate inputs of Gweru, our last stop and the town where I lived and worked from 1983 to 1993. Gweru then was a scruffy town, a dairying centre and with two big industries: Zimbabwe Alloys (Anglo-American employing 1600) and Bata Shoe Company. There was a healthy white population, though much depleted by the 1981 exodus when Mugabe took over. Those ‘ex-Rhodesians’ who remained were wary – but generally threw their weight behind the new Black government to make the country work in a spirit of optimistic co-operation.  We had no need for Charities or Development Agencies.  There was no racial fear, though a concern that ‘standards’ would drop. It was a wonderful time for me personally: running my own veterinary practice and developing my small herd of Brahman cattle. I wasn’t sure what to expect – or how I would react to all the changes of the last twenty years.

Once we left the largely Communal Areas around Bulawayo, and drove into the former commercial farming area, I noticed all the fencing had gone from along the roadside. Many telegraph poles were ‘resting’ and wires hanging free. The farm signs were gone (stolen to make coffin handles, or removed to affect anonymity). Grass was two metres high and un-grazed and former open woodlands impenetrable: no cattle, (we have since been told that Zim is now importing beef). Occasionally a thatched hut could be seen amidst a patch of mealies.  These became more numerous as we approached Gweru. We drove to my old farm, where a neighbour recognised me: I had once sold him a bull. I had feared tree chopping, bare over-grazed lands and/or mealie fields. But instead was greeted by a deserted farm: woodlands increased, river-side overgrown and unapproachable.  All incredibly beautiful: all it needed was evidence of wildlife – but there was none.  All my commercial farmer neighbours’ lands were likewise deserted. Jenny, next door friend had had a high yielding herd of Holstein dairy cattle; her farm was taken and the new owner now produces 100 broilers a month.....

It gets dark early, by five thirty and there are no street lights in Gweru anymore. Most of the many traffic lights don’t work which made driving amongst the thousands of Black pedestrians hair-raising. The pavements were seething and movement obstructed by the many pavement stalls: women sitting, legs outstretched in the African way, behind pyramids of tomatoes or bundles of rape. Most shops were already shut: what was everyone doing? Taxis were everywhere, and the noise of chatter almost frightening.  Yes! I was almost frightened! This was so different from the Gweru I knew, and sort-of loved. I knew no-one and also could not fathom thoughts or purpose. It has become Black Africa – unfathomable to most White people.

Our hosts were ex sheep farmers still on their small farm but fighting ‘designation for resettlement’ in the High Court. Star worked at Alloys until it virtually collapsed with fewer than 100 employees. He now works part-time for the CFU (Commercial Farmers’ Union). His main task – about which he is remarkably optimistic, is to strengthen the ZFU – the union representing the former peasant farmers, many of whom are, in fact, small-scale commercial farmers and should thus build upon and benefit from this strength. Pat’s daughter exports mange-tout peas to Europe.  This subsidises their dairy herd which graze around resettlement huts built all around their farmhouse. They keep the dairy herd in the hope that this much needed commodity will prevent their totally losing their farm. I asked what ‘Plan B’ was, ‘we don’t have one; we’re not going’ was the reply. Despite the fact that we heard no stories of recent violence; I fear that Sandy’s obstinate attitude and fiery temper may not win her the war. We listened to terrible stories of treachery: partnerships between Black and white farmers leading to invasions pre-planned by the Black partner; of farmers being given three hours to vacate farms where they had lived for decades, even generations. And how this leads to strengthening of White community-spirit as they band together to remove everything removable in those three hours. There is fear everywhere; gates are locked, fences electrified and doors locked and barred. Yet they are cheerful and optimistic that ‘when there is a return of law’ things will ‘come right’. Star points out that most expelled farmers still have their title deeds, and that the ‘illegal’ expulsions are well documented. Ian and I cannot share this confidence; but then WE don’t HAVE to remain here.  Star even condones all the Donor Agencies who apparently are running over 600 projects in the Midlands Province alone. They will employ large numbers of Black graduates – and do what is the Government’s responsibility: rehabilitating irrigation schemes and assisting with tractor purchase etc. I cannot but feel that they are interfering and letting Mugabe’s government off the hook.

We went to visit my old practice, still a working veterinary surgery: though we saw no patients; most rooms are now bed-rooms. The young 2012 graduate was articulate and keen – but has very little work.  I felt very impotent, and still the University churns out new vets.

Amongst the stories of dispossession and decline in productivity there was a success story: Antelope Park. Back in 1983 it belonged to a Mr Kaschula and was a pretty scabby affair – especially for the caged lions, leopards and cheetah. Then in the late 80s it was bought by Andrew and Wendy, who were successful business people but knew nothing about game.  Before I left in ’93 it had already improved and become semi-commercial.  I did a fair amount of work there and had much fun working with the big cats.  Somehow the Park has escaped designation and our visit was hugely inspiring. They are working almost entirely with lions, who – contrary to my perception are vanishing from many places: loss of habitat, human conflict, snaring and poisoning and disease (distemper from dogs and TB from buffalo). To create awareness they started ‘taming’ captive born cubs and allowing visitors to ‘walk with the lions’.  This is controversial: what becomes of these ‘tame’ lions when they are no longer safe to walk with, but could not live in the wild?  The wide-held belief was that they could not be rehabilitated and were thus likely to end their lives as the victims of ‘canned hunting’. This is where semi-tamed lions are shot by trophy hunters.  Well, Wendy and Andy have decided to test this theory that ‘tame’ lions cannot form a pride, kill for themselves and rear cubs in a ‘natural’ environment.  Andrew is passionate about this and is running programs in various stages of development in many countries in Africa including Malawi, Zambia and Ruanda.  He asked his equally enthusiastic research worker to show us his pride of ex-tame lions who kill a zebra or impala every two days and have reared cubs who now also participate in the kill.  These lions are free from human help or assistance although their social behaviour is closely monitored.  Obviously this ‘Stage Two’ was not natural in that there were no other prides to contend with, and no other large predators like hyenas with whom to compete. Stage 3 would be a much bigger release paddock (already acquired and being fenced as Andrew believes that due to Human pressures, lions can no longer roam ‘free’). Stage 4 would be release in suitable areas in other countries where there are either threatened – or extinct.  Read more on their web site www.antelopepark.co.zw.

We are now in Harare – a very different ‘kettle of fish’ – about which there will be more later.


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