November 13, 2005

last-day-in-the-country blues



Tomorrow I'm scheduled to fly to Johannesburg, where apparently I'll be staying with my, um, second-cousins-once-removed?, at least for a couple of nights. Actually I'd rather stay at one of Jo'burg's very pleasant-sounding flashpacker lodges and just have dinner with my relatives, but they sounded offended by the notion.

Friday I drove with my relatives here out to a game park about 100km from Harare. We passed more land that once were huge commercial farms and are now wasteland decorated with a few wooden shacks and rondavels. Can't be an easy row for the 'war vets' to hoe either. The government promised them schools, clinics, running water, etc., which never materialized, and now those few that remain - for many, after moving onto a farm, soon gave up and moved back to town - have to scrape an existence out of subsistence farming.

We did pass two still-functional commercial farms; those have had black owners for decades, and are thus exempt from government land seizures. Seizures of white land is still going on; an acquaintance of my relatives' lost his farm just a couple weeks ago. Came back after a day in the fields and there were a crowd of war vets who wouldn't even let him back into his own home. Racial politics aside, it's just insane. Large-scale farming is an advanced science. What they're doing here is like expelling all the mechanical engineers from a country, then grabbing random people from the street, herding them into a newly abandoned factory, telling them "now design and build us some aircraft engines, stat!" - and then being surprised when it doesn't work out.

And it's not like they're actually giving the 'war vets' the land, either, you understand - it all becomes State land, they're just allowed to live there, but since they don't have title to it, they can't borrow against it for little things like seeds or fertilizer or tractor fuel. And so they take over thousand-hectare farms and plant and harvest maybe a hectare of it with hands and hoes, hoping to grow just enough food for themselves, if they're lucky. Madness.

The property we went to is half farm, half game park, and white-owned; it's still operational only because it runs the most successful black-rhino breeding program on the planet, and the government (which owns the rhinos) presumably doesn't want to look bad by shutting it down, although apparently they did seriously suggest, last year, that they close down the farm and instruct each of the nearest groups of war-vet farmers to care for one of the rhinos. I am not making this up. Cooler heads have yet prevailed, but I don't expect the place to be around this time two years from now. If the government doesn't get them, violence might. The owners' parents, in their eighties, had their home on the property invaded, and their car and valuables stolen by armed thugs, just a couple weeks ago. The farm manager's pickup truck's windscreen is adorned with a large bullet hole, courtesy of a poacher about a month ago.

The park is a spellbindingly beautiful place, bush adorned with the uncanny and seemingly unnatural stacks of huge granite boulders called "kopjes", with a few dams and rivers. It's home to lions and hyenas (caged, and fat and lazy - wild predators ripple with muscle, but these ones are soft); a few elephants, including one who was raised by buffalo and is now the matriarch of a buffalo herd; giraffe, kudu, nyasa, impala, and elegant sable antelopes; and a half-dozen rare, highly endangered black rhino. The owners' home and guest ronadeels are in a green oasis of jacaranda and pomegranate trees around a shaded lawn and pool. The farm buildings, by contrast, are large, low, single-room brick warehouses, out in the sun, half-full of feed bags and stacked cattle hides, around which about a dozen black employees work.

On the way back into town, we saw the presidential motorcade: three widely spaced motorcycles (sirens and lights blazing), two police cars (again), a Jeep full of a dozen helmeted, heavily armed troops, several dark bulletproof BMWs, another Jeep full of soldiers, an ambulance, and another screeching police car. Mugabe was back from some African summit, where, in you-couldn't-make-it-up irony, he had chaired a session on "African democracy."

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