" Tales from the Veldt "

Being the experiences of an Australian Volunteer Abroad...

I worked in southern Zimbabwe, as an agricultural and environmental projects officer at Mwenezi Development Training Centre, a local membership based NGO.

I was based at Neshuro, a 'growth point' in a communal farming area 120 km south of Masvingo. This means there are many small farms occupied (usually without individual title) by poor local people, as opposed to large commercial farms which are often white owned and freehold. The 'town' consists of half a dozen shops, 4 beer halls, council and government offices, the district hospital and 60 odd houses.

The job was organised by Australian Volunteers International. I arrived in March 2000, just after the worst flooding in memory, in the middle of the farm invasions and just before the hotly contested elections, all of which add a little local colour! As violence escalated in the district around the election I had to leave for several weeks, lying low in Harare and then skipping to South Africa.

My title became 'Manager, Income Generating Projects' and my duties included managing the poultry and piggery production and the board and lodging services, trading in maize and beef, developing project proposals and furthering computerisation.

The breakdown of the rule of law and the economic problems which follow from loss of donor support and foreign exchange shortages kept things interesting. Inflation ran up to 170% and there were food riots.

This is a collection of my emails home over the months. Please bear in mind that it can be tongue in cheek, and views and behaviours expressed are not always supported by the author, AVI or most of the people of Zimbabwe !

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Part 1 - 30th March, 2000

Packing for two years with a 30 kg limit is an experience, with all my cameras, computer bits and camping gear as well. In the end my checked baggage was only 2 kg over (no hassles, should have packed more), but changing flights in Perth I was stopped by security for overweight hand luggage. I reorganised quickly to comply with the 7kg limit, and was then told I had too many pieces, and to go see the airline. I countered that the excess piece was duty free goods and would be repacked as soon as I went through customs. I neglected to point out that this would immediately put both pieces of luggage over the 7kg limit! It seemed impolitic to do so. He countered "I just saw you put that in there!" Thinking swiftly, I said "That's a brand new computer, I must declare it to customs as exported." Things hung in the balance for a moment, then he relented and I passed through. It wasn't just the guard's scrutiny that made me sweat; I was wearing a heavy jacket to avoid having that weighed too!

For several days I stayed at a private lodging house in the inner Harare suburb of Eastlea, popular with aid workers when in town and a great place to network. A large group of expats have gone to Chirundu to stay in the wildlife area with two Australian Volunteers, amongst the passing herds of impala and attendant lions and elephants. I would like to have gone but its 700 km away!

Finding an internet service provider was a coin toss, as every time I mentioned one someone nearby said "They're terrible!" A new law requires all isps to provide access to government monitors so they can read the mail, and those sending seditious materials are to be disconnected forthwith. It is an offence to tell the customer why they were cut off! I'm not sure if they do the Chinese trick of receiving all faxes, reading them, and then sending them on to the recipient. This practice is revealed in China by pages arriving out of order, or mixed with other faxes, and can be checked by sending a fax while talking to the sender on another line, then noting the delay in arrival of the fax. I have heard that 57 phones in Masvingo are tapped.

By the by, I read the phone book ( I know what you are thinking, but I did learn something - there are myriad dialling tones here from exchanges supplied by various countries, so you need to recognise what is ringing and what's not. And quickly - if you hang on you get charged by 20 second lots for all calls, answered or not! ) and I saw a notice that "the telephone service is provided for your own business or personal use, and it is an offence to let guests or other people use it." !!

Car shopping is a sad business here, where cars are harshly dealt with and, due to duties and currency restrictions, hold immense value. A beaten 1989 Nissan Sunny sedan with 470,000 km on the clock, no radio and two windows that won't wind goes for around $6000 Australian! It sounds even worse if you say $150,000 Zim. My old 1975 Datsun, sold for $500 last week after a mere 276,000km, would fetch an easy A$4000 here and not look out of place! If you want a new locally assembled car, you must pay $US 7000 for the parent company in Japan who supplied the kit, and $Z 250,000 to the dealer who built and delivered it. My wad of hard currency attracted some interest - you get up to 12% over the official rate - but it was still expensive. If the currency collapses again as many predict, my investment could lose value too. [By mid 2001 the premium for US dollars was up to 500%, so importers were paying over $300 Zim for $1 US. Exporters must give 40% of their foreign exchange income immediately to the govt at the official rate, then $55.]

In the end I gave up, and will go to South Africa to buy one.

I should have brought a mobile phone, they are cheap to use here and very popular, but you must buy your own and a base model Nokia is $600 Australian ! The only saving grace is that where I live is out of reach of the network, so its value would be limited, though there are plans for a local transceiver. I am told this is an election issue. One major provider has just introduced free internet access over their network, whereby you can surf on the go for the call charge which at peak is 23 Aust cents a minute - cheap enough for email.

All electrical goods, in fact all imported goods, are very expensive. A small dial operated microwave oven is around $A300, as is a basic ghetto blaster. Food is not bad, though Nescafe is $A15 for 250g. The local brew is a blend of cheap nasty coffee and chicory, not the sort of thing to provoke the development of slow subtle love affairs in picturesque rural valleys. [For non Australian residents, Nescafe claims to do this, in a very pretentious ad agency manner.] I can't see how drinking coffee makes someone else look more attractive, though I know that beer can do the trick.

Fuel is a bit of a hassle here at the moment. A queue of 5km and 14 hours has been spotted. After that, you can buy $400 maximum, or about $A8. One week it is petrol that is worst, next its diesel. Paraffin is rationed to 2 litres per customer, great if you live 150km from town and use it to cook. Importing a few jerrycans of fuel is illegal. Petrol has gone up from around 25 Australian cents a litre to 90, and there is a $Z600 premium for black market fill ups..

While I was getting disillusioned with car shopping, a Dutch fellow came to the Lodge to pick up a car and take it to South Africa, past my new home. "Could I have a lift?" "No problem". Next morning I was up at 5:00, all packed and waiting. He left at 4:00 to join a petrol queue, and I've not seen him since. I should have offered him a large sum of money as a deposit. So the next day, a Friday, I left at 6:00 to catch a series of buses, lumping my mass of baggage. The first was a luxury express, with air con, on road drink service and video with headphones. Unfortunately they no longer go to Masvingo, so I changed to a crowded Volvo coach to get there. Here I made my big mistake.

I was going to disembark in the town, make myself comfortable and ring the Centre. With the weekend ahead there was little incentive to rush, and almost certainly someone would come by who could give me a ride within a day or two. I could shop and relax until then. However, the bus stops twice in Masvingo, as I now know - once in the 'town', and again at the bus depot out in the 'township'. Without this information I was persuaded to stay on the bus at the first stop, and finished up at the crowded and insane bus terminal in the sticks. With so much valuable luggage and no phone to be seen, I decided to take a local bus on to Mwenezi. Seemed easier. There followed a very hot, cramped and uncomfortable 5 hours in a packed rattletrap with African music blaring at the pain threshold in typical developing country fashion. Having laid some nasty curses on the descendants of bus drivers and owners, road builders, family planners and the almighty, I was finally disgorged, not as I expected in a town called Mwenezi, but a much more happening place called Neshuro. Eventually locating the training centre nearby, I enquired after my boss Mr Chuma. You already know what I'm going to say next. "He's in Masvingo". Grrrrrrr. Some of the staff took pity on me and threw together a meal of sadza and vegetables. I had been warned about sadza, a bland doughy porridge of maize cooked until it dries out to a consistency somewhere between sticky rice and stale bread. This was in fact quite palatable and with the spiced vegies delicious. Another of my well honed social skills came to the fore - eating with my fingers . . . easier with sadza than with rice and dhall!

The centre is very quiet at the moment, as there are no students in residence, with the emphasis on in situ training in the villages. Most of the staff seem to have gone to ... Masvingo. They get their pay cheques cashed there. So I sit here at a table for 44, with an appalling Australian drama ("Richmond Creek") on the TV and Neil Diamond on the headphones. The cook comes in three times a day to cook for me alone - I lost some of my spare tyre wandering around Harare jet lagged and not hungry, but I shall quickly put it back with her zealous feeding.

My first technical task was setting up a television signal booster for one of the staff. He had lost a few screws, some rattling around in the circuit board, and made a few wrong connections. A nut had dropped from one of the connectors so it was stuffed with cardboard and grass - the screw bit into it but I fear the electrical connection was poor. Having rewired it all, the result was still lousy reception. They are all being sold UHF antennas, which is unhelpful as the broadcasts are VHF.

One of the staff came and took me for a walk through the 'town', inevitably finishing at a 'bottle store' or beer hall. After a while I was involved in a pool game. Here I witness the stunning attention to detail of AVI in preparing me for this placement. In Melbourne I was accommodated in International House, a residence of the Uni of Melbourne. On my last night there I found myself playing pool with some other departees, on a wonky table with 14 balls, all having identical pairs, ie two threes, two nines, two thirteens, etc. Here I am in Mwenezi, and the same system applies! I was not well prepared, however, for the steep slope from one end of the table to the other. One shot I played, the two balls hit lightly, spread apart, turned around and rolled 18 inches back towards me!

Having won two games in a row, my partner (a Ghanian UN volunteer) and I began to attract more than the usual attention. Everyone must pay some notice to the game as the room is so small that no shot is possible without at least one drinker moving aside or getting a cue inserted in some part of their anatomy. Many shots are played with the cue held near vertical due to the proximity of a wall. I have never seen such a crowd so involved in a pool game, with all 30 patrons babbling instructions and support to the active player. All of this of course in Shona and so meaningless to me. They seem to have a unique interpretation of the foul snooker rule. In the end, under great pressure, I went for a power shot on one of the nines, sending the cue ball into the crowd and the nine out the door into the yard. A wag shot outside and came back with a 2" stone which he carefully placed on the back spot. The game was soon lost.


Part 2 - 12th April, 2000 (4 weeks)

Hi All,
I have met many of the staff here, and the names are very hard to remember; it was never my forte but its next to impossible in another language. There are some beauties though; I have met Genius, Lovemore, Funny, Precious, Blessing, Biggie, Fault, Never, Einstein and many more. I am a little worried about the popular name Sithole, as in Shona the "s" is generally pronounced "sh". Though I have seen some towns worthy of the name.

The centre is rather damp and muddy since the huge rains, so one must take a circuitous route between buildings to avoid the bogs., and today has dawned overcast and drizzly. Being wetly tropical the insect life is very healthy; in the dining room there are some large insects which give the most incredible impression of a lush green leaf. Less benign is the huge wasp that is nesting on my bedroom door, requiring me to squeeze past every day. I hate it, but am too afraid of making it angry to attempt squashing it! While drying myself from my first shower and admiring the 9 cm spider on the wall opposite, I was unexpectedly joined by a bat. After a few swooping circuits of the bathroom it found the window and winged into the night, happily finding no attraction in my damp hair.

A typical town in this area consists of one or two long concrete buildings, fronted by verandahs and containing a general store/ butchery/ bottle store, and perhaps a phone box. The town of Neshuro is an important growth point in the district, containing the District Council office, the Training Centre, a hospital, postal agency, about fifteen shops, and nearby a secondary school. The largest shop presents itself as a mini mart, even sporting wire shopping baskets, and is about 10' x 20'. Most of the basics are there, and even frozen yoghurt. It also offers a photo processing agency, though I think the quality may be suspect.

The bottle stores double as pubs, serving bottled lager for around $A0.80, or a 2 litre plastic 'scud' of opaque Chibuku maize beer for a shade more. The dark brown, squat bottles (a little like Australian flavoured milk bottles) have been called 'scuds' since the Gulf War. It is usual to empty the contents into a 2.5 litre plastic bucket and drink from that. So far I've stuck to the lager, which is mostly South African brands brewed here under licence, and fairly palatable. I don't remember Castle being quite so harsh though. The addition of maize to all the local beers lowers the quality a bit.

A tense situation is going on at the moment where poor farmers and ex guerillas have occupied 400 white owned farms, the high court has ordered them to leave but the executive and hence police refuse to act against them. Cabinet is miffed at being told to butt out by the judges. The squatters are said to be paid by the ruling ZANU(PF) party. On one farm the operators have thrown out the intruders with scuffles and minor injuries. There is something of a siege mentality developing in Harare, with municipal workers on strike, increasing violent crime, and predictions of unsettled times around the election in two weeks. Britain has attracted editorial invective by letting it be known that it has prepared evacuation contingency plans for British nationals in the event of civil disorder, and there are investigations into expats illegally maintaining dual citizenship while enrolling to vote.

Peterborough Lodge where I stay in Harare is in the process of building high concrete walls, and have installed a two gate 'airlock' type of system, where at night a security guard lets vehicles into a small area and closes the outer gate, so that residents can safely unlock the inner gate without being jumped. There have been many acts of personal violence and theft - seven residents of the Lodge or people known to them have been attacked in the last four months, including one aid worker who was dragged off the street at 4pm a few Sundays ago. They stole her bag of shopping, but were unable to get her into the car, managing to drag her by one arm for some distance before dumping her injured in the street.

Car jackings are also becoming popular, with up to three a week in Harare, many at gun point. The advice is to always watch who is behind you, and if in doubt do not stop at red lights or go home, but drive to a busy service station or police station. I spoke to a Pom who was a victim of a carjacking attempt. They slashed his left rear tyre, but after hearing a noise he realised what was up, and took note of the carload of hoods behind him. As he was driving an old Land Rover with a huge tow bar, he decided not to try and escape, instead selecting reverse and ramming the car behind with some force. Three of the occupants were required to remove the wreck from the tow bar! Although there is more fun and society to be had in the city, perhaps at the moment I am well off in the bush. Plus its a shortish dash to South Africa if I decide to jump ship!

-----------------------
Armed with the necessary letters and a stack of documents, I returned to Harare to lodge my Applications for Residency and Work Permit. Despite dire predictions (a week later my boss assumed I was still there!) the process took less than an hour. My next port of call was my internet service provider, where I spent a frustrating 2 and a half hours just receiving and sending email. It should take 5 minutes.

At 10pm I boarded a coach for Pretoria. We spent 3 hours at the busy South African border post, mostly waiting for two passengers with some problem. While waiting in the Immigration queue, my rear pocket was rather inexpertly picked. I gave the guy a filthy look and he decamped hastily, I presumed empty handed as I would never keep anything worthwhile in a back pocket. It was only some minutes later I realised I had been relieved of an expired bus ticket and an old shopping list! He had some success stealing a bag and 3000 Rand (A$790) near the toilet block, but was last seen being marched off by an irate victim in search of police.

After a 40 km detour to avoid a cyclone Eline damaged bridge, and a short detour when the driver got lost, we rolled into the South African capital only 4.5 hours late, in time to find a hostel before dark. The 'Word of Mouth' is your typical mainstream backpacker hostel, not very clean or quiet, but friendly and hosting a steady stream of travellers with experiences to share. It remained my home through a week of car hunting and shopping. On my second last night it was burgled in the small hours, the thieves actually being questioned by one of the staff but still making off with several passports, credit cards and so on, and even a safety deposit box prised from the wall. My valuables were well hidden.

As pickups and 4 wheel drives are so expensive, I gave up on that idea. A pickup is perfect for the rural areas where there are always throngs of hitchhikers, but a small Datsun pickup, based on the old 1200 sedan we had in Australia in the early 70's (and little changed save for a 1400 engine), beaten up over 200,000+ km will still fetch A$5000. I was rather taken with a 1982 BMW 318i for about A$3900. Those uninterested in cars please skip the rest of the paragraph... The car was in excellent condition and the engine had been rebuilt, with new rings, pistons, bearings, fuel injection distributor, valves ground, etc. It seems, however, that when shaving the head you must use a thicker gasket to compensate, and this was not done, resulting in contact between pistons and valves, and slight but complex damage to the engine. I wasted nearly two days finding this out.

I finally settled on a Ford Meteor, sedan version of the Laser/323, with minimal extras and a lacklustre 1600 engine, but only 135,000 km on the clock and well priced at R17,250, or about $4500 Australian. The same car in Zimbabwe would carry a tag around A$7000+. If all goes well and I get my duty exemption, I can resell it here for that much! A new set of tyres and radio/cassette, a day waiting for the registration, and I'm king of the road!

Or so I thought. The first thing I noted was the low fuel level - "must fill that". I ran out opposite the next service station. Whenever you pull into one there are a team of helpers waiting to descend on your vehicle, pumping, washing and checking. One of these was able to lend me a bottle with enough petrol to get me across the street, where they were able to squeeze every last drop possible into the tank while washing all six windows.

With transport I could start shopping in earnest. By the time I left South Africa I had accumulated a fridge, microwave, fan, heater (with instructions in Russian), kettle, stovetop, hot water service, pots, crockery, cutlery, brooms, a selection of food and soaps, and a small wine and spirit collection. While this went on, a guy turned up at the hostel with an '82 Land Cruiser wagon for sale which would have been very tempting at about A$9000. He had forfeited an air ticket home while waiting to sell the car, and was one of those robbed at the hostel - his seventh time in Africa!

As the weekend loomed, I decided to take the scenic route back through the Klein Drakensberg mountains to the east. They say no good deed goes unpunished. 20 km out of Pretoria I spied a lost looking chap waving at passing traffic, and stopped to help. Despite being local, he was lost while driving to the airport en route to Australia. I switched off and gave him clear directions to the correct freeway. This achieved, I turned the key and .... nothing. Fortunately I was able to flag down the same chap for assistance. While we investigated another car pulled up, not to help, but also broken down! We patched her fuel problem and sent her off, and then eventually jump started my car.

I drove on to the next large town and after some searching, leaving my car idling in the streets, I found a car dealership who quickly isolated the problem to the battery, which had performed faultlessly until that freeway stop. Across the street was an auto parts shop where a new one, like everything pleasantly cheap, included fitting in the changeover price. This is a Pakistani quarter of town where nearly all the shops shut on Friday from midday to two for devotions, so the job was finished in quick time, before the owner shot off to the mosque. Meanwhile I lingered amongst the luxury of well stocked shops and sophisticated eateries, and guards to watch the car.

The Klein (or small) Drakensberg Range forms the escarpment where the highveld plateau drops away to the plains of the lowveld, Kruger Park and eventually Mozambique. It is a wonderful area of forests, crags and gorges, the broad vistas studded with spectacular rocky outcrops and sprinkled with small tourist towns well supplied with cafes, pubs, curio shops and guesthouses. In Sabie I was reminded of the towns of north-eastern Victoria, and stayed in one of the best equipped hostels I've seen. [By the by, does anyone know of an old British colony that doesn't have a province called Victoria? Masvingo, where I am living now, carried that name until independence.]

In one town, I used a shopping trick that I first stumbled on in Singapore. It has worked so well for me twice by accident that in future I must plan to do it ahead of time. It goes like this. I say "I like this fridge but I cannot afford 1333 rand". He says " ..waffle... so the best I can do is 1300". I say "Hmmm, I'm not sure" and tip out the entire contents of my wallet. This is ostentatiously counted and comes to R1200. "This is all I have." A brief look of pain from the seller, and the deal is done. A brand new mid sized fridge for a shade over A$300. They can see that if the price is more than your wallet contains you will walk away.

We had to remove the car's rear door, insert the fridge, and then bolt the door back on. If only I could have afforded a bakkie (the Afrikaans name for a ute or pickup, pronounced bucky).

Following a pleasant day rubbernecking in the mountains, my last night in the south was spent in a funny little hostel stumbled upon in the middle of nowhere and run by the usual eccentric old codger. There are outdoor bathrooms, and baskets hanging from the roof where food could be placed away from the monkeys, lest they take a break from screeching hysterically at each other in the trees and raid the kitchen. The whole place was pleasantly lit by a scattering of hurricane lanterns, and I had a lovely hot shower under the stars, steam billowing luxuriously into the night sky and distant dogs howling encouragement.

There is a small agricultural service town called Pietersburg with the most amazing shop on its outskirts - it looks like an aircraft hangar and contains everything from food to major electrical goods to camping gear and a liquor barn. As I suspected when I saw it from the bus, I could have filled my household at one swoop - everything but clothes, and at very competitive prices.


Part 3 - 25 April 2000 (6 weeks)

Hello Everyone
The 'white tribe of Africa' are generally very friendly and helpful once you get past the brusque habit of speech. As a white in the Northeast, I am automatically spoken to in Afrikaans and have to keep apologising for my inability to comprehend, though on at least one occasion I said "I only speak English" only to realise that that was what they spoke to me in! There appears to only be about five Afrikaner faces, each person you meet being a slight variation of one of the five, leading me to the theory that there were only a few families in the original Voortrekkers and hence a little interbreeding is unavoidable.

South Africa has a good road network, but at the cost of many major routes being tollways. It is a shock to travel a few hundred kilometres, spending about A$20 on petrol and $16 on tolls! The speed limit of 120km/h (70mph) is great for the long flat stretches of veldt, though one must keep an eye out for goats and potholes on the lesser roads. Although it struggles up any sort of hill, my little car has given pleasing economy even at this speed.

Heading north across the plains I practiced my road manners. Most major roads in South Africa have a broad sealed verge, or emergency lane, and when overhauled by faster traffic you are expected to pull over onto this to allow them past, even if you are sitting on 120 km/h yourself. This system works quite well as long as there are no pedestrians, cyclists, or gaps in the road. Sometimes oncoming traffic expects you to pull over too. If there is a cyclist, you hoot at them, and they are expected to leave the tar in time to avoid becoming part of your radiator as you pass. I do not envy them this.

The main Jo'burg-Zimbabwe highway is still not open, as the bridge approaches destroyed by cyclone Eline have been rebuilt and washed away three times since then. Some of the nearby bridges have actually been repaired by frustrated adjacent landholders, who rattle collection tins at road users to defray costs.

Having been advised that crossing borders late can help the process, I loitered in Messina for a while and then made the crossing back to Zimbabwe at night. The whole process on both sides took around two hours, not helped by a general lack of signage or instructions. I am not a very good liar, but a language barrier and assumed air of baffled stupidity go a long way to cover for this, so after a couple of searches of the car and some to and froing between customs officers my groaning carload of goods cost me the princely sum of A$16 in duty, much of this being 110% levied on some cans of beer. On the plus side, I claimed a refund of the VAT on most of my purchases, and am beginning a collection of small cheques in Rand which can only be cashed outside South Africa. I fear my bank will treat these as fee payments, allowing me a small percentage as commission for my trouble.

The car, like myself, is only in Zim on a 3 month visa, and I have already been questioned at a roadblock about this. If I get a work permit I can import it duty free, allowing me to keep it here and, after two years, to sell it. This instantly almost doubles its value, except that the process may take eight months, which means I should stay here two years and eight months before I can sell it, and I also need to find a hard currency buyer as Zim dollars are of no use to me when I'm about to leave. If I can't do a deal with another expat I may have to take it back to South Africa. Until I import it, it is illegal for a Zimbabwean to drive my car, which could be a good thing.

Back at the centre, I have begun to take on duties as manager of the piggery and poultry enterprises. The rabbitery and beehives are virtually defunct, while the duckpond and fish farm are totally so. With my lack of Shona and little knowledge of the society and the locality it is pretty much impossible to achieve anything alone, and those whose help I need are either busy, away or unforthcoming, so its a very slow process. The phones are either not working at all, or seem unable to get numbers at any distance. Meanwhile the boss imagines that I have it all in hand and will soon be introducing improvements all round.

The living conditions of the animals are not good, but there is little money to be spent on equipment or improved inputs. At least labour is cheap, so we can afford to cut and gather grass for chicken bedding by hand. There is a plan for a new pig shed, so I have the chance to influence the design to give a healthier and more easily maintained arrangement. Preventing piglet deaths in the first 12 hours is a priority. Without electricity and things like pumps, many of the standard practices of a modern piggery are impossible.

I had a look over our feed maize stocks, something of a nightmare for an ex grain inspector! In a few minutes I found nearly all the common pests of grain, and together they have eaten at least 20% of the stack, with insect live or dead making up about 1% of the remainder. I shall have to do something about that as we begin buying our next year's supply. The bags are taken to the mill and refilled with meal, and when emptied sold back to the farmers for the next crop. This cycle guarantees a healthy weevil infestation each year.

Speaking of infestations, I have moved into my flat in the village, creating a great deal of interest amongst the hundreds of cockroaches already in residence. Any item placed on a surface soon has at least three exploring its contours. Chemical warfare has begun, but I am wary of collateral damage. A Peace Corps volunteer I met in Harare (who is a dead ringer for Tom Cruise) moved into a village hut that had been helpfully treated for termites and vomited for days! I returned from easter travels to find a frog camped in my suitcase; he didn't seem to have eaten any roaches.

While I was in Harare (in fact a quarter hour after a friend used the ATM nearby) the major non-government daily paper's offices were bombed. It was either a poor attempt, a warning, or the work of an art critic, as the brunt of the (minor) damage was borne by the art gallery next door. More worrying is a report (not mentioned in the media) that at the time of the regional summit on the Congo the road to Victoria Falls was blocked by an angry mob who stopped buses, dragged out any whites, beat them, and tossed them aside before allowing the buses to proceed. The major overlander tour company now avoids Zim, going from Vic Falls through Botswana to Jo'burg. There are also reports that the border crossing to Mozambique at Nyampanda is closed after mobs attacked all civil servants in the area and the teachers and customs and immigration officers fled for their lives. With airlines progressively pulling out of Harare, and all fully booked for months anyway, the options for evacuation are getting fewer.

Things are very quiet here. A few people have raised the subject of politics, but only in sadness at the deterioration of the present administration. All want a change, without being specific, except for a couple who said things were better with the whites in charge! As long as the border remains open, I can be in South Africa in two and a half hours - I keep the tank full as fuel is short again. There has been political trouble in Beitbridge, and although you don't need to drive through the town it could cause problems at the crossing if things go pear shaped. Quite a long queue could form too! There is a gathering exodus of whites from the country as the violence spreads, with people who were steadfastly defiant 3 weeks ago now packing their bags and enquiring about schools in England. Most Harare residents seem relaxed, though alert. I had dinner with a couple who had a truck parading up and down their street with half a dozen chanting drummers on the back. They asked the maid to translate the chant, which was "Kill [MDC leader] Tsvangirai. Kill the whites." Apparently someone from the UK embassy lives in the street.

I caught up with some other AVAs in Harare. They are living a slum lifestyle there, reluctantly leaving their poolside gazebo to choose from the 80 satellite channels available in the lounge. There is quite an expat community, with British VSOs, Canadian World Vision (who have just cancelled their program) and American Peace Corps, as well as UN and commercial workers, many gathered in town for easter. The Peace Corps ordered their people to remain in cities for the break, and are on a level 3 alert. Level 4 is evacuation. The US embassy is reportedly polishing off their evac plan as well, while the British are prepared for up to 70,000 people to use theirs!

While talking to people in Harare can be alarming, here it is just sleepy business as usual. Tomorrow I have to try and get a post mortem on my dying chooks, and hopefully I can get some business done in Masvingo. We have to make the most of each trip as diesel is hard to find.

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