Mkushi and the 'New' Farmers

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Africa » Zambia » North-Western
May 29th 2015
Published: June 9th 2015
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I arrived in Mkushi on a Thursday evening an hour or so after dark. Fortunately for me the driver was acquainted with the Forest Inn en route to Mkushi town. I was deposited at the roadside and compelled to cross the road in the direction of a dim light emanating from behind a metal gate.

For a second I wondered if it was the same place that Tim had in mind but upon entering I found a guard who confirmed that it was the very place. Furthermore a restaurant and bar were on hand with a number of white and black customers. Not busy but it looked tidy enough. I made my way to the bar and promptly gulped down the ice cold Mosi Lager placed before me by the compliant waiter.

I was soon joined by two young white South African gents who'd been out on one of the farms vaccinating several hundred head of cattle. They introduced themselves as Tim (a different one) and Casper. It was Casper’s cousin who headed up the business. Casper informed me that he was making a very tidy sum for his efforts. I didn’t ask the boys what they were getting paid but they seemed to be enjoying life, both being in their mid to late twenties. Tim looked as though he was fresh out of 6th form, such was his fresh-faced appearance. They lived down in Lusaka but drove all round the country.

My contact, also Tim informed me that he and his wife were at a bible study and would only be able to collect me afterwards which gave me a good hour or so. Tim and Casper gave me an overview of what they did and what they thought of Zambia (positive) in their relatively short time there (6 months). I followed my first Mosi (local lager, not bad) with a second.

The boys were drinking vodka-mixes, the last one of which they concocted into a ‘vodka slammer’. This involved adding to the tot of vodka two fingers of soda, placing the palm of one’s hand over the tumbler and shaking it vigorously. The effervescing mix was then consumed on one go through a small vent where the thumb met the glass. Just as I was compelled to follow suit Tim the farmer walked into the bar behind me, thus saving me the trouble. On the
Aloe species in flowerAloe species in flowerAloe species in flower

I only identified two Aloe species in passing. There may have been more.
way out he chuckled and asked me if I was being led astray! I protested but I was guilty as charged!

Tim and his wife Hanneker were farming on the edge of a farming block and Tim claimed there were no other commercial farmers between him and the DRC border about 10 kilometres away. Due to the unusual shape of the country the DRC makes a large incursion into Zambia between the Luapula River and the watershed boundry just north of the various Copperbelt towns.

I’d met Tim on an Ethiopian Airways flight into Lusaka end route to Harare the year before. We had only chatted briefly but he kindly extended the offer for me to stay if I ever I passed through. That day had come! They were pleasant Christian people who kindly shared their house and home. I had until the Tuesday when their son Francoise was returning from Stellenbosch University. Also staying on the farm was another Zimbawean man, Johnny, new to the community and in the process of setting up shop nearby. His wife Moira and daughter Mia were staying with some other friends in the district whilst their house was being built.

I was very impressed by what the commercial farmers field done in Mkushi. Many of them have resettled from Zimbabwe but Hanneke informed me there was an older, wealthier contingent who had settled years ago from Tanzania, many of them Greeks! It seemed one of the big men in the area was a chap called Peter Michaels – an anglicised Greek name if ever there was one.

I got a cursory look at some expansive hectares of wheat under irrigation, game farms, and maize fields ready for harvest as we drove to church on Sunday morning. It was all very neat and tidy and reminiscent of what many of the Zimbabwean farming districts looked like in the 80s and 90s before that fool Mugabe set about on his program of nationalising the land. Tim explained that they were all on 99 year leases and they paid an annual rent on the land. They had indefinite leave to remain on some sort of investment permit.

I walked extensively on Tim’s farm taking in his relatively new fields (only 3 years in), the workers levelling the last of the termite mounds, a small acreage of tobacco, a larger area of winter wheat being irrigated by his new centre pivot, and an area of citrus trees. The only regrettable aspect of this sort of farming was the fact that all the land now under irrigation had been clear-felled of every last tree. Huge piles of hardwood trunks lay stacked up neatly in the one corner nearest to his tobacco barns. Tim was not oblivious to the waste of fine trees. It was a great shame he told me: the price of growing food for the hundry masses. I understood the dilemma but so long as tracts of surrounding woodland were preserved and the land maximised I suppose it was a justifiable compromise.

The one area near Tim’s farm that sticks in my mind for its beauty was a few kilometres away to the north. Tim took Johnny and I there on the Friday evening, the day after I arrived. The area in question was part of a line of outcropping ridges of vertically-foliated rock running roughly in a northerly direction towards a prominent waterfall 7 or so kms away, demarked even on my country-scale tourist map of the country.

The view over the adjacent woodlands and distant farms was superb but the rocks and vegetation thereon was equally interesting. The surrounding Miombo was broken through by the outcrops and clinging to the rocks and the gaps between them was an abundance of Euphorbias: a thorny, candelabra-shaped, cactus-like plant. There were also clumps of small purplish-blue aloes and other shrubs and climbers. The rocks were obviously very deformed but it was still possible to identify the precursors as conglomerates i.e. sandstone embedded with rounded pebbles.

It was very much business as usual for Tim and Hanneke and when I missed the chance to go to the local airshow the next day because I was out taking a run it was ‘tough takkie’ as the Zimbabwean saying goes.

Therefore I was compelled to entertain myself for the rest of the day. Taking a barefoot run on a farm is all good and well if you are 10 years old; now I’m 36. By the time I’d done 5 or 6 kms out and back I was hobbling and my right foot had a nasty gouge where I had wacked a root. The roads were for the most part sandy but I had underestimated the roots! All the same I wasn’t going to let the day go to waste so I set out again around midday with binoculars and Tim’s GPS to hand.
I diverged from my original plan after missing a crucial turning and by the time I realised I had walked a mile or so in the wrong direction. Therefore I decided to take a ‘shortcut’ through the miombo using the GPS. Bad idea: 6-foot grass (and grass-seeds), spider’s webs, and mid-afternoon temperatures in the upper 20s. Eventually I came to a footpath crossing my direction of travel. I backtracked to where I’d been an hour and a half before and doggedly determined decided to carry on despite an aching outer-right foot etc. Pain is for quitters!

It can be a bit lonely out there in the bush but if you open your eyes and ears it will reward you. Earlier I had run with the farm dogs – Poeter, a huge Boerbul; George, a perky Jack Russell; and a happy-go-lucky labroador whose name I forget. I loved their company but it was impossible to see any wildlife when they were in tow. Now it was quiet enough that I good get in close to the birdlife and see what was there. Many of them I had seen and knew (sort of) from years past. I just needed to brush up using the old field guide that Hanneke had given to me. Others were first sightings – Livingstone’s loerie (turaco), yellow-breasted and Mashona hyliota, and red-billed helmet-shrikes among that number.

Two things threaten this environment and both derive from human activities. The first is uncontrolled tree-felling. The second is uncontrolled hunting of the wildlife therein. I am not going to apportion blame to either but solutions have to be sought for the long-term survival and viability of this magnificently diverse ecological habitat. I have heard it said that all the game larger than the smallest antelope has been hunted and eaten outside of Zambia’s game parks. Tim said he had never seen any sort of duiker or other buck whilst he had been there.

I also noticed many medium to large trees in the woodlands had been felled, seemingly at random. I asked Tim about this and his answer left me gobsmacked. People were felling them for the caterpillars (fushima) that lived in the upper branches. I knew that dried Mopane caterpillars, colloquially called Mopane worms, were utiised as an important source of protein in many parts of Zimbabwe, but I had never heard of trees being felled just for the purpose of harvesting them. What about the following season? What then? It was an example of short-term gain which is so characteristic of humans the world-over.

Without going into a discussion on the hows and whys I do believe that poverty is probably the main driver of such activities. After all, it couldn’t be the easiest way to make a living selling the dried, disembowled bodies of these unfortunate creatures by the roadside? I spoke to a wise old man, a nightwatchman at a roadside lodge in Mpika, a couple of days later. His name was Simon. We spoke at some length on these issues and others and he told me how worried he was for the forests of Zambia.

“We will be seeing deserts in the future” he said to me as he sat looking sadly into the brazier of coals that was keeping him warm through the winter evening.

Look, the situation is not as bad as all that at this moment. The Miombo is still extensive enough that it can regenerate given time. Even the wildlife would probably return with the right measures in place. Anecdotally speaking, I hear the situation is far worse in Malawi which has a far higher density of people than Zambia. There are people and organisations doing good work to try and find solutions and they need to be supported. I would encourage you to visit these places, to talk to the people and ask them about their aspirations. Much of what they say will probably surprise you.

On a more positive note I have a nice little gallery of plant and flower photographs taken with my nifty little Motorola mobile phone in the bush around the farm. I managed to ID a few of them from a nice little handbook on plants of the Miombo, also loaned to me by Hanneke. A few were familiar from the Zimbabwean bush but others were new. The Miombo here was tending towards the ‘wetter’ type highlighted in the book and characterised by more epiphytes (orchids and similar plants growing on the branches and trunks of trees) and a slightly differrent floral assemblage. For the most part the trees were not unduly large – not as large as some I had seen in the very well-watered DRC off the NW – but there were some tall, straight specimens at the base of the outcrops which were 30 m or taller I’m guessing.

In the evenings we ate early and slept early. It is the farming way of life I think. All the same there was a bit of time to converse beforehand and chatting to Johnny I was surprised to learn that he was quite well acquainted with my family. My father had represented him regarding some legal matter sometime between 2003 when he started to fall ill (cancer) and when he passed away three years later. A few years before my cousin Michael had interviewed him and a number of other farmers for a postgraduate project he was engaged in researching for. I promised Johnny I would ask him for a copy.

I also asked him why he hadn’t come out to Mkushi earlier, after losing his farm to the land nationalisation and resettlement program over a decade before. He said to me that he gave it three years to see if things might change, then another three and another three again, before realising that it was a lost cause. I worked out that he must have been in his early 50s. I admired him for giving the farming lark another go with all the attendent risks. Others had packed their bags and headed to Australia and the UK whilst others remained in Zimbabwean towns doing other things, as Johnny had done for the last decade.

I didn’t really get to speak to Tim that much but he was a pretty upbeat sort who seemed to treat his staff reasonably and enjoy his chosen vocation. I spoke more with Hanneke when I accompanied her to Mkushi town on the Monday. She’d suggested I talk to her immigration officer, Victor, about getting around the place (I was considering the train) and any other troubleshooting I might require.

En route Hanneke, who came across as quite a tough cookie as a first impression, spoke more openly of life there. It wasn’t as easy as all that she said and she missed being so far away from her kids (two at university in SA and one at school there). She told me that in the early days of their Zambian adventure things had been so tough they hadn’t even had any food to put on the table some days. They were only managing a farm then and as result had no collateral land against which to borrow. Slowly but surely they had pulled themselves up by their bootstrings and now they had their own farm and food on the table for which I was a grateful recipient for several days!

I had to chuckle when we arrived at Victor’s office because Hanneke’s countenance changed completely. It wasn’t that she’d been unkind or severe but her businesslike attitude was put aside and she was suddenly all smiles and rather charming. You see, Victor was a rather important man around those parts for he had the power to renew work and residence permits. He responded well to the smiles and complements in his tidy little office with the picture of the new president, Mr Edgar Lungu, hanging on the facing wall. He was young, probably not much older than me, of average height and slim with dark skin set off against ever so white teeth, suggesting to me that he'd spent much of his youth outdoors. Whilst Hanneke sat across his desk and I sat pretending to study my map he set about calling various people in the chain of command. There was a slight snag in one of the renewals but never mind, he would sort it out he assured Hanneke, who heaped praises on the little man for his efforts.

By this stage I’d decided that I wouldn’t take the train up to Tanzania after all but rather bus/hitch lifts up to Lake Tanganyika via a slightly different route. It would allow me to take in some sights and places that I would have bypassed on the train. Victor gave me a few suggestions and helpfully made a phone call to a contact to ask him the best way to approach Kapishya hotsprings - advice I later disgarded, but appreciated nonetheless.

On the Sunday morning I accompanied Tim and Hanneke, Johnny, Moira and Mia to church. It was about an hour’s drive away and I remarked to Moira that it was a more like a pilgrimage! She laughed and Tim also remarked that it was probably the longest trip I’d ever taken to go to church, right? It probably was.

It was a tidy little place although the congregation was a little diminished after the previous day’s airshow. It was reminiscent of many of the Protestant-Christian services I’ve attended over the years in various places. There was an emphasis on song (good) with a few competent musicians leading the worship and a key speaker who just happened to be an American pastor who was out visiting another American friend who ministered in the area. The latter was also an avid hunter which struck me as a bit strange for a missionary sort but there it was. Here was a community who needed something to rally around and for this collection of farmers and their families it was their church.

The importance of their Christian faith came home to me on that same drive to Mkushi with Hanneke that I just mentioned. She told me that she wouldn’t have been able to get through the upheaval of the last 15 years if she hadn’t had her faith.

“I just gave it all to the Lord,” she said. “It was too much for me to cope with.”

Many of those who had gone off to Australia and elsewhere were the ones who still bore such bitterness and emnity she went on to say. I’ve talked to a few of them and they still bear such a grudge towards Mugabe, towards black people. “They need to deal with it,” she said.

It was a fair point although I know how hard it is to forgive when we feel badly wronged.

The other thing about the European community in Zambia is how heterogeneous it is. Hanneke is of Afrikaans extract as her name might suggest, as were many members of the Mkushi community. I heard mention of Danie’s and Stefan’s and similar, and smatterings of Afrikaans I heard quite frequently. English is the language of the land though and the average black Zambian speaks it quite well, even in areas well away from the towns.

Yet the English-speaking whites were also a varied bunch: some Zimbabwean, others American, others ex-Tanzanian and a few Brits to round it out. Of the latter I met a very personable family, the Woods, who were there doing some sort of missionary work. John invited me to braai/BBQ with them later in the day. Fortunately for me they had established themsleves on a corner of Tim’s farm so it was easy to get there and back.

John and Judith lived 6 months of the year in Wales and 6 months in Zambia. They had three boys, all well-spoken and bright, and they resided in a basic but comfortable cottage amongst the trees. We were joined by an Afrikaans couple, Karel and Hannelee, and their three children. It was a great afternoon spent chatting, playing badminton and eating some lovely, tender fillets that John had acquired from afar. John was a typically jovial, robust Englishman, who laughed alot and made little riposte’s about braaing better than an Afrikaaner, for Karel’s benefit I’m sure. Judith was a locum doctor when back in the UK but assisted John and raised the boys when in Zambia. I was impressed with how well travelled on the continent John was and some of the stories he had to tell will make good reading one day when he has the time to reminisce.

And so it is that my time for reminiscing must be brought to an end if I’m ever to get anything done in the way of showering and preparing for dinner and an early start tomorrow. I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest addition to my trans-Zambian chronicles. I’m still well behind on the writing considering I’m now about 1000 km north of Lusaka and miles from Mkushi, but the intervening travels will have to wait for another day.


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