Monday, January 19, 2009

The greenest state in Africa

Zimbabwe must surely be one of the greenest states in the world. With the collapse of the economy, industry at a standstill, and the death of the agricultural sector, no doubt Zimbabwe has a carbon footprint proportional to that of a pygmy shrew.

There is a large power station on the outskirts of the industrial area of Harare - the main gate is locked with a single chain and a rusty padlock, and it’s quite likely that the key was lost some time ago. The last time we saw smoke coming out of the cooling towers was more than 8 years ago.

Our national electricity supply relies almost entirely on one poorly maintained hydro-electric dam and rumour has it that only one of the turbines works. We’ve had regular power cuts for years – with 8 hours of power cuts per day as the norm – although the situation has improved recently with the closure of the last factories on the outskirts of town.

We also have fuel shortages – paraffin, cooking gas, petrol and diesel have been intermittently available since 2000, and sometimes there is none available for months on end, as the government requisitions all fuel for the military or use on Ministerial farms. There is a story doing the rounds about how Air Zimbabwe ran out of fuel entirely, and on one plane the captain was forced to pass his hat around the passengers to plead for contributions so that the airline could afford to buy enough aviation fuel to get the plane back home to Harare.

When I first visited Zimbabwe, in 1992, there were dozens of airlines who provided long haul flights to Harare, from Germany, Switzerland, the UK, etc. Now there are only regional flights and a handful of airlines. The gleaming new airport, unveiled late in 2002 -- after a delay due to problems with the computerised air traffic control programme -- is now only used a few times a day, by small, short haul aircraft from Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

We probably recycle more than any other nation in Africa. Used yoghurt pots, holey plastic bags, rubber bands, glass bottles are all worth far more than money. Nothing gets thrown out – we have collections of bits of wire, screws, bolts, bicycle tires in the garden shed, and used envelopes in our desk drawers. Old clothes get passed on to people who need it, machines are endlessly repaired and ancient cars chug along the road, held together by bits of string and superglue. If expat friends leave the country, people hover round to gather up discarded items – broken lawnmowers, dog-eared novels, kitchen gadgets and half-used cosmetics are particularly sought after.

Apart from the super-rich elite, we are becoming a nation of lean, green recyclers. Or, as we say in the UK, first class scroungers. Al Gore should be proud.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Zim personality of the year 2008

Yes, its that time of year again, the time when blog writers gather round their laptops to debate and deliberate as to who should be awarded the prestigious, utterly bogus Zim Personality of the Year 2008.

Let’s review this year’s contenders:

First off, there is Robert Mugabe, the (self-declared) Prez, also known as “Uncle Bob”, “the Old Man”, and referred to by numerous expletives. He is a wily old character, although the consensus is becoming that he has slightly lost the plot in his dotage. His last big speech at the funeral of a colleague was the usual communist style rant, but the fire in his belly died down to barely a smoulder as he seemed to drift into a gentle slumber, and then wake up to rant against the colonial oppressors, those Nasty British, whose Prime Minister needs to undergo a sanity check (the only bits of his speech conducted in English by the way, for the benefit of the international media) and to call the Zimbabwean President Elect, and leader of the opposition party, a “political prostitute”.

Then there is the Department for Information. Or rather Misinformation as it’s called, shortened to the “Min of Mizz”. There are several colourful characters working there, ranging from the self-declared (Mis)Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu. Mr Ndlovu told a media briefing that the cholera outbreak that has been declared a national emergency was “a calculated racist terrorist attack on Zimbabwe by the unrepentant former Colonial power which has enlisted support from its American and Western allies.” Like many African countries, Zim has a cholera season every year – the difference this time is that the medical system has collapsed completely, so it can’t be contained, and due to the collapsing infrastructure, sewage pipes leak on the streets and the municipal drinking water - when rarely available - remains untreated.

The self-declared Deputy Minister of Mizz is one Bright Matonga. He has various nick-names including “Dim”, “5 Watt” and a few others that I won’t repeat here. He was rolled out to face the international media shortly after the first round of elections, to explain why no results were forthcoming. On the first day, he seemed rather astonished that anyone outside of Zimbabwe was even interested. On day 2, he rather fancied himself as a SpinDoctor of Note and started dressing snazzily in loud shirts that strobed and played havoc with the white balance of the TV cameras, the performance of which was far more interesting than any of the nonsense that came out of his mouth.

But the winner is the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Mr Gideon Gono, known colloquially as “Gono-rhea”. Gono-rhea has presided over some classic media gaffes this year. First up there was the exciting news that Zimbabwe was home to one of only a handful of Mercedes Benz Brabus v12 bi-turbo supercars. This car was allegedly delivered to the Reserve Bank by DHL and left in the company car park, during a pay dispute with local bank workers, while its new owner, Gono, was on holiday in the Far East. In his defence, he said it was a company car, paid for cash-strapped tax payers, and that it was in fact another type of Mercedes Benz that he got for a bargain price of less than two hundred thousand US dollars (unlike a Brabus which costs US $365,000).

Then there have some spectacular economic decisions that have been made this year, designed to frustrate the business sector, confuse the elderly, and incite mayhem. In fact, we even had a mini riot, when the soldiers were unable to draw their pay (there being no bank notes at all) in the run up to Christmas. During the course of the year, we’ve had 10 zeros deleted from the currency with the introduction of new bank notes, some worthless coins re-instated, and the continued practice of expiry dates on notes (that we were told to disregard), and of course, the famous 100 billion dollar note (now discontinued).

During 2008, writing cheques, paying for items in cash, withdrawing cash from the bank without a salary statement and making bank transfers have been declared illegal. The daily, weekly and monthly cash withdrawal limits from your own bank account usually start at out at the equivalent of a dollar or two but by the end of the month its not worth enough to buy a pencil. Paying for items in foreign currency is still technically illegal but the only way to actually pay for anything these days as there are not enough bank notes available to withdraw the equivalent of one US dollar (nobody even knows what the rate should be – it was several quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars to one US dollar back in October – by now it must be several hexillion (ZWD 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or thereabouts – and the biggest note is 500 billion).

Still with me? Ok, well now for the icing on the cake. A recent story in the Herald, the only government-accredited national newspaper, reported about that Gono has published his memoirs, detailing how current US Prez George W Bush head-hunted Gono to become Vice President of the World Bank. Gono says that at the time he was on a targeted sanctions list, and that the World Bank offered to remove him from the list and “see what it could do with his friends already on the sanctions list.” With such ludicrous fabrications, Gono-rhea’s book is bound to be a best seller.

God knows we could all do with a laugh.