Yesterday the Jacaranda trees that surround our home in Harare, burst into bloom. There is no other description for this annual event – one minute the trees are bare and lifeless and then suddenly they come out in blossom – that almost indescribable blue/purple. When you couple that to the banks of other flowering shrubs and the brilliant colours of the bougainvillea, suddenly what was a brown and almost lifeless City becomes a living garden.
In the open veld, it is different but the same. Along the rivers the riverine trees and shrubs are breaking out in flower and new leaves. In the Eastern Highlands the stunted Msasa trees are again blazing red and brown. Soon the hills will be covered in green. The Msasa leaves come out in all the colours that you see in the Fall in the Northern Hemisphere. The difference here is that each leaf is covered in a water soluble sheen of wax coating that inhibits the loss of water through the foliage and this gives the trees a translucent appearance.
When we see these changes we know spring is coming with its storms sweeping across the Veld followed by that unmistakable smell of wet earth that has been dry for months. Then the annual miracle as the blackened, burnt, countryside turns green. We are not alone in seeing these seasonal changes, the birds are all busy making nests and the migrants start arriving from the north – tiny Fly Catchers from the Congo, great Storks from Europe and Russia, yellow billed Kites.
But the land that they come to breed in and raise the next generation, is not what it was. When I was a teenager I grew up on a Ranch in the south of the country, spending my school holidays there, roaming free in the western Matopo Hills and helping my Godfather run three properties with cattle and some irrigation based cropping. They belonged to a close knit community that worked together to support each other and to tackle common problems and needs. We built a private school in a small centre nearby called St Stephens College, an Anglican Church in the Village of Esigodini. I cut hay in the summer and hauled it to the farmstead in an ox drawn waggon.
We belonged to the local Intensive Conservation Area (ICA) and worked together to conserve water and grazing. If a fire broke out in the area, we all responded with tractors and bowsers with sprays and beaters. We maintained fire breaks along our fences and built dams to hold water for the winter season. When we bought a 10 000-acre property near Bushtick Mine it had an ugly, deep gully right down its centre – the result of poor veld management and summer floods. My Godfather gave me a small team with an ox drawn dam scoop and hand tools and we set out to build a series of small earth dams across the gully, each wall with a steel pipe through the wall to release water from the dam into the stream.
In two years the gully was overgrown with vegetation, reeds in the bottom and a permanent stream of water throughout the year where it spilled into the local river. If the dams filled up with silt and sand it did not matter, the sand held water and protected it from the sun and evaporation. We put up fences and cut fire breaks and were able to put in a small area of irrigation. The grass recovered and we were able to transfer cattle from the Matopo Hills to the new property.
In the Tribal Lands that were adjacent to our farms I knew the situation was very different. The people were living in villages and were governed by Chiefs and Headmen. We walked through those quiet valleys and hills and were always welcomed in the Villages. Two small boys with dogs. They had no fences, owned cattle and small stock that were always herded by the young boys in the village. I had no impression of overcrowding or land pressure, the rivers all ran most of the year, but even then the signs were there with a shortage of grazing and the sight of thin cattle and poverty in the Villages.
We lived and worked in a completely different world. We went to good schools and played sport, we had electricity and running water at home and servants that we hardly ever regarded as more than shadows, who cleaned our shoes and took us to school on their bikes. I was hardly aware of my privileges – this was my world as I found it. It was not to survive.
70 years later, that world has gone, swept aside by the forces of history and change, but the old country is still there. The difference is that we are now populated by 14 million people with 5 million or more in the Diaspora. Our Cities and towns are crowded and largely dominated by informal sector activity that somehow generates a living for the majority.
In Europe and Asia, the urban population drift was driven by industrialisation that created millions of jobs and gave their relocated rural populations stability and security. Not so in Africa, here it is poverty that has driven our rural populations to the towns and cities and into the Diaspora, across the globe. In the rural areas we have destroyed the colonial land system that gave the whites a privileged lifestyle and security of tenure on the basis of which they built an agro/industrial empire that fed the country and generated exports and work. In the process we destroyed the very systems that made commercial agriculture viable and competitive and sustainable.
Today there are few fences, no firebreaks and no sense of community responsibility for services and support. The result is that we now burn half the country every year. Our rivers no longer run in the winter but rage in the summer, sweeping all in front of them crushing bridges and breaking dams. We are cutting down our trees and burning them for energy and charcoal. We hold cattle and goats for prestige and subsistence and vast areas of the country are now totally denuded of cover from the relentless sun and long dry season.
Where I once walked with my dogs in the open veld we are now faced with low sand dunes that cover the remains of the fences. In some areas the term desertification has new meaning. Cattle die in their thousands every year and poverty has deepened across the country. Rural roads are hardly passable and open gulley’s like the one I once repaired and turned into an asset instead of an eyesore, stretch unchecked across the land.
It is time for African leadership to wake up and recognise that this situation is no longer tenable. We have to recognise that water and land are a finite resource and if we are not careful we will run out of the one and destroy the other so that it cannot sustain our population and meet our needs.
I have been reading how North Korea and China have completely reorganised their rural economies after recognising that if they did nothing their rural populations would starve and forced relocation would destabilise their urban areas. We need to do the same and to recognise it is time to give everyone who makes their living from the land, security over the land involved and the necessary support to make it productive and sustainable.
Then we need to ensure that all who choose to live in the towns and cities are permanently settled, can own property and make a living with long term security. Failure is just not an option or all countries in the same situation as Zimbabwe will not be able to deliver a decent quality of life to their people and drive ever more into the Diaspora.