Silent Spring

This is a harsh time of the year in southern Africa. We have had 7 months of dry weather and the hot season is upon us with temperatures in the 30's and sometimes low 40's. It is also absolutely dry - rivers have stopped flowing and pools are drying out, the grazing is almost exhausted and the colors of the open veld are stark and vivid. The yellow/white of the remaining grass, the early green flush of the figs and the pod mahogany, the startling pastel colors of the mountain acacia and Msasa.

But it is always a time of great expectation. All of creation knows that soon the storm clouds will arrive and with them the first rains and that unmistakable scent of the wet African earth. The birds know it and are nesting, the migrants have arrived from their European and Central African winter sojourns and the swallows are back.

Normally the countryside is alive with activity - tractors crawling across the dry lands with clouds of red and gray dust billowing up behind, oxen straining their harness in front of steel ploughs and harrows. In many parts, man is speeding up the whole process with his usual impatience and the irrigation lines are out and the sprays fly into the wind and bring fourth the first early seedlings. The flowering shrubs throw off the burden of winter and burst out in their new costumes of purple and red, white and yellow, defying the realities of the winter world they have just been through.

In the days of the civil war in Zimbabwe, I always took comfort in the subtle shift in human activity that took place in the spring. Somehow if we went out and ploughed our lands and brought in all that we would need for the summer rains, seed, fertilizer, herbicides, insect sprays, fuel and oil, we knew that we had committed ourselves to another season, another year. This year it is quite different, this year the spring is silent, almost eerily so.

The farms are abandoned, homesteads which once rang with the games of children home from school at the weekend, are derelict and occupied in many cases by miserable squatters. Some are occupied by families whose real lives are in the cities nearby and they come out at the weekend to uneasily sit where they do not belong and enjoy the use of things that are actually the property of others. They ride guiltily through the weed-encrusted fields and past the broken down sheds and cattle kraals. The spirits of those who are buried there and whose lives are bound up in the springs of the past make for uneasy companions.

But it is not only on the farms that this spring has died before it began - in the peasant farming districts, the specter of another hungry season is upon the communities that live there. The majority of the young people - especially the men folk, have left for Egoli or Gaborone, London and New York. Those that are left have nothing to live on except from what comes in from the outside. Perhaps strutting, threatening Party men in trucks and Mercedes cars. Perhaps World Vision or Save the Children. Perhaps the World Food programme or the USAID. Sometimes help comes in the form of a letter with some greasy pounds inside or a mysterious deposit in a Post Office account of which they were alerted by a phone call or a message from the local store.

But they are exhausted before they even begin. Their cattle are thin, the grazing and water sparse. Seed and other essential inputs are either not available or are too expensive and there are now so many demands on their limited resources that they have to spend their money wisely, dollar by dollar. The other problem is that each family has new burdens - the children of other families left behind when both parents died or left the country. Sick relatives from the urban areas told by the last hospital or doctor they saw to "go home " - better to die there where your relatives do not have to rent a truck to carry your body home. Many of the actual breadwinners are in fact sick with many ailments - tuberculosis, pneumonia, malaria and various forms of carcinoma. All made more deadly by HIV and Aids.

We know what this failure to prepare for the summer means - it means there is no commitment to this season, to next year. Our streets are unusually quiet, people do not have the fuel to use their cars and transport is just prohibitively expensive. Factories are closing their doors and sending their staff home without pay, customers walk through the stores looking at the prices and wondering just what they can afford to buy. The sight of people leaving empty handed or with tiny parcels of essential foods is heartbreaking - you want to step in and take over and allow them to use your debit card to fill their baskets.

This is a nation that is dying on its feet, exhausted after a long trek through a winter of hardship and struggle. A nation that cannot smell the scent of early rains and now thinks that even if it does rain, it is simply too late. The Bible says that a nation without vision dies. We have no vision of the future, just of survival like shipwrecked passengers hanging onto flotsam in the open sea.

Watching Mugabe rant and rave at the FAO Conference in Rome brought into my mind an image of the passengers in the sea watching as the Captain of this ship, who was criminally responsible for its capsize, sails past in a life boat. The image extends to Mugabe making a speech to the sailors in the boat with him. While this is going on a pleasure cruiser sails past us both - the passengers in the water and Mugabe in his lifeboat and this cruiser called the UN Fair and Ample Oligarchy is jammed with overweight slugs that clap and cheer the silly old man in his Captains uniform.

As this circus of clown and congregation sails out of sight, we the poor passengers are left with nothing but the sea and endless waves and the sharks. Our only hope is to either drift ashore or be rescued by another vessel. This is our silent spring, but tonight there is a beautiful full moon and one of my succulents has given birth to a spectacular single flower that will bloom overnight and be dead in the morning.

The one thing we cannot afford at this time is a fight for a better place in the water. Rather we should be caring for each other and helping each other to believe that there is a future and that when we finally get back to sanity, we will be able to live again. I am reminded of a shepherd who wrote, "even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, His rod and His staff will guide". Perhaps next spring will be better.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 19th October 2005