Floating off the Mountain

I was watching a TV programme the other day and saw a story about a woman living in the USA who faced an enormous challenge when a teenager. She took it to God in prayer and when she recounted the response she described it as 'like floating off the mountain.' I know the feeling because I to have been there in the past.

You as an individual face a mountain and to get to your destination you have to climb that mountain and get down the other side. At the start all you can see is this huge mass, perhaps towering up into the clouds, dark menacing and difficult. It always feels as if this is 'mission impossible'.

It is especially tough when it is all up to you - others who might help seem unable or reluctant to do so. So you face the climb alone. Many times as you climb your mountain it seems as if the climb will never end. The ridge that you thought might be the summit turns out to be just another ridge on the way - with perhaps a valley and more climbing after it.

We all have our mountains to climb - this past week we interviewed the different farmers organisations on how they saw things and asking what was the way forward. What struck me after all the talk were two things - how universally despondent the leaders of our farmers are and how determined they are to see this thing through.

In particular the tobacco people. We used to be the third largest producer and exporter of flue cured tobacco in the world. It was an industry we were all proud of producing top quality tobacco for the world market on disciplined farms following the best in agronomic practices. This year we will only market 50 000 tonnes - 20 per cent of what we grew just 5 years ago. Only 18 000 tonnes will go through our famous auctions - the rest is contracted. They told us that they doubted if there would be a significant crop next year, mainly because of continued farm invasions and violence as well as the total lack of any understanding by those in authority as to what was required for the industry to survive.

But others told a similar story - we are only going to plant half the winter crop of cereals that we planted last year and the outlook right now is for an even more dismal situation in the coming season. Emergency meetings were held on Monday last week in the Ministry of Agriculture, then on Wednesday in the Presidents office. What is wrong the farmers were asked? What isn't, they replied!

Despite all that and the experience of those in authority in the past few years, the Minister of Agriculture, a special breed of individual with the appropriate name of Made, stated at a press conference that we had grown 1,8 million tonnes of maize. This is the same guy who told the President two years ago that we had grown 2,4 million tonnes and 'did not need food aid'. He also said recently that land preparation for winter crops was well under way and we would plant 110 000 hectares. Very little land preparation is in fact underway and farmers estimate that we will be lucky to get 25 000 hectares into the ground.

We are still importing maize from South Africa and at the moment there is plenty about in the markets, but in my 50 years of experience in agriculture here, many at a senior level, we always over estimated the rain fed crops in a wet year. Current estimates by the industry put the crop at 900 000 tonnes - apply my caution and I doubt if we have grown more than 700 000 tonnes. We need all of that for subsistence and livestock feed so we are again going to have to import vast amounts of maize to feed the country - last year a million tonnes at a cost of about 1 billion Rand.

But it does not stop there - there are now so few cattle. It used to be that wherever you went you saw herds of cattle - all kinds of cattle. This has been a marvelous year for grass and you see few signs that it is being used. The reason? No one has any security - the old farmers, the new farmers, the settlers or the squatters. They are all scared to buy cattle and leave them on the open veld where they are prone to theft by every Tom, Dick or Gabriel.

To these farm leaders, who have lived through the nightmare of the past 6 years, watching their own beloved farms forcibly taken from them, then vandalized and finally abandoned in most cases, this is a real mountain. Can they really imagine that one day soon they will sit on the top of this mountain and see the land ahead of them again? It is really tough going.

At another level today is the first anniversary of the launch of Murambatsvina - a programme that will go down in history as a time of shame for Zanu PF and the present leadership of the country. One aspect of Murambatsvina (which means get rid of the rubbish) is the total despair of the people affected.

They were already poor, living in shanties or crowded rooms in urban dormitories. They were taken from their homes by force, their homes destroyed and with them much of the accumulated assets that they owned. They were then dumped on the open veld in the middle of winter, denied support from the Churches and the international community. They were then moved several times - each time losing a bit more dignity and pride and what was left of their meager assets.

Today, one year on, perhaps as many as half the children have died of malnutrition and exposure or simple infections. Do any of us know what it is like to have a child die in your arms from malnutrition and exposure? Do any of us have any idea of what it is to have to face that alone, among strangers and without any sense of community? No of course we do not but we can all sense the depravation and sadness and complete despair. Many adults have died just because they no longer had any reason to live.

My TV hero who 'floated off the mountain' was in a German concentration camp from 1943 to 1945. She lost a child who was taken from her arms; she lost her parents and her siblings. She survived and ended up in America where she became a doctor and spent her life working with children and trying to forget the horrors of her own early life.

When she faced her mountain, it was Nazi Germany. Hitler was at his most powerful and her people, the Jews of Europe were helpless victims. Those who had the power to stop the nightmare did nothing. 60 million people died in the aftermath.

We face our mountain; soon we will sit on its summit and see the future that lies ahead. From there on, let me tell you, it will be just like 'floating off the mountain' and compared to what we have been through in the past six years, it will be a breeze with a new beginning for all of us in the near future. But let's not forget - we have a mountain to climb and let's not quit - we are tired and despondent but in the end we will win the summit.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 18th May 2006.