White Farmers in Zimbabwe
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Charlie Ross wiggles a finger through a bullet hole in the steel girder holding up his tractor barn. A souvenir from the Rhodesian war of 1978 – the fire the last time. The lintel over the front door of the house was hit by a rifle grenade. A machine gun sprayed the downstairs windows. Charlie returned fire from the bedroom window. “We’ve got used to trouble over the years.” The attackers took out two wounded on a donkey.

The next morning he collected 362 shell casings from the yard.

What am I doing here?

It was an unexpected invitation. The tone was polite but ‘take it or leave it’. John Dudman’s khaki shirt with deep breast pockets identified him as a white African farmer. As did his dusty knee-length shorts, crinkled at the crotch into thirty-nine steps.

He was holding a pump-action shotgun in one fist and a bag of groceries in the other.

“Come on up to dinner”, he said, ‘It’ll be nothing fancy, just steak and peas. Then we can show you around. But you’ll have to make up your mind quick. We leave in ten minutes. I want to make the compound by sundown.’

I had met him only ten minutes before. His expression gave nothing away. Frank eyes, dark caramel, above a deep-pile black beard. The offer of a bed for the night was almost casual. But no one was leaving town tonight. The Bulawayo Farming Union had issued a general warning – all members were advised not to return to their properties. For obvious reasons.

Reasons like Martin Olds, for instance. Olds had been a former karate champion of Zimbabwe with a reputation for toughness – with poachers and with his ‘labour’, as white farmers generally refer to their black farmhands. Now he was dead.

Even the other farmers gathered outside the Union offices conceded that Olds was an ‘obvious target’. The murder-squad had come for him the previous night in a convoy of pick-ups. Who fired first wasn’t clear, but a fierce gun battle ensued.

There wasn’t time to respond to the SOS Olds sent out on the farmers’ radio net. Everyone wondered if they could have done more. Judging by the AK47 shell casings, these weren’t ordinary war-veterans. According to the farmers, only a government-sponsored force would have access to AK47s. John Dudman flew over the scene in his light aircraft and saw the raiders lugging what looked like bodies and loading them on to a tractor and trailer. The farmers were candidly proud that Martin Olds had taken a few with him.

Some farmers were preparing for the worst – a total break-down of law and order. They reckoned Mugabe was now out to finish the revolution by reclaiming all land stolen by white imperialists over a hundred years ago. No mention, the farmers added bitterly, that, after 20 years of black majority rule, the only people to benefit from land redistribution were judges, ministers and officials – who kept Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party in power. Anything could happen. Mugabe, ‘President Bob’, was down in the polls and desperate.

We left the Farmers’ Union offices in convoy – the Dudman’s pick-up in the lead, my Hertz saloon following. John waved to the farmers and their wives standing under the plane trees.

He explained we were heading for a friend’s place – ‘next-door’ to his ranch, the other side of Figtree, 70 kilometres southwest of Bulawayo, deep in the bush of Matebeleland. His neighbours, Charlie and Val Ross, had called him up that afternoon. They sounded nervous and upset. They’d heard that the mob who killed Martin Olds were coming their way. John detected tears in Val’s voice after a long sleepless night. So we were going there to give them some ‘moral support’.

And if we met the mob on the road? Make a quick decision, said John. Turn and run. Or drive straight through them. Either way, not a good idea to stop for anything.

We were soon clear of Bulawayo city – with its wide streets and pavements, its shady wrought-iron porches. An elegance touched by the Wild West. John’s wife Gillian took the wheel. He rode shotgun, the barrel poking from the passenger window as we drove hard through the breeze-block suburbs – slewing and slaloming round potholes – following the setting sun. Elderly men in tweed jackets creaked along on bicycles. The women – babies on their backs or packages on their heads – walked with easy grace, like the soap-stone statuettes for sale at every roadside stall. It was beautiful and distracting – because round every bend, concealed by every depression, there might be the mob.

The rusty-red earth began to glow in the twilight. Floppy, the Dudmans’ dog, bounced around in the back of the pick-up. John held out a hand through the window to give it a tousle. ‘Floppy’ is slang for Kaffir.

Then the silhouette of four armed men carrying Kalashnikovs appeared in the road ahead – masked by the dust of a passing vehicle.

Slowly, through the haze, the frieze came into focus. An official army road block. I breathed. John chatted briefly with the officer in charge: the ‘veterans’ had badly beaten workers at Springfontein, a neighbouring farm run by a black co-operative – rural voters Mugabe needed to ‘bring into line’ before the election. ‘In Africa you vote for the man you fear the most,’ John explained. As a rule, beatings are with hosepipe, but sometimes old fan-belts attached to sticks are used – very whippy. We stopped to give a lift to several labourers in loose-fitting blue overalls. John spoke to them in Ndbele. They were frightened too.

We made the Ross’s farm on the cusp of nightfall. It was like the Somerset small-holding that Charlie Ross’s in-laws owned back in England. In the milking barn, a small herd of Fresians with fidgeting tails. Swarms of mosquitoes. A John Deere tractor. Freshly dropped cow dung. Charlie and Val walked out to greet us. Their playful bouncy chocolate labrador squirmed like a fish. As John unloaded a spare box of shotgun cartridges, he and Charlie traded information. The tone was military and businesslike. No sign of the mob today, concluded Charlie, but it was a very long night.

Most of their friends were in Bulawayo – in hotels or on friends’ floors. We went inside for an evening drink while Charlie made his final check on the perimeter fencing at the bottom of the lawn. His daughter, Sally, was married on that lawn quite recently but she’s gone back to England now. Under the thatch and maple-beam roof, we collapse into wicker sofas to drink Castle lager, dusted with cold, straight from the fridge. Ben, the ‘houseboy’, in his sixties, brings a bottle opener. The caps are just being prised off when Charlie returns. He’s cradling an FN assault rifle, a Belgian variant of the SLR once used by British armed forces. Strictly speaking, the FN is illegal in Zimbabwe, at least the fully automatic version. Before independence, they were issued by the Rhodesian government so white landowners could defend themselves.

‘She comes in every night now’, he says, propping the weapon against the corner of the cold fireplace. John has positioned his shotgun at the other corner. Two beautifully carved giraffes, over six feet tall, stand guard at the fireplace with affronted nostrils. Three spare magazines lie like tribute at their fetlocks.

The guns remind everyone of the situation they are trying to forget. Talk turns to Martin Olds. Had he provoked the gun battle by firing first? Could more have been done to help? Twinges of conscience, the arthritis of guilt – but shooting through a crowd of sixty, all with automatics, wasn’t an option. And isn’t an option. John and Charlie decide that if the mob comes, shooting will be the last resort. ‘Olds was a prime target. He was on a list, I’m convinced of it. I’m not sure as hell going to Ògap itó unless I hear for sure that my name is on the hit-list. Then I’ll go, but not before,’ says Charlie. ‘And if they come I’ll take a few with me. You can bet on that.’

Val agrees. She is fed up with being frightened. Last night a neighbour telephoned that the Olds mob was heading in the direction of the Ross farm. At 4 a.m. Val and Charlie were woken up by the farm dogs, yanking and chafing their chains,barking and going berserk. Val’s head pounded as she paced around the back of the house. Charlie ran out of the bedroom and set up with the FN behind the front door. Everyone felt like throwing up. There was no point in calling the police – who had watched the squad driving to the Olds spread at Nyamandlovu and done nothing. The barking continued. No attack came. Dawn broke and the cause of the alarm became clear. Charlie had left an empty oil-drum by the fence. The dogs were spooked by its unfamiliar shape. Everyone laughed. But it’s the waiting that is so exhausting, said Val.

Except for the rifles, this could be an ordinary English dinner party between a pair of farmer neighbours. The two women quickly begin a conversation of their own – about schools and holiday plans for next year. In the men’s corner, the subject is farming. John’s having hell with the leopards at the moment. Predator loss is costing him three to four beasts a week during the calving season. Last month he sold two hunting licenses to a local big game safari operator for $2,000 each – but the American market has dried up because of the troubles. John may have to shoot them himself now. Which seems a bit of a waste.

Charlie Ross can’t leave his mombies (cows) and take off to Bulawayo like the majority of ranchers. His herd is dairy. It has to be milked every day. Otherwise the mombies will get mastitis and the milk will be unsaleable for months – which will put him in debt for the next two years at least. Either he sells up and goes for good, or sits it out. There have been rough periods in the past: first, the War of Independence in ’78, then the dissident period of the mid-80s when Mugabe’s ruthless 5th Brigade were crushing Joshua Nkomo. Charlie lost five guys when ‘the 5th’ came. They were badly beaten and marched up and down the road outside the farm with broken arms and shoulders. Charlie found them in the bush later with their bellies slit open.

There are whispers that those who killed Olds are ‘ex-5th’. True or not, says Charlie, it’s scaring seven shades of shit out of my blacks. If there is trouble, the ones who work for whites will catch it worst.

There is gossip about the neighbours. Both couples talk disapprovingly about the farmers who have upped and left their labour to face Mugabe’s ‘re-education’ parties: unlike whites, the locals can’t just gap it to Bulawayo at the drop of a hat; farmers have a duty to stay and protect their people. They have no guns either. The Rosenfels family is singled out. They own several farms nearby. Local legend has it that Old man Rosenfels came to Zimababwe with Cecil Rhodes, as his oxen driver. Most of them have shipped out now, says Charlie, left their guys to sweat.

It’s a hard time to be a black farm labourer. With inflation rampant, the minimum wage of 1,150 Zimbabwean dollars (about £20) is now barely enough to keep a family alive. Only five years ago a family could buy two 50 kilogram bags mealie-meal – the ground maize staple eaten across Africa – and have over half the wages left. Today the same money buys barely two bags. Obviously, the current political situation is making things worse. It is the people who really suffer, Charlie adds, which is why the opposition movement (the Movement for Democratic Change) has gained so much support, black and white.

From its plastic sheath, Charlie pulls out a map of the local area and offers a guided tour. It is the same one he used during the war. It reminds him of a night patrol when one of his comrades was shot dead by a nervous sentry on his own side. ‘Man, that was a bloody waste. It was only about a month before the end.’ He points out Rhodes’s grave in the nearby Matopos National Park. Then I notice half the local farms are named after London suburbs – Lewisham, Penge, Beckenham and Bromley.

Dinner is more beer, steak cooked the African way (burned), marrowfat peas (the size of marbles but surprisingly juicy), home-made chips. ‘Bob-the-Gob’ is condemned – a ‘nutcase’ intent on destroying the country. He might hate the white farmers but he needs their tobacco and wheat crops to generate the foreign currency – now in desperately short supply. It is not uncommon to find petrol stations without fuel. Foreign exchange is down to five days’ supply. Now Bob is buying petrol on tick from some dodgy Belgian bank, according to Charlie. He will destroy this country if it keeps him in power.

Most of the rest of the evening we avoid politics. There are anecdotes of ’78 – the jumpy wife, spooked by rustling in the bushes, who shot a prize stud bull by mistake. This old stalwart, told with unflagging gusto, has Val crying into her banana. It is followed by John’s account of his meeting an eight foot long black mamba, the most aggressive snake in the bush. Most snakes take fright at the footfall of a man, but not the mamba. It rears up on one third of its body length. Which means that an eight foot snake stands almost six feet tall. In short bursts the mamba can travel at 90 kph, kilometers per hour. It has been known to strike a man through an open car window or on a passing motorbike. It strikes its victims on the head or chest.

Without the injection of the correct anti-venom, death follows in between 15 to 20 minutes.

It does, however, have a weakness. It cannot see very well. It detects only movement. One day, out checking his mombies, John was suddenly face to face with a ‘biiiig’ snake. His right hand mimes the come-and-go of the mamba’s swaying head. He simply froze. Stayed utterly still. Staring it in the eye. Feeling the tickle of sweat. Knowing drops were making black stars in the dust. Afraid to look. Afraid to move. Until finally it lowered its head and slithered away – touching the welt of his army boot.

He continued to stand there for an hour longer – afraid the mamba might strike from behind.

I stare at the thick fingers shaping the wedge of the mamba’s head. Silence. Then the four of them burst out laughing. I’ve been had.

The booze relaxes everyone. We talk about everything – the Hansie Cronje cricket scandal, the ridiculous price of cars in the UK, the difference in milk yields between the quilted pastures of Somerset and the scrub of the African bush. It’s been a good year for rain so far.

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