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Witchcraft

| May 31, 2011

Healer or troublemaker? © Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0

In addition to the rising cost of production, unclear property rights and limited access to capital, the tobacco grower I visited this morning had to deal with another challenge recently—witchcraft.

After several of his workers were killed in a car crash and others contracted mysterious illnesses, farm laborers started accusing each other of casting spells. They summoned a witchdoctor, but the ensuing spiritual cleansing ceremony got out of hand.

These rituals typically involve wild drumming and dancing and it is not uncommon for participants to lose control. Apparently, several workers started speaking in languages they do not normally speak. More disturbingly, one person was stabbed.

The witchdoctor was jailed for his role in the stabbing. Perhaps worse for him, his credentials were questioned.

The farmer says he had used lighter fluid, rather than magic, to make water burn.

In a nutshell

| May 31, 2011

Securing supplies

After visiting a commercial tobacco farm and several leaf merchants, the story that emerges is as follows:

Zimbabwe tobacco production used to be dominated by a small number of large-scale tobacco farmers. The majority of these commercial growers were white descendants of British colonists.

At independence in 1980, the Zimbabwean government announced it would purchase white-owned farms and redistribute them to landless black peasants, who account for the vast majority of Zimbabweans. The program was to be carried out on a willing-buyer-willing-seller basis, but for a variety of reasons, land redistribution didn’t happen as quickly as envisioned.

People got impatient, and when President Robert Mugabe started losing popularity by the late 1990s, he changed tack. The willing-buyer-willing-seller principle was abandoned, and commercial farmers started being evicted from their land, sometimes violently and often without compensation.

But instead of benefiting the landless masses, many properties ended up in the hands of the party bosses, police commissioners and army generals—people selected for their political connections rather than their farming skills.

As a result, Zimbabwe’s once-thriving agricultural sector—and, with it, the entire economy—came to a grinding halt. (Tobacco at one point accounted for some 30 percent of Zimbabwe’s foreign currency earnings.)

The new growers who are farming face a set of formidable challenges, including the fact that they have received no titles to their land. This means their properties cannot be used as collateral for obtaining bank loans, which is especially problematic for a crop like tobacco, which requires substantial upfront investment.

In order to secure their leaf supplies, tobacco merchants have started contracting directly with growers, providing them with capital, inputs and other necessities. In essence, they have become financial institutions, a function with a considerably different risk profile than that of their core business—buying and selling leaf tobacco—and one that many remain uncomfortable with.

Many people I’ve spoken with believe that lack of property rights and the related inability to access capital are the biggest limiting factors to further expansion of Zimbabwe’s leaf tobacco industry.

Table topics

| May 30, 2011

I had dinner with three fellow guests at York Lodge—a Belgian diamond trader, a Brazilian AIDS consultant and a member of the Danish embassy in Zambia.

The diamond trader was in Zimbabwe to help the government secure the spoils of a recently discovered field—supposedly among the largest and most easily accessible in the world—and the Danish embassy worker was helping his colleagues reopen his country’s consulate in Harare.

The Brazilian AIDS consultant described the challenge in getting patients to cooperate in their treatments.

Infected people in rural areas, she said, have discovered that a new treatment also accelerates the growth of poultry. Expensive medicines intended to fight the AIDS virus are being fed to chickens instead.

I love meeting people with different backgrounds.

Not your money’s worth

| May 30, 2011

Keep the change

I met John Robertson today, a local economist whom I have always admired for his common sense and willingness to speak truth to power.

He said the game changer in Zimbabwe has been the “dollarization” of the economy in 2009, which has restored a degree of order to the marketplace. Prior to that, hyperinflation, combined with a unrealistic official exchange rate, made it virtually impossible to conduct business—at least for reputable businessmen.

A leaf buyer told me that when he and his friends would play a round of golf, they would buy the beer they planned to drink afterward prior to the match because its price was likely to double during the game.

Quotes for services were valid for just one hour, and the banknotes could barely accommodate all the zeros. I think the last Zimbabwean dollar bill to be issued was a 100 trillion-dollar note—the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars—less toward the end of the week.

Of course there are always people who thrive in such an environment—those with debts, for example. And before the government switched to the U.S. dollar, the Harare stock market was said to be the best performing in the world.

Portugese chicken

| May 29, 2011

Pleasant dinner with my good friend Murray Prince, whom I hadn’t seen for at least eight years.

Murray gave me the skinny on tobacco and politics in Zimbabwe—none of it attributable, of course, but his primer will be helpful as I start my workweek.

Getting my bearings

| May 29, 2011

One of the local leaf companies kindly let me borrow a car for the week, which should facilitate logistics considerably.

I spent the day with my friend Makiwa, getting my bearings in Harare. I have a basic knowledge of the city from previous visits, but things are different when you are driving yourself.

For starters, I am unaccustomed to driving on the left-hand side of the road. It took me a while to stop activating my windshield wipers when I intended to use my turn signal. And I constantly have to remind myself to look in the right (or should it be left?) direction for oncoming traffic.

More troubling for the out-of-town motorist is the general lack of pavement markers, street name signs and functioning traffic lights.

Makiwa blamed the absence of street signs on “unscrupulous people”—i.e. vandals. But during a previous visit, I heard a more macabre explanation. AIDS has wreaked havoc among Zimbabweans (one in four is said to be infected), and coffin manufacturers are one of the few professional groups doing brisk business. The easily bendable street signs apparently make good coffin handles.

Many traffic lights—which Makiwa consistently referred to as “robots”—are so faint that it’s difficult to tell whether they are red, yellow or green. Others don’t work at all, leaving drivers to work out the right of way among themselves.

In practice this means the biggest vehicles and most assertive drivers go first. I am afraid my Toyota Vista is not much of a match for some of the tinted-windowed 4X4s on the road. And it certainly wasn’t a match for the presidential motorcade that crossed our way.

It started with a police siren. I slowed, but Makiwa insisted I pull off the road and stop now. After the procession had passed, I asked what the fine would have been for failing to yield.

“Zero,” said Makiwa. “They’d shoot you.”