One of the pleasures of living in Harare, I’ve recently discovered, is that there are miles and miles of bush tracks and footpaths to explore on bikes. This has been a major occupation for the last couple of weekends. The TTL (or Tribal Trust Lands) occupy any space that isn’t urban, agricultural or national park. Neatly thatched rondavels are scattered in the hilly scrubland, divided by undeniably picturesque copses and rocky kopjes. Over the course of a 50km bike ride every villager we encountered was effusive and friendly without exception. About a 30 minute drive out of town to the north of Harare there is a great slab of rock, rising out of the surrounding countryside like a hump-backed whale (although, Zim being a land-locked country, this is probably not an apt analogy). Dombashawa (meaning red rock) is a beautiful piece of natural architecture that made me want re-visit my childhood habit of climbing everything in sight. Covered with rust and lemon-yellow lichen, the rock has spiritual significance for the local people. Paintings depicting hunting scenes decorate the walls of a small cave, and the small pool fed by rainwater run-off used to yield wild rice to be ritually harvested. The rice has gone now: apparently the gods were not suitably appeased and turned off the taps on this little perk. The view over the surrounding rural countryside is stunning, and on a Sunday morning the sound of drums and church singing carry incongruously up to the top. On the road to Dombashawa there are a number of local artisans hoping to coax a sale of aesthetic stone treasures or pottery. The most unique artist, though, is a man who has learned the art of growing bonsai trees. In hollow logs or around boulders, he has carefully nurtured figs, jacarandas and baobabs into their miniature adult forms. Many of the trees are over 6 or 8 years old, showing true tenacity and patience. There’s something quite appealing about owning a portable baobab tree...
This title may lead you to believe that I have succumbed to mango-tree fever already but there is actually something in common between these two. Allow me to explain. A little recap: Zimbabwe entered hyperinflation in early 2007. In mid-November 2008, the highest monthly inflation rate was reached at almost 80,000,000,000%, equivalent to a daily inflation rate of 98%*. The highest denomination note ever issued was for 100 trillion dollars. These figures are truly mind-boggling for most of us, but can you imagine actually having to try and live under these circumstances.
The reliable source of all wisdom, Wikipedia, states that “hyperinflation becomes visible when there is an unchecked increase in the moneysupply (or drastic debasement of coinage) usually accompanied by a widespread unwillingness to hold the money for more than the time needed to trade it for something tangible to avoid further loss”. Bill Gates was the first ever trillionaire, but the average man on the street was a Zim Dollar trillionaire by this point although the notes were virtually worthless and becoming more so the longer they remained in the piggy bank. Anyway, not to dwell, the Zimbabwe Dollar ceased to exist when the US Dollar became legal tender in January 2009 as the preference for greenbacks became more evident. Since then, the economy has stabilised and the shops have re-filled. Only paper money is in circulation, but the prices of goods are seldom in round figures. This means that at when paying for your groceries at the till, there is often a credit of a few cents. Here’s where dentists can thank their lucky stars for inflation, because, often finding their customers unwilling to forego those few coppers, the cashiers have adopted the habit of offering sweets, chocolates or lollypops (in compulsory day-glo colours) to make up the difference. So, the tooth fairy is still in business and the rest of us have to don our running shoes that much more often to retain a waistline. *Hanke, S. 2009. Professor of Applied Economics, The Johns Hopkins University
Well, okay, not just a digging stick. The San (also impolitely known as the Bushmen) are additionally equipped with the most incredible mental agility. Alright, alright. They also habitually carry a bow and arrow but really very little else. Diminutive in stature and with distinctive narrow eyes and open friendly faces, the San have perfected the art of being at home in the bush. Seriously, Bear Grylls need not apply. Although their ancient way of life is perpetually under siege by encroaching “civilisation”, there is much to be learned from their approach to the environment. For one, the San do not traditionally have possessions. They use natural resources if they need them for food, clothing and housing but not for profit. Don’t get me wrong, they are not bunny-hugging vegetarians and like their rare steak, but they are profoundly grateful to any animal that gives up its life so that they can eat and are careful to give thanks to the ancestors if they are lucky enough to score. They are nomadic; they never stay very long in one place thus reducing the impact on their locale and always moving where there is food aplenty. In the course of moving they will often get a tad thirsty (remember that they live in a pretty hostile desert where there is not so much as a cold coke in sight). So they habitually bury ostrich eggs filled with water so they can be sure of a quick sip on the fly. Fortunately, not only do they know the indistinguishable landscape like the back of their hands, but they possess memories like elephants and will always recognise that tell-tale stick marker poking out of the ground. Those who have had the privilege to track an animal with the San hunters tell how they can lope at a steady pace for hours and hours, beating a rhythm with their sticks. Their understanding of the animal enables them to anticipate its movements and follow footprints over rocky ground even when none are visible. Impressive endurance athletes, they have the capacity to run their prey to exhaustion, whereupon they employ a well-aimed poison-tipped arrow to swiftly finish the job. The San are still seeking to pursue their peaceful existence in the eastern part of Namibia and the Kalahari in Botswana.
The Zimbabwean police force may have had significant bad press of late, but that hasn’t dulled their singing voices. Yes indeedy, my morning stint fighting with the connection at the local internet cafe is cheered up no end by the sound of cohorts of male voices in full syncopated harmony. The police training ground lies next door and throughout the morning I am treated, in succession, to the sound of a traditional marching band (which would not be shown up at the Edinburgh Tattoo) and an impressive variety of marching songs delivered at full belt. In actual fact, this is the most evident the police have been in my short stint in Harare. The beautiful wide, tree-lined avenues that make up a great deal of the spread of the town are notably quiet. One or two vendors take their lives into their own hands at the neurotic traffic lights selling airtime vouchers or the bright pink “Fingaz” as the Financial Gazette is dubbed. The roads in Harare are generally in good nick although with the onset of the rains, pot-holes are becoming more common. Most mornings, we run around the quiet lanes in areas where both black and white reside as neighbours, and most folk we pass call a friendly greeting. While there are stories of the odd opportunistic burglary (to be expected in a country where there is 80% unemployment), there is no tangible hostility or threat. It seems that people are just getting on with the business of living and trying to provide for their families. Despite his unfortunate name, my friend Hardlife tells me that although things are still tough, this year has been a great deal better than the last few. Fingers crossed that things are looking up.
I've been reading Clive Spinage's excellent book "Elephants" this week (and highly recommend it). Strangely the book fell open at the chapter that describes - in detail - the lavatorial habits of the animal. During the course of my reading I calculated that an adult bull elephant can reasonably be expected to produce over 300 pounds of dung every day. Let's just be clear about this. That is as much as the giant Russian boxer Nikolai Valuev weighs. In turds. Every day.
Another way of looking at this is that each bolus is roughly the size of a small loaf of bread and there may be anywhere between 5 and 10 loaves weighing in at about 20 pounds total per movement. So with 15 – 20 movements per day that's an awful lot of loaves. More than enough, in fact, to fill several baskets. Bearing in mind that a population of about 35,000 elephants, such as you might expect to find in a park such as Tsavo, would be depositing several thousand tones of dung on the land every day (AND that so far we've only considered the elephant's contribution - let's not forget all the other species) it becomes evident that the task to clear all this up is nothing short of eye-watering. Being a dog owner myself, and knowing that one is kept quite busy cleaning up after a Jack Russell, two questions spring to mind.
Of course the answer to this question shines a light on a process that is at the heart of the life of any African park. And it's an impressive one when you consider the impact, largely unseen, that it has on the entire ecosystem. Consider any tranquil view of the African bush. Calm, serene, unchanging? Not a bit of it. Zoom in just a little and you'll see a frenzied hotbed of activity as one mammoth and un-ending poop-scoop operation goes on. Day in, day out. The agents of this activity are, predominantly, two types of insect. First are the dung beetles, of which there are numerous species, but of which most have just one goal in life: to spend as much time as possible up to their ankles in dung, head down. The second is the termites who live in astonishing concentrations below ground, but swarm to the surface each night to harvest food for their underground fungus gardens. Between them, dung beetles and termites move a truly staggering amount of matter from the surface, to below ground - Spinage reckons that each year, termites alone carry 9 tonnes of elephant dung below ground, in EVERY square kilometre. And in one of those fantastically elegant moves that Mother Nature seems so adept at, many objectives are satisfied at one time; insects are fed, the soil is fertilised and, perhaps most importantly, millions of seeds, held in their own little package of manure, are planted each year. Shouldn't we be looking to dung beetles and termites to solve some of the problems associated with climate change and overpopulation? Or at the very least introducing them into Hyde Park?