The road to the farm was dusty. Giant clouds of sand could be seen forming behind the truck, rolling and settling in the afternoon sun. Remnants of the tar that had once covered this road were still visible every now and then, spilling out from under the thick layer of red African dirt that had long since buried it. This was part of Zimbabwe’s extensive farm land, or at least the skeletal remains of it. As recently as 20 years ago, this dusty road would have been flanked by lush green fields, marking the place of some of Africa’s most fertile soil. The wheat, mealies (corn), soy, tobacco and livestock that would have found life in these fields, and others like them, were not only enough to feed all Zimbabweans but much of the rest of Africa as well. Now, as our Toyota bounced over the uneven ground, the green fields were gone, replaced by their dried up and lifeless husks, betraying the life and fertility the soil underneath still held.
I was close to the little town of Trelawney, in Mashonaland West, in between Harare and Chinhoyi, and was making my way to a specific farm I had heard about. The story of this farm and one of the families who had lived there is a heartbreaking one indeed, full of broken dreams, tragic loss and unfulfilled promises; a recurring narrative in the well documented demise of Zimbabwe’s white farmers and the subsequent pillaging of Africa’s breadbasket.
The story was told to me by a reliable third party about friends of theirs. They will all remain nameless.
It all started when this family was living in Harare. They were staying in a small apartment complex which was suddenly sold without warning. All the residents were displaced and forced to find new accommodation. After moving around from place to place not finding the right fit for their young family they heard about this farm in Trelawney. The farm had belonged to a white farmer, as had almost all of the large scale production farms, but had been jambanja’d during the land redistribution debacle of the early 2000’s. Jambanja, Zimbabwean urban slang meaning violence or chaos, was adopted in 2000 to describe the farm occupations that were plaguing the country at the time. The word, perfectly describing the violent and chaotic nature of the occupations, with a distinctly Zimbabwean flare, struck fear in a population for over a decade.
The farm was taken over by a war vet as an indigenisation tactic and as supposed compensation for service in the liberation struggle 20 years prior. As became the norm with jambanja’d farms, it fell into disrepair and neglect and lapsed into unproductivity. The fact that reform needed to take place was undeniable. The unorganized and illegal way in which it took place, however, left a booming agricultural sector in ruins. In a crushing twist of fate, Zimbabwe, which used to send food aid across Africa, was now in dire need of it itself. With no money to import and severe sanctions placed against the ruling Zanu-PF, the country starved. Much of the rural population remained in a state of near famine for years until the government reluctantly pushed these unproductive war vet turned “farmers” off their reclaimed land. Without necessary agricultural education many of these farms were given to other government supporters who did not know how to run a large scale production farm. This was the case with the farm in Trelawney.
It was handed over to a highly placed Zanu supporter who became what is cynically referred to here as a ‘cell phone farmer’. These infamous and dubious characters are government supporters who live in and manage their farms from Harare, with rare visits to the actual farm itself. They rely on farm workers who live on the farm to run day to day operations. The issue that has arisen however, and this returns to the lack of education, is that these farm workers who are suddenly responsible for hundreds of acres of arable land, have only ever been subsistence farmers. Their mentality, and ability, are not geared to large scale farming and there has been no attempt to teach them otherwise. Instead of running the farm to its full potential, they have reverted back to subsistence farming, tilling small fields around their huts while hundreds of acres lie unused. And so, to this day, Zimbabwe is importing food from countries like Zambia and South Africa.
This is where we return to the family. The husband had been offered the job of running the downtrodden farm in the boss’s absence. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing this ‘cell phone farmer’ promised the family the world and as is all too common when the chains of a desperate situation weigh a family down, they lapped it up unquestioningly, simply relieved to have the semblance of stability finally underneath their feet. They moved into the main farmhouse and one can only imagine the excited discussion around the kitchen table about their grand plans for the farm, plans they eagerly shared with friends. They were going to plant tobacco and revive the farm to what it used to be. With the promise of a steady salary and the rejuvenating energy of optimism, they set to work. It did not take long for things to unravel.
Three weeks after the move the farm house caught fire. Thankfully the family wasn’t in the home but everything they had had the chance to move in there was destroyed. Devastation would not even begin to describe the feeling a family would feel when faced with the unfortunate task of having to dig through the burnt ash of their own lives, picking out a half burned picture here, a charred heirloom there.
To make matters worse, the husband had not yet been paid. Despite constant inquiries as to when the promised salary would come, it never came. The family could not afford a car and lived a few hours walk from the nearest main road.With young children and no money coming in and a burned down house, the situation was souring to say the least. The family had moved into the farm’s office and were trying to make the best of it. The farm, however, was as unproductive as ever. The husband was having a difficult time convincing the farm workers of the necessity to farm the whole land, not just their small familial plots. It was like flogging a dead horse. Generations of farming techniques and beliefs are not rewritten easily. The farm had a series of greenhouses which in its heyday were very productive. Today they are only empty shells, serving as nothing more than a cruel reminder of better days.
Things went on like this for over a month. After vocalising his displeasure, perhaps a few too many times, the family was approached by the boss and told to leave. They were given very little time to collect their things and were dropped off back in Harare that day. The office in which they were living, even months later, looks as if the family just vanished. Used plates and cups still sit on the kitchen table, an open bag of rice on the counter. Many of the family’s belongings still remain in the locked house, trapped there along with their hopes and dreams of a successful farm.
Today, the fields remain untilled, derelict farm equipment rusting away in the unkempt bush. The family, now living in Harare, have not returned. The main house, now just a pile of rubble, remains as it was when it first burned down. The office, similarly untouched, sits like a still frame photo depicting the hurried rush of a departing family. Farm sheds, most likely filled with equipment, are locked up, sealing the misery and unfulfilled potential within.
This is what Zimbabwe’s great farms have become. This is the result of the pillaging of Africa’s breadbasket.
Until next time.