Always a question in the mind. On a cool sunlight morning in the autumn of 1981 the family waved me off from Machynlleth station and as the train moved along the valley a slight misty rain merged with the sun and a rainbow appeared. My first visit to Zimbabwe began with an expectation only to be fulfilled by the collaborative hands of many people and providential grace. It all began with that rainbow moment.
A land on a plateau 5,000 feet above sea level where the suns strength burnished soil, humans, fields and scrubland alike. Merciless but tender with the rain. A land of violent struggle and crude power politics where the emergent nation was rising to occupy the land and control its destiny. In Harare on the Main Street a full steak supper could be enjoyed for £2:50 and the quiet lounges of Meikles hotel provided a gathering place at the end of exhausting days trying to secure the purchase of a 2,000+ acre farm on the outskirts of Chegutu.
The people. A real mixture of differing backgrounds and abilities. The self assured business types, the keen educationalists, the past freedom fighters now in government, the hopeful church members and the hierarchy of authority both church and state. Aid agencies and non-government organisations all feeding projects with capital and expertise ever mindful of the need to re vitalise a new Zimbabwe. A time of expectation and uncertainty as the struggle for supremacy brought out both the best and the very worst.
Ameva farm and snakes
On light sandy soil suitable for tobacco growing, maize production and beef rearing. Like many farms in Zimbabwe before, and many after, a place suitable to go bankrupt on if your luck ran out in a bad year. Nothing certain and where nothing ventured was clearly nothing gained. A project where only bravery and faith would survive. With a maximum of 50 acres of irrigation if the rivers filled and the lake rose, available only if the water licenses downstream did not claim it. Enough for 50 acres when new but with the lake silting up not enough really. The lake provided both land and people with water along with a substantial infection of bilharzia from a blood sucking fluke. A few boreholes for drinking water barely providing water through rusty pipes and screeching motors. The previous owners the Swanepool’s had resorted to snake farming and the evidence was all around. Black and green mambas, boomslangs (also green) and highly venomous that could hide among the foliage of a tree unseen and strike in a flash. "Stop" the tractor driver shouted across the yard as I came out the kitchen door at 6am for the morning meet to set tasks. I froze and 25 yards away a catapult twanged as Goliath let a stone fly. Four feet to my right and above my head the boomslang fell to the ground dead, hit in the head. Incredible! So Goliath saves Derek. At birth I was meant to be David but my cousin beat me to it by 3 days. If I had been David then it would be the bibles David and Goliath story a bit in reverse and upside down. Fat and short with a powerful jaw the lazy puff adder basks in the warmth of the morning sun. Careless of its position and camouflaged it would lie on a path waiting for a prey to venture near, it could bite and then work it’s jaw into the victim. Agonisingly painful! Anne stepped over a piece of debris and looked down, yes a puff adder lay between her feet. She quickly moved on. Zimbabweans were very scared of snakes, they had good reason to be. A farm-full made an unpleasant reality. Once ploughing some land near the Chakari road the tractor driver just jumped off and let the tractor carry on and hit the tree line. Several puff adders came up over the plough shares and were making their way up the 3 point linkage. Facing a rearing black mamba 20 ft in front of you is best done behind the steering wheel of a car. As it lunged across the bonnet it found itself disadvantaged by a 1/2 ton vehicle, moving at speed. Finding refuge in the space underneath it slithered away. The farm itself was rundown where most things needed repair or a rebuild. A landing strip for a plane that would never ever be used again for that purpose. Houses that could hide a snake in the wrong place. Coming back from a trip one year we had a nasty shock in the hallway waiting. Managed to get it out somehow! Water supplies from boreholes that would grind away eking out a minimal flow to a rusty metal tank where holes in the bottom and sides had been stuffed with wood to block them. A borehole 500 + yds away that had no engine and no supply pipe to the houses. Eventually repaired and linked up. Water into the house through a galvanised pipe that leaked a bit as it past through the septic waste pit. Horror of horrors when we found that. Always boiled the water. Thank God. The termites always made a destructive path up timber and brickwork, but the ant hills always made the best bricks.
After the visit in 81 and before we returned as a family in 83 Stan Kersley with Eric and Ros Taylor had strived to plant the first maize crops and get some revenue going. The first chicken production started and Johns delight at growing fruit, vegetables etc came to the fore. Along with David and Sue Latham, the first years of the bible school the project moved forward. Our architect Ron White always on site to supervise plans, build a makeshift bible school and establish farm and house repairs. Buildings, sand from the river, homemade bricks and a nonchalant attitude to risk by the builders. When taking bricks out to put a lintel in why bother supporting the bricks above, just smile and get on with it. All right, you guys know best. Even ploughshares wired together kept the brick tobacco barns together when vast cracks snaked up the sides. Agriculture is all about the right equipment, handled by capable men or women meeting the right weather conditions at the right time. In a land of great uncertainties weather patterns and rain distribution is the major thing that enabled effective production. Neighbouring farmers like Peter Cox and Martin Tracy gave and gave again to keep things on track. The early years in the main were kind and harvests provided both cash and feed for the livestock. The farm kept its head above water and provided a place for the bible school and an entrance to rural ministry in Zimbabwe. Farmers Jan and Sofi Hart became not only strong supporters of Ameva but also surrogate grandparents to our children as well as Elsie and Ian Gibson. The elderly Peugeot pickup did start most days with a squirt of intake starter and a healthy push across the yard which gave it a bump start. Exercise and sweat is good for you on a Sunday in your best clothes when trying to get everyone down to church! The elderly ford tractor somehow kept going and parts were obtainable for most needs at the time, although spares parts arrived in strange ways. I think John once brought a hefty starter motor in as hand luggage on a plane. Occasional Trips to South Africa helped.
Going to Zimbabwe in 83.
Most people took a suitcase or two or three or more. Well in 83 our family of me Anne and 3 young children took two 20 ft containers loaded with a new Peugeot estate vehicle, tractor, baler, farm equipment and wood working machinery. Bill and Pat Cummins supplied significant amounts of gear. And in case I forget all our worldly goods sandwiched in there somewhere. I was in terrible trouble for that as originally we had everything stacked neatly in square wooden removal crates. Because of the space taken up by the tractor, most of the crates couldn’t be loaded in. They were unpacked and fitted into the space somewhere between spares and machinery. A lesson in how not to be popular with your nearest and dearest.
Brahmins are extremely sensitive, heavy, fast and pack a real punch. The first to arrive in Zim came off the train down the barbed wire race took a great leap and disappeared into the bush. Colin, a friend told me they ran for 50 miles only one or two found later. We had 2 bulls for our herd Clive and Barnaby one light grey one dark blacky brown. The acres of bush meant you lost them and the cattle men for days at a time appearing for the weekly spray against ticks etc. We built the spray booth out of 2 inch scaffold pipe with slots in that deluged the cattle as they ran pushed and shoved there way through. One day spraying having finished the sump pump needed clearing and appeared blocked. Lupecko the head herdsman gently lowered himself into the foetid mucky spray liquid and reached down. He ascended vertically like a bullet screaming snake. At past retiring age that was quite a feat. A large rock monitor (15 kgs and reaching 2 metres long) was hiding underwater which harmless enough when not using its poisonous bite, gave him a real shock. They can whip you with their tails and eat chicken eggs by the dozen while loving water. Going through dense bush one day Lupecko was in front, me behind and he spotted a snake turned and leapt to safety and almost ended up in my arms. Good job no one else with a camera was around, that could have made the news for years to come. We never achieved a pure breeding herd but the calves from Barnaby and Clive survived the harsh dry winters and grew like crazy with the spring grass. Crosses of many types made up the herd from the Red South African breeds to the cross Friesians in the dairy herd. I even achieved an A1 grade carcass from a jersey cross bull calf given to us by Martin Tracy. Zimbabwe was always a favourite place for beef production and if you could survive the costs, profitable over time. Time, a declining economy, and the loss of the EU market many years later would make that operation very difficult.
Farming needs long term stability and the injection of cash from donor countries after independence allowed the development of the dairy industry that Ameva took advantage of. Bulk tanks and the tankers plus milk processing plants revolutionised the industry. Heifer international provided the cash for us to buy about 65 young heifer calves of various ages and a large dairy unit gave us a young bull from the “Round oak apple elevation” bloodline. Artificial insemination with select bulls came later. New buildings on the airstrip, fencing, irrigated pastures, maize for the base of a concentrate and the herd slowly grew. A bible student Mark became dairy manager for a time and the unit had potential that eventually time wore down. The bishop’s son Katsande was head of the milk marketing board and was very helpful to us. When the Tetra Pak plastic ran out, he was informed by a government minister that he should instantly change production back to glass bottles. All the processing equipment became less used and less usable. He resigned. The stability of that sector was severely damaged and Ameva would suffer the same as other dairy producers. Dairying practically faces many issues and there is no greater challenge than disease and mysterious illness. The bog standard broad spectrum antibiotic given into the meat of the rump solved most issues and steroids injected under the eye lid of calves against New Forest eye disease worked wonders. Prayer of course was another weapon and once I tested this out in an extreme circumstance. The dairy cow a third calver was losing weight and looked haggard. Mark and I stood looking at the animal. The local vet wasn’t available at the time. Prayer seemed necessary and summoning up my best praying thoughts asked the lord to heal the animal. No sooner asked but answered, the animal dropped dead straightaway. Not the answer we hoped for and later when people asked me to pray for healing I would quietly hope to avoid a repetition. The compound and all of us benefited from the meat. Even the head boiled up to a good soup. It’s an I’ll wind ………etc.
Chicken production rose to several sheds and around 6,000 laying hens that proved to be a financial backstop to the ongoing march of progress. Daily egg rounds and a salesman’s paradise, John was in his element. Chickens and disease was always an issue made worse by a warm climate and controlled (within limits) through water born medicine, hygiene and careful management. Only one episode comes to mind when our young girls sitting in the back of the pickup were shunted off the road by an army truck. I think it did go sideways or was it turned 90 degrees. No one hurt and another example of providential care. Not so much egg on face more egg on road.
Anne’s SRN status was needed on a regular basis, and how did she cope with the constant demand! Children burnt by straying onto the compound fires, women in labour giving birth at the side of the road. Cuts bruises patching people up, sometimes only paracetamol, iodine and gentian violet to work with. Dr Brian turned up after a protracted interview at the airport bringing in a suitcase of out of date medicines and vaccinations for our children. The airport authorities hoping for a good payment of import tax eventually relented. I think that’s how it was!
The Girls and School
John and Martha Shaw arrived 6 months after us and took on the education of the compound school. Prior to that we used ACE material and our 3 little girls manfully ploughed through those months with Anne as teacher. John and Martha a God send, literally. Later a round trip 70 Km twice a day to Kadoma to school was normal with weekly boarding for a time at junior school.
People working together in tight situations need close fellowship, a confidence in one another and a sense of humour that allows our humanity to survive. It all worked out somehow and despite the obvious stresses and strains we all pulled together.
Managing and planning was never easy and often last minute for a thousand reasons.
Relaxation and Companions
A rather large lady lent over the counter of Barclays Bank in Chegutu and introduced herself as Elsie Gibson. The following years it was a place to rest and recuperate in Chegutu. Ian Gibson the electrical director at David Whiteheads an invaluable source of information and advice. Both became firm friends and confidants in the Christian walk we were taking. Always willing to share their provisions and enjoy fellowship. Founder members of the church fellowship they toiled for years to raise their family, live out the gospel wisely in a changing Zimbabwe. Their love for the country it’s ways and sun baked condition was infectious providing us with companionship away from the project. Our girls loved the pool.
The local church
Students from the bible school and all the families at Ameva descended on the scout hut in chegutu where in the main preaching practice prevailed. We would sing the songs we all liked and I wonder how valuable it was to transfer UK spirituality into an African setting. A mixed congregation of ethnicities worshipping together, well it worked and was very much part of the week along with the home bible study’s.
The farm church
Compound people. Always in the bright colours, the cleanliness of people who lived in thatched rondavels. Mud cow dung covered branches and twigs the kitchens filled with acrid wood smoke the floors rammed hard clay. The African sun can bring about a joyful exuberance that shouts out its great to be alive. A survey of working Africans found the number one priority was time off to enjoy a story, drink beer and relax. When the church pulls community into that place of enjoyment and being together it is like a gentle flame igniting a wider bonfire.
John and Celia
I'll pass this info onto our girls and see if they would like to add to the story. Each section could be expanded as necessary. It’s a start and you can pick out bits that you feel are useful or I will work on any elaboration you think necessary.
Every Blessing Derek and Anne.