Reflections of Zimbabwe
The world likes to put Africa in a box. It’s poor, it’s corrupt, it’s wild and beautiful. One of the most common things I’ve heard from people returning from mission trips is “It’s so amazing how thankful they were when we gave them _________. They were so happy”. But the thing is, they aren’t all happy, and they certainly aren’t all thankful. They steal each other’s husbands, envy each other’s belongings, lie, gossip, and suffer from addictions. Sound familiar? Its because they are humans. People are people. We all want to feel love, we all want community, purpose, security, happiness.
Watching the events of the Matopos community unfold over the last six months has been eye opening to say the least. Experiencing the epidemic of humanity in its most basic form can be startling. The idyllic african scene gives way to all the hurt and betrayal and devastation that has overcome the country in the past few decades. As a white person, you are viewed as a dollar sign. How am I to know if I am entering into a friendship or merely a banking relationship? How are we to know if the technologies and ideas we’ve brought to the table will actually be implemented in the community? What if they don’t care enough about the preschool to maintain it? It’s amidst these types of questions when I come to the conclusion that I absolutely cannot be doing this for myself, or recognition, or good stories, or dramatic photos. I can’t even be doing it for the people of Zimbabwe, because chances are, they may not even care. Seeing cycles of white faces come and go can have a draining affect on the locals. There is only One who any of this can be for, because His command was simple. Love Him and love others.
For all their human faults, this community has a leg up on us in a lot of ways. They could tell you how much water they consume in one day because they carry it on their heads from the nearest pond or spring. It probably equates to the amount of water we use to flush toilets daily. They wake up with the sun and go to bed with the sun - any electricity they use comes from the sun. They walk (or bike) everywhere. And we are talking miles and miles on the worst roads you’ve even seen. While they are walking, they are talking. They spend time with each other, they build relationships. They don’t waste anything, especially not food, because once they have taken 6 months to grow the corn, they pick it, they dry it, they husk it, they take it to the grinding mill on a donkey cart, they bring back 50 kg sacks of ground maize and then repeat. All things considered, we have a lot to learn.
Being out in the African Bush is isolating. Its the kind of isolation that can hurt at first, absolute quiet with none of the usual distractions to drown out your thoughts. No cell phones, no internet, no tv, no radio. The only options are hiking, running, climbing, swimming, reading, and thinking. It’s without the inundation of media that we’ve been able to realize how we are so steeped in it on a daily basis. The noise provides comfort, the silence is frightening. No public affirmation from Facebook or Instagram at a moments notice, no binge watching Netflix to veg out from a long day. Time to process, time to talk, time to focus on what’s happening in this world and what we’re doing and who we are. Getting out is hard, but getting out is so necessary. It’s not until we sit in solitude that we can even begin to ask ourselves the important questions. Getting out doesn’t have to mean going to Africa. It can mean going for a walk after work, or sitting on the beach, or going camping. It’s allowing your mind to have space to breathe. Because that’s where you can be honest with yourself about why it all matters anyway.
***over our six months in Zimbabwe Chris shot 18 rolls of black and white film on his Nikon f3. We just got his film scans back a week ago and had a wonderful wander down memory lane, reviewing our whole trip through film. All the photos in this blog post were shot on 35mm film by Chris.
A Little Piece of Africa
Beep, ring, ding, buzz…
As we walk through the door, our phones go off in a symphony of noise. Notification after notification alert Kate and I to a world we have been missing out on since we last had wifi. Immediately we are inundated with the instant gratification of Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. The information is overwhelming, and I am unsure what to check first.
Since our arrival in January, Kate and I have been more or less out of touch from instant Internet. Most days at Morning Star we would spend the entire day without using our phones, only around dinner time would we decide as a group whether or not the to turn on the wifi; and often the answer would be “no”. Our lack of access to Facebook, forced us to connect with the faces directly in front of us; it was a time of connection, without wires.
But now that we are in Harare, with Kate’s family, we have had access to Internet and television at any point during the day. Our high-speed connectivity has made it easy to communicate with friends and family across the globe, and we have taken full advantage. I must admit, it has been wonderful to be able to dial California and hear voices we haven’t heard in months, but part of me is uneasy with how simple it has been to give up a world of silence for a world of noise.
After four days of city living, Kate and I disconnected and escaped back into stillness. We left Harare with our good friend Nadine, and drove three hours north to her family farm. The three of us arrived to the farm on a dusty dirt road. Nadine’s father Colin, and stepmother Debbie, greeted us with smiles and of course, our choice of tea or coffee. We sat on the veranda and sipped our drinks and as the sun fell low in the sky, our phones were nowhere in sight.
Colin is a farmer, his father was a farmer, and his family has been in Zimbabwe since long before the country was called Zimbabwe. Nadine and her sister grew up on the farm, and while their dad raised cattle and grew crops; the two girls rode horses and enjoyed the lifestyle their family had known for generations. But that all came to a halt in the early 2000’s when their farm was invaded by men with clubs and machetes. In the last 15 years, Colin has been run off 3 of his former farms and is now living on a piece of father’s land, it is a sliver of what they used to posses, but after Zimbabwe’s Land Reform Program, they are fortunate to possess anything at all.
For four days and three nights Kate and I got a small taste of what old Rhodesia must have been like. We woke early each morning to see the sun appear over the horizon, and as the farm workers headed out to the fields on tractors, we admired the scene with coffee in hand. We were fed like royalty, and in between meals we explored the farm and learned about the various operations taking place. The tobacco growing season was over. But the grading of the crop was in full swing to prepare bales for auction. We wandered through the grading shed as the workers were processing the leaves, the sweet, damp smell overwhelming our senses. On horseback we toured the far reaches of the farm, admiring the giant pivot irrigation systems making their rounds through the wheat. The Sunday afternoon excursion was a “bundu bashing” trip to the dam on Colin’s property, and we all piled into the white farm “bakkie”, or pick-up, with dogs, beer and sandwiches.
To our surprise and great excitement, one morning we were invited to watch some tribal dancing that was taking place in the staff compound. Kate and I followed one of the workers through the maze of mud and brick structures, as all eyes around remained affixed on us. Eventually we came to a crowd of people playing drums, singing, and cheering on a lively masked dancer in the center of the group. While we had no idea what exactly was happening, it was great entertainment – though I think we were just as entertaining to them. Walking back to the farm cottage was like stepping into a different world. The chaos, smells and colors of the staff compound faded away and we blended back into the relatively urbane setting of the white world.
Today we board a plane back to the United States. We are reflecting on all the wonderful times we have had here, both challenging and trouble-free alike. There are so many things about this country that we will miss, but we are certainly taking back with us a wealth of lessons, knowledge and memories. We are incredibly thankful for being afforded this time to step away from our normal lives to learn about ourselves, others and God, and we can only hope that we will inspire others to do the same.
Tying up Loose Ends
Life, and the experience of living, is full of “Firsts” - Your first day of school, your first job, your first date – After living in Zimbabwe for nearly 6 months, Kate and I have experienced plenty of firsts. But now, as the calendar has worked its way into June, we are beginning to experience “Lasts”. Just today, we went to immigration to renew our visas for the last time. In a little more than three weeks, Kate and I will watch the African sun fall beneath a dusty horizon for the last time before we head home to friends and family. The experience will be the exact definition of bittersweet.
With 27 days until that sunset, we are working hard to tie up all the projects we have begun. A week ago, I finalized the design of my rocket stove, and have subsequently installed the final product in Morning Star’s outdoor kitchen. It is built with 21 locally made bricks and costs less that 3 dollars to make. In the next three weeks, we have scheduled installation of two more stoves within the community. I have also finished the “Living System”. Since its previous blog post (A Living System Coming to Life), water is now flowing through all five filters and is being collected in two clean water drums. In order to make the most of the system, I’ve been busy plumbing in as many water sources as possible. Morning Star is now saving and filtering gray water from three showers, three sinks, and a recently installed washing machine. Before we head out, I will install a 12-volt circulation pump on a solar panel, and write a technical manual on how to service and clean the system. It has by far been the biggest project I have undertaken on this trip, and I’m happy to report it is working beautifully.
Kate here! While Chris has quite literally been in the trenches, I have had the pleasure of getting out into the community on a number of occasions. We had a week-long visit from the Witherow family, long time friends of Chris and Norma who are American missionaries based in Johannesburg. Heather, a teacher by trade, is beloved in the community for the teacher’s workshops she runs periodically. I tagged along to one of her workshops this time, and got to learn all about the meaning of “Phonemic Awareness”. For those who don’t know, “Phonemes” are the smallest units of sound that exist in a given language. Heather went through many games and exercises the teachers can use to help preschoolers develop a distinct sense of the sounds that exist in English. We all enjoyed a delicious lunch of sadza, fried cabbage and onion, and chicken.
A few days later, we visited the Siloti preschool while it was in session so Heather could take some much needed supplies to the darling teacher, Vie. While we were there I hosted a makeshift “picture day” to take photos of the children to hang up in their classroom. Between their minimal English and my minimal Ndebele I was somehow able to coax enough smiles to get the job done.
In our spare moments, we have continued to hone our climbing skills on the plentiful granite “dwalas”. One Saturday, we were joined at the climbing wall by Ndilewe and her nephews, who each took turns being belayed by Chris. Though they have been raised among these massive outcroppings of granite, never before had they experienced a harness or rope and were thrilled by the prospect of climbing higher. Another weekend, we took on the role of climbing guides for a group of 20 young men on an international gap year program. With this sudden inundation of climbing, we took it upon ourselves to create a design for a climbers chalk bag, with the idea that the local sewing group will be able to continue to make and sell these in our absence. With our prototypes complete, we plan to spend the next few weeks making as many as we can with the sewing ladies to bring back to the States with us. If anyone is interested in purchasing one, we are selling them for $20 each and all the proceeds go directly to this group of local women. For pictures of these chalk bags, see below.
It’s hard to believe that our time here in Zimbabwe is coming to a close. It seems like it was just yesterday that we arrived to Morning Star. We want to thank everyone for their support along the way. It is not lost on us that when two twenty-somethings put their lives (in the “real world”) on hold, to travel in Africa for six months, that our friends, family, and co-workers inevitably have to pick up the slack. As our final days in Africa come closer, we will experience more “Lasts” but we know that it’s not really the end. The memory of these “lasts” will last a lifetime.
Visitors from the Big Apple
Since we returned from our travels north, the farm has been bustling with activity. For the second year in a row, Chris and Norma welcomed a group from Sarah Lawrence College (in Bronxville, New York) to stay on the farm for 5 weeks. Part of a semester long study abroad program, Zimbabwe was the final stop for the 7 students and teacher, Kim, who happens to be Chris and Norma’s niece. Since January they had spent time in Mwanza, Tanzania for 5 weeks, and Blantyre, Malawi for about the same amount of time. Over the semester each student was tasked to write a “conference” paper examining specific issues relating to their particular field of study in each of the contexts to which they were exposed. The group was widely varied in their focus areas – from women in agriculture to early childhood development, to film studies, to progressive education. The sense of academia that overtook the farm was inspiring, though I didn’t envy the workload for one second!
During the first week we spent with the students, the mornings were consumed by visits to a new preschool just a few minutes down the road from Morning Star, in an area called Siloti. While the Sarah Lawrence group ran children’s activity programs for the local kids, those of us that were available helped to ready the school house and surrounding yard for the students. I spearheaded the painting effort for the exterior of the school, while others (any available students and community members) cleared the invasive Lantana and dug holes for fence posts. It was here that I got to witness an educational tool called a “C.A.P.E” for the first time. C.A.P.E. stands for Community Adventure Play Experience. While the students stood along the perimeter of the activity, bearing notepads and pens like eager scientists, the village children used miscellaneous recycled items to create games and toys. Evidently this scenario is used to study children worldwide, and to assess development, creativity and social interactions, among other things. Also during our time at Siloti, a student named Hannah led a project to record the growth statistics (height, weight, body mass index etc.) of each child, for the purposes of monitoring health and tracking malnourishment that may occur among the preschoolers.
In our downtime at the farm I fell into a strict work out routine with Patrick, a marathoner and fitness aficionado. He led me in a rigorous “insanity-style” circuit training routine a few evenings a week, and we even got my dad to join in (while my mom and Chris sat on the veranda and heckled us). For his project, Patrick was conducting writing and poetry workshops with locals in each of the contexts, and compiling an anthology of their respective works. In his final presentation, he read a few of the pieces for us, and the emotion behind them was incredible.
It was especially inspiring to see how eager the students were to get involved in the local community. Terry, an older student who hails from Manhattan, drove 1 hour with Diamond, our farm manager, to church each Sunday. And in rural Africa, church is an all day affair. He was even given the opportunity to preach! Troi and Andrea, two young ladies from the group, went and stayed the night with Ndilewe at her home, a 45 minute walk from the farm. Despite sleeping on a concrete floor in what was formerly the kitchen, I heard no words of complaint. Sadie, who is incredibly passionate about women, agriculture and the impacts of climate change, met with a local woman, Julie, many mornings a week. Sadie shared in her final presentation about her experiences working alongside Julie in her field, and the sobering realities of the path that Julie’s life has taken as a woman in the Matopos. Virtually powerless in the male dominated society, and increasingly concerned about the lack of rain this past season, the trajectory of Julie’s life seems to be moving downward into uncertainty. Hannah got the opportunity to spend some time at one of the local clinics and learn about all the challenges faced by the doctors and nurses in this rural setting and political climate.
Chris and I felt at ease with the group, and relished the youthful vitality that they brought to the farm. I spent most of my time as Norma’s second in command, and when she was in town, first in command. This meant I was organizing and preparing meals with a meat, vegetarian and Vegan option, running the generator as needed, answering myriad questions, attending to the staff’s needs and occasionally sneaking away for a few minutes of “feets up”. Chris was spending most of his time down in the garden, working on the graywater system, assisted by anyone with a bit of free time. Per usual, he doubled as the general-purpose fix-it man for any needs that arose during group’s stay. Chris and I thoroughly enjoyed our time with the group from Sarah Lawrence and are looking forward to reconnecting upon our return Stateside.
A Living System coming to life
It was still dark outside when my alarm went off, but I was already awake. I got out of bed and walked to the garage; I wasn’t surprised to see that my dad was already there. “Good morning Christopher”, he said to me, and we both smiled because today was our favorite day – today was lake day. Within 30 minutes the boat was hooked up and we were on our way to the water. The sun had yet to peak through the trees when we pulled up to the launch ramp. The lake stretched like sheets of glass to the horizon, as a layer of steam rose from the water into the crisp morning air.
Growing up in California, I’ve spent most of my life in either drought or flood. I grew up on the shoreline of Folsom Lake, and every year my family would watch the drama of the lake unfold. Most often, it is still hot when the lake shuts down due to lack of water. As the season changes, hills you never knew were there stand tall, and the waterline drops around them. By January, relics of an old Mormon settlement can be seen and the lake has returned to the banks of the river it used to be. But every year, as the winter yields to spring, the snowmelt arrives and the hills again disappear under bright blue water. Some years, the lake gets so full that the integrity of Folsom Dam is put into question, and some years there are power shortages because the water level has failed to reach the turbine gates. My whole life, it has been feast or famine on the lake, and because of that, saving and conserving water is something I find to be incredibly important.
When we arrived to the farm in January, I knew that a water recycling system was on the top of my list for potential projects to pursue. The first step was to inventory and assess what was available to me on the farm, and then talk to Chris and Norma about what they wanted to use the recycled water for. They told me that the water would go furthest in the garden, where they grow about 75% of their supplemental animal feed. The garden was a prime location for what is called a “Living System” (an artificial ecosystem built to filter graywater through a series of constructed marshlands) because it is down hill from the main compound and all the water from the sinks and showers can easily be directed to the garden by gravity.
Once we decided on the location of the new system, I was on the search for anything that could hold water. After several days of walking the farm, I had collected 3 cast iron bathtubs, and 1 large plastic tank (275 gallons), square in shape and set on a pallet. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was already a pipe in the ground that carried untreated water from one shower and two sinks down to the garden. All I had to do now was to intercept the line and divert it to the location we had agreed to for the living system. I knew I wanted the graywater to flow into a central collection tank before it hit the filter, that way I could stop the flow (for future maintenance) but not waste the water that was being produced by the compound. After the collection tank was set, we were off to the races.
According to the plan I had floating around in my head the first 3 filters of the system would be made from the old bathtubs, followed by four 55-gallon plastic drums (2 for filtration and 2 for clean water). In order to keep the gravity flowing as water moved throughout the bathtubs and into the drums, I had to elevate each tub about 3 feet off the ground. This presented the first real hurdle of the project. One thing I’ve learned about rural Africa, is that nothing is easy or straightforward. You can’t just run down to Home Depot and buy everything you never thought you needed. On the farm you have to be savvy and work with what you have in order to accomplish what you want. I was going to need about 65 concrete bricks to elevate the tubs to an appropriate level. So in the spirit of Africa, we molded bricks ourselves. 65 bricks took 2 days to mix and mold, and then another 7 to fully harden and dry. In that time I laid the ground work for the system, by leveling the ground for each filter. When all the prep was done and the bricks were dry, I built 3 identical foundations, each with about 2.5 inches of fall. Then, I erected the tubs.
The first filter in the living system is filled with large stones at the bottom, and smaller gravel on top. The 2nd and 3rd have sand over a gravel base, and the 4th and 5th have the same as the ones before, in addition to a layer of charcoal (which we also made ourselves…more on that later) as a final filtration medium. The last barrels are for clean water.
The project isn’t quite done yet, but it has come a long way since January. When it is completed, the living system should be alive. It will have mature aquatic plants in the first 3 tubs, these help with filtering out soaps and other smelly things; as well as a healthy population of algae and microbes. Though we are only using the finished water in the garden, it should be close to drinkable. But what gets me most excited about this project is that the community is getting excited about it. They can see how the system works and how it could impact their lives in a real and affordable way. The technology is simple and requires no power – so it’s viable to them. As we get things finished up and the system continues to mature, Kate and I will keep you updated on how everything is coming along. We can all do more to save water, wherever we are in the world. You don’t need a fancy system or complex technology; often, it’s the simple things that make the biggest difference. Take shorter showers, harvest your rainwater, wash the dishes in tubs so that you can use the water after the plates are clean. Many plants can even be irrigated with non-treated graywater, so plan your landscape accordingly.
This is what we’re doing with our water. We hope it inspires you to do more with yours.
P.S. Thanks to Kevin, Arlen and Brandon for inspiring me. You’re all wonderful friends and incredible people.
Let’s Make a Plan
One of the most common phrases spoken throughout Zimbabwe is “we’ll make a plan”. It’s representative of the fact that often plans fall through and you are forced to come up with a contingency. When our original plans to travel through Mozambique in mid-April got thwarted by transportation complications, we made a plan. It seemed only right to spend this unaccounted for time doing some truly Zimbabwean activities with my mom’s Zimbabwean cousins who live in Harare and Lake Kariba.
Bidding farewell to Chris and Norma, we left Bulawayo midmorning on a Saturday, and six road tolls and five and a half hours later we were in Harare. We spent a few nights there before journeying another five hours Northwest towards Lake Kariba, the largest lake in Zimbabwe. We spent a lovely few days with Natalie and Derek Adamson, my mom’s cousins who used to operate one of the marinas in Kariba. We were able to spend three of our nights with them on the water, on a houseboat that Derek currently manages. I have to say it was vastly different from our houseboating experiences in California. For one, we were accompanied by a boat captain and cook, who took care of our every need – preparing meals, making beds, cleaning the boat, anything and everything. The other major difference is that we were restricted from any water activities due to the presence of a plethora of crocodiles and hippos. We saw dozens! One of the highlights was getting a few visits from elephants grazing nearby where our boat was moored. The scenery was dramatic; thousands of petrified trees project out of the lake telling tales of forested areas before the lake was dammed. After three days of stunning sunrises and sunsets we cruised the boat back towards town, feeling ready to put our feet down on land again.
From Kariba we drove back up the Zambezi valley escarpment and rendezvoused with Jackie, Leo and Andoni Diamondis, my mom’s cousins from Harare. With them we convoyed to a beautiful riverside fishing camp near Chirundu, called Jecha. Once there we assumed the leisurely schedule of “fish, eat, fish, eat, fish, eat, sleep, repeat”. Most of the camps that are scattered along the shoreline of the Zambezi specialize in Tiger fishing, and that’s certainly what we were there for. These fish are unlike anything we have in the States, with their giant menacing teeth that add to the thrill of the catch. Fortunately, we all caught Tiger. And for every fish we landed in the boat, there were ten more that stole our live bait right off our hooks. After a good few days of sun, food, drink, socializing and fishing we packed up the rods and headed back to Harare.
All in all we had a perfect two week break from farm life, getting to spend quality time with friends, family and nature. We are so thankful for the Diamondis and Adamson families who made us feel so welcome and bent over backwards to show us a good ol’ Zimbabwean time. Today we drive back to Bulawayo to resume projects on the farm and we are excited to return to the rural area that now feels so much like home.
Georgeen Does Zimbabwe
I gripped the steering wheel in my left and the hand brake in my right; with white knuckles I released the brake and worked the unfamiliar pedals. The engine revved and as I let out the clutch, my new car leaped forward before it came to yet another abrupt stop. I was 15 and my neighbor Georgeen had just sold me her 1991 BMW 318is. It had 2 doors, over 200,000 miles, it was silver and I was in love. Georgeen and I were at the Folsom Lake boat ramp, and she was attempting to teach me the infamous standard transmission hill start, we’ve been friends ever since. It has been well over a decade since that sunny afternoon. In that time, I’ve moved away from home, gone to college and traveled a lot of the globe. Georgeen now lives in Florida, but the distance hasn’t seemed to hinder our connection and when Kate and I knew we were going to be living in Zimbabwe for 6 month, she was one of the first people I phoned.
As you most likely know from our previous post, Georgeen has come to visit us in Zim. We met up in Victoria Falls for 3 days of sight seeing before heading back to Morning Star. When we arrived in Bulawayo after a 7-hour bus ride we were all tired and ready to be in the farm, but we still had 2 hours of rutted dirt roads riddled with pothole after pothole. With each bump in the road, I began to worry about Georgeen. I knew she hadn’t been feeling 100% for the past 2 days, but to her credit she handled it beautifully. It was getting dark by the time we pulled through the farm gates. As we opened our doors we were excitedly greeted by Ramsey and Pippa, followed by a smiling Norma who had dinner waiting for us. The mood was instantly elevated. With full stomachs and tired bodies, we all drifted to sleep that evening with comfort and ease.
The next morning, after several presses of coffee, Georgeen was thrown right into Norma’s sewing group, which was meeting from 9 am to about 4 pm. Throughout the day, Georgeen cut out fabric, marked patterns to be stitched, and served as general quality control while the ladies worked on their pieces. It’s always interesting to see how people respond to life on the farm, but unafraid of getting wet, Georgeen seemed to jump in feet first.
We rose on Sunday morning to a gray sky and mist in the air. A couple days prior, Kate had arranged for the three of us to walk to Ndilewe’s homestead and spend the morning with her and her family. While we walked, Kate and I asked Georgeen about home and inquired about her family; conversation filled the air. When the open road ended, we follow a small path into the woods. We were quickly covered in an umbrella of Msasa trees. The air turned cool as we moved past moss covered rocks and freshly grown mushrooms, still further we walked. About an hour after we had begun, we arrived at a series of homesteads and quickly found Ndilewe waiting for us, she met us at the gate with a big smile and excited hugs. After quick introductions to her family, we were led into the kitchen and given a bench to sit and rest our legs after the long walk. The three of us sat across from Ndilewe, Maria, and Martha (Ndilewe’s mother and younger sister).
We sat and laughed for a few minutes while we stumbled through communication and a few mistranslations. Kate had prepared a craft for the 3 young boys at the homestead and after about 10 minutes of small talk, we did the craft with the whole family. After our crafting was through, we sat and listened to the boys read through their one prized Happy Reader book in English, about the adventures of Harry the Hippo, only needing help on a few words. As the boys finished their reading, Ndilewe and Martha began preparing tea and koeksisters (deep fried dough balls/ like hushpuppies) for us. We sat and watched while the ladies broke wood and prepared a fire. Water was boiled in an old coffee can that had been charred black from repeated use. As the fire burned longer, more and more smoke filled the room. Our eyes began to water as Martha tended to the koeksisters, at one point the smoke was so thick that we all fled the hut with red and watering eyes. Ndilewe made up Georgeen a small table outside so she wouldn’t have to suffer through the smoke. After enjoying our tea and way too many fried dough balls, Ndilewe and Martha showed us around the neighborhood. We saw where Ndilewe had been making bricks for a new building on the property. We walked 15 minutes to their water source, which is nothing more than a small spring bubbling up from the ground. We even stopped by a neighbor’s place to check on a ram as potential breeding stock for Norma’s goats back at Morning Star.
I believe it is experiences like these that shape us as people. As we drove Georgeen to the airport she sat quietly to my left. Kate asked her how she was feeling about her experience, and Georgeen simply answered by saying that she was processing. Kate and I understood. It’s hard coming to places like this and seeing such poverty, seeing suck lack, but also seeing so many smiles and experiencing so much joy. It is a severe contrast to life in the States and can be quite a lot to take in. I haven’t had the chance to speak to Georgeen since she has returned to the States, but I bet she thinks about this place often. There’s a kind of magic experienced here that stays with you even after you leave, even after you are a world away.
The Smoke that Thunders
After a lovely few days isolated from humanity we bid farewell to our trusty guide Livingstone and headed off in a van bound directly for Victoria Falls. Part of me wishes I could say there was a fabulous story packed with adventure and mishap that led to our arrival in the Falls, but our driver Luke, quiet and matter-of-fact, delivered us speedily and right on schedule. As soon as we arrived at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp, our humble accommodations for the first three nights of our stay, the skies opened up and the rain began to fall. I had made a booking for a small canvas tent, complete with beds and linens for the price of $40/night. As Chris and I lugged our backpacks to Tent 12 and wrestled with the padlocked zipper, the downpour escalated, and I felt the “drowned cat look” coming on. Feeling extreme culture shock from our plush accommodations in Hwange I suggested to Chris we think about upgrading to a Chalet with a REAL roof, REAL floor and REAL door. A whole $6 later, we found ourselves in a small, basic bungalow about four times the square footage as the tent option.
With our lodging sorted out, Chris and I set off in search of Georgeen, Chris’s childhood neighbor who we had planned to rendezvous with in the Falls, before bringing her back to the farm. We climbed the hill to the Cresta Sprayview Hotel, passing a Warthog casually grazing in a traffic median and battling pesky street vendors along the way. We tracked down Georgeen in her hotel room, where she was resting and attempting to recover from jetlag. Over happy hour drinks we shared our respective adventures of the last few days and made plans to meet up in the following day.
Due to the exorbitant pricing of everything in Victoria Falls, Chris and I had pinpointed a few activities that would be worth the money, the most important being white water rafting on the Zambezi River. Our first full day we rose at 6, in preparation to meet our rafting group at 7:10. They took us to “The Lookout” a restaurant over-looking a stunning horseshoe bend in the river just below the Victoria Falls Bridge. It was there that we had our safety briefing and trip overview. There were only six of us clients this particular day; a young Aussie couple, a retired British couple and us. I think we had all the makings for a fantastic joke. Our guide, who went by “Colgate” ushered us to the vehicle that would take us to our put-in location. Due to fact that it is the high water season, we would only be able to raft rapids 11-23, as the earlier ones are overrun with whirlpools and impassable sections. We knew it would be an adventure nevertheless.
What they don’t tell you when you are booking your rafting trip is that the hike down into and out of the gorge requires double the amount of energy than the rafting itself. By the time we got to our boat, my quads were burning and we were all sweating profusely, unable to breathe in our tightly cinched life jackets. After some paddle practice we were all thoroughly spent. Fortunately, the adrenaline rush that comes with rafting rapids kicked us back in gear, and once we started heading down the river, our energy was revitalized. In the moments between the rapids, we had a chance to take in the dramatic view from the bottom of the gorge, the walls laced with greenery due to the rain. Colgate gave us the opportunity to float alongside the raft in a few sections, and the river was the most idyllic temperature. Before we knew it we had reached our exit point, Go Pro still intact, and a daunting climb out of the gorge ahead of us. In 20 minutes Chris and I managed to climb 1000+ ft from the river bank to the location where lunch awaited us, though by the time we arrived at our destination all we wanted to do was collapse. We took some time to recover and rewarded ourselves with some drinks and a hefty pile of food.
The following day I woke up with the satisfying full body ache that meant I got a work out the day before. We enjoyed a simple breakfast at our beloved Rest Camp and headed out to meet up with Georgeen and tour the Falls with her. We were warned to waterproof everything with us, as the Falls are massive this time of year, and getting drenched was guaranteed. After paying our entry fee we strolled from view point to view point, feeling increasing amounts of spray as we got closer to the main cataracts. Eventually I sequestered my camera in a large Ziploc bag and the Go Pro became the method of documentation. No sooner had I done that, and my clothes were soaked through with waterfall mist. There came a point where we were unable to discern if we were being rained on or sprayed on. With our visibility diminishing we kept our eyes focused on Georgeen, leading the way in a duckling-esque massive yellow poncho.
Having done the “must–dos” in Victoria Falls, like eat at the Boma, and stroll through the Victoria Falls Hotel, we spent our last day in pure relaxation. We had decided to book at the Ilala Lodge for our final night, in honor of Chris’s birthday on the 16th. Given the splurge it seemed only right to spend the entire day there making the most of their pool and amenities, preparing for our return back to farm life. We enjoyed an exquisite birthday dinner that evening, courtesy of my parents!
At 7 am the following morning the three of us were boarding the Pathfinder bus to take us the 5 hours back to Bulawayo where we would reunite with Chris and Norma. It had been a stunning week and just what the doctor ordered after five weeks of farm sitting, but we were eager to return to the Matopos where projects, friends and more adventure were waiting.
Where the Wild Things Are
When Kate and I picked up Chris and Norma from the airport, it concluded a chapter of our trip. For the past 5 weeks, we’ve been on our own out at the farm, learning by doing and doing a lot. But now that they are back from the States, it has given us the opportunity to begin something new.
We arrived at the bus stop just after 7 on a Wednesday morning. The dirt lot was wet and muddy as we stepped out of Norma’s SUV. Trying not to slip, I began unloading our bags, which were quickly transferred under the bus by an eager bag boy. With a quick goodbye, Norma drove away and Kate and I soon became the only white faces around. We found two unoccupied seats in front of a man with a hat pulled down over his eyes, and attempted to get comfortable for the long journey ahead. Pushing past vendors peddling bananas, potatoes and ear buds, a man stopped at our seats carrying a clipboard. He inquired about our tickets and Kate presented two perfectly pressed tickets we had purchased 3 weeks prior. With a curious look the man said, “these are Bravo Bus tickets… this is the Xtra City Bus”… We are on the wrong bus - Kate jumps into action and quickly exits the Xtra City Bus in order to call the Bravo ticket office; I stay behind to watch our effects. Noticing some commotion, the sleeping man behind our seats, sits up and assures me that the Bravo is coming and should be here sometime soon. After her phone call, Kate returns with a similar story – the bus is coming.
In a matter of 10 minutes we see a bright red bus entering the lot, it has the words “Bravo Bus” plastered all over the side. It quickly became very clear what bus we were supposed to be on. Following a quick transfer and shuffle of luggage, we sat down in our new seats, on what seams to be a slightly more “modern” bus company, with the most current South African hip hop blaring over the speakers. After about 45 more minutes, and no less that 150 six packs of Castle Lager loaded in the luggage compartment, we were on our way.
For the next 3 hours, the ride was fairly uneventful. Every once in a while we would drop some people off and pick up a few more. New additions would squeeze down the aisle carrying their prized possession, and find an open seat to the rear. I was taken a back, but not at all surprised when a man passed us clutching a live chicken with both hands. No one seemed bothered by the situation, not even the chicken.
The Bravo came to a stop and Kate and I were the only passengers to exit. They dropped us on the main road to Hwange National Park, which is nothing more than a left turn on an otherwise long jungle road. The next challenge was to find our way to ‘Main Camp’, which is located within the park, 20km from where the bus had just dropped us. When we had purchased our tickets, the office had told us that the bus would not enter Hwange and because of the animals in the area, they said it would be in our best interest to find a ride from someone who was entering the park. So, we resorted to hitching.
After collecting our bags we found a good spot on the road and began to wait. I sat on top of my bag and chomped on an apple while Kate stood at attention with her backpack on, as if willing cars in our direction. There were fewer vehicles traveling on the road than we had anticipated, and after being passed over several times, the attitude in the air grew increasingly anxious. But after about 30 minutes, a white transport van was leaving the park, and he stopped. I told him we were looking for a ride to Main Camp and offered him $10 to take us. With a Golden Pilsner resting comfortably in the center console, he shot us a quiet smile and turned his van around. When our bags were loaded and we were well on our way, Kate turned to me; her previous anxiety flushed away and said, “Now I’m on vacation”. We got to Main Camp in 15 minutes, unloaded our packs, and waved goodbye to our chariot as it drove off $10 richer. We had finally arrived. After one wrong bus, one chicken in transit, and Kate’s first hitch hiking experience, we had made it to our destination. We sighed a deep sigh of relief and walked toward the safari truck that was waiting patiently for our arrival.
His name was Livingstone, and what he lacked in height, he made up for in broadness of shoulder. He grew up in Mutare, near Zimbabwe’s North Eastern border with Mozambique. He spoke 4 languages and for the next 3.5 days he was to be our guide on safari. Hwange National Park is home to the most wildlife in Zimbabwe, most notably known as the former home of Cecil the lion. The same size as Connecticut, Hwange is spectacular in both size and beauty. Kate and I were beyond excited to be there and to experience real African wilderness, the kind we all picture when we think of Africa.
After a short snack, Livingstone, Kate and I began a nearly 3-hour drive to our camp (Davison’s Camp). As we drove down rutted dirt roads, I looked to the right and Kate looked to the left, determined not to pass any animals unseen. But, as the rainy season continues to press on, the trees are thick and the grass is tall, making it tricky to see game even 10 feet from the road. 30 minutes passed, and having seen only trees and no wildlife I began to feel like the kid from Jurassic Park, wondering where all the dinosaurs were. But then, an impala, and then a warthog, and then a giraffe, and then 3 giraffes, the deeper we drove into the park, the more animals we saw. It was unlike any place I had ever been.
We rounded a large watering hole just before twilight and I could see the glow of oil lanterns in the distance. As we arrived, we were greeted by a full staff with warm towels and glasses of sherry. Hoping to make dinner on time, we were swiftly escorted by a now armed Livingstone, to our tent for a shower and quick wardrobe change. Upon our return, the camp manager, Shayne, got us acquainted with the available amenities and safety procedures during our arrival briefing. I should have been tired after the day we had just had, but I was utterly taken by everything unfolding in front of us. I’m not entirely sure what we had for dinner that night, but I do remember sitting by the fire and watching lightning strike the distant horizon and thinking, “now I’m on vacation”.
The next 3 days were magical. Two game-drives a day, and no internet or cell reception, our attention was taken only by each other and the wilderness we found ourselves surrounded by. As we prepared to leave on our last day, we had seen 3 of Africa’s “Big 5” (African Buffalo, Elephant, & Lion) along with a countless number of other animals and birds. I am in awe of this place. It has taken any expectation I may have had, and blown it out of the water. We load into the truck and it is raining. I am un-phased and still looking for more game. As we pass a family of impala under a tree and then a single bull elephant walking through the grass, all I can do is smile and shake my head. I wish more places like this were left in our world, I pray my kids will be able to see the kinds of things I have seen here, though with the current state of everything, who knows. Places like Hwange, however, give me hope that maybe, just maybe we might be on to something.
Wicking our way to Waterwise Gardening
The earth groaned like a stomach yearning for food. Over and over the sounds grew louder and more frequent, but still the gray sky remained dry, the ground hard and parched. Until suddenly the sky lit up with a flash of lightning and an immediate encore of thunder, then down came the rain. Drops were falling heavy as if the clouds just couldn’t hold on any longer. Kate and I rushed around with buckets and tubs hoping to catch as much life-giving water as possible. We closed windows and shut doors, and when everything was set, we sat down with warm coffee and watched the water fall. The world always looks more green when it’s raining, the drink always more satisfying; but before we could finish our cups, the clouds regained their composure and again held tightly to the rain. Then the world was somehow less green, and the coffee less satisfying. Today, the sky is blue with a slight breeze. In the distance I hear bells ringing from the necks of cattle, as they enjoy grazing on a slightly softer ground. But tomorrow the water will be gone and the earth again will groan for the rain
This is how it has been for months now. Compounded by the fact that the Matopos region hasn’t received a wet rainy season for several years, this year’s drought is especially dire. Several months ago, the Zimbabwean government declared a state of emergency because of the low water levels, hoping for some kind of foreign aid; but because of the state of the Zimbabwean government no aid will find its way here. It has occurred to me that establishments like Morning Star Ranch and other non-profits may be the best hope that the people here have as the dry season approaches.
In previous blogs we have discussed the “Rocket Stove, as a low cost high efficiency replacement for open fire cooking. This week I want to introduce one more technology that Kate and I are hoping will impact the community in a real and implementable way. It is a simple technology for waterwise gardening called “Wicking Beds”. Wicking beds are self-contained raised gardening beds that water the crop from the bottom of the soil, instead of from the top. Each wicking bed contains a built-in reservoir below the planting medium that self waters yours crop for a week or more, depending on the size of your bed. If you are having trouble visualizing this, imagine dipping the corner of a tissue into a cup of water and raising it to eye level, you will see the water climb or “wick” up the tissue, wicking beds work in the same way. Because watering is done from the bottom, it eliminates any evaporation that would happen in traditional top down watering, and also because of the bed’s self-watering properties, it is perfect for areas with limited water resources.
Wicking beds are versatile and can be built from just about anything that can hold water. Kate and I have build two beds thus far and are planning on building more. We built both of our wicking beds with recycled pallets and aluminum cans. The single bed is built from 3 pallets, 1 full pallet is used for the bottom, and the other 2, once cut in half, serve as the four walls. After the pallets have been nailed and fastened together, it is lined in plastic so that it will hold water (we found some old black plastic laying around the farm, available in rolls at any hardware store). We placed a couple of old feed sacks full of aluminum cans on the floor of the bed (above the plastic); this is what causes the wicking effect. DIY tutorials would tell you to use gravel for this step but we had cans, so that’s what we used. After the placing the full feed sacks, we installed a watering tube in the corner of the box (that goes to the bottom of the can layer) and covered everything with a permeable cloth. The cloth works as a barrier between the cans and the soil. Next we filled the box with planting medium (a combination of compost, charcoal, humus, and soil). After planting, we chose to mulch the top of the soil in order to retain that much more water. My tomatoes have been in the wicking bed for more that two weeks now, and with the recent rains I have only watered them once. In total each bed costs less than 10 dollars to build, one dollar per pallet, and six to seven dollars for plastic and other materials. See the step-by-step photos below for more information.
If you have been following our blog for any number of weeks, you have seen photos of this beautiful landscape and everything is lush and green. It may seem to the naked eye that there is no drought at all, that all this talk is just talk; but this is the rainy season (Nov-Mar) and the rain is not falling nearly enough. People are planting their crops for the rest of the year right now. If the rains do not come, God help them. People will be starving for the crops that simply didn’t grow because of the lack of water. Cattle will die on the roads because the grazing is just not available and the people here will lose their livelihoods. What we are doing at Morning Star is just a drop in the ocean of what needs to happen. Please keep Zimbabwe in your thoughts and in your prayers. And if anything I have said here has resonated in your spirit, buy a ticket, come and help, we can use every hand available.