Harare

The family grows

The arrival of our daughter and of our son fourteen months later, after eleven years of marriage, changed our lives as it happens with parents all over. I will describe what happened during this period that spanned between mid 1990 and mid 1992 in two posts.

From the moment we knew they were coming, we agreed that within reason, our kids would adjust to our way of living and not the other way round as we saw many parents doing. We also decided that they would be born in African soil. Unfortunately, Zambia was out of bounds for our insurance, so we needed to go outside the country.

Many mothers to be travelled back to Europe or America to have their babies, but several were also going to Zimbabwe. We chose the latter. Harare was about five hundred kilometres away or an eight-hour journey but the facilities there were excellent and recommended by our doctor in Lusaka.

So, after her trip to the UK, Mabel, talking to mothers with young babies, got to know how to handle the situation in Harare and she got convinced to have the children there. A gynecologist called John was recommended and it was explained that the birth would take place at the Avenues Clinic. Of course, there were a few risks involved as we needed to travel to Harare for check-ups and also to go there a few days prior to the birth. The latter period we would spend at the Bronte Hotel, located a few blocks away from the clinic.

So, following the instructions of Dr. John, we travelled to Zimbabwe via Chirundu for the first time, a few months before the calculated birth date. Unlike the Zambian side of the border, the Zimbabweans appeared very strict and punctilious with the regulations. I must confess that I instantly preferred the Zambia side that even had a drink vending machine but, with time, I started to understand and to like the Zimbabweans as well.

Crossing the border included crossing the Zambezi River. At the time there was only one single lane bridge across, the Otto Beit [1] bridge and it had its history that we ignored then but that now with the internet it is easy to research.

It had been built just before WWII with funds from the Beit Trust [2] that funded also the Beit bridge over the Limpopo River linking Zimbabwe and South Africa as well as the Kafue and Luangwa bridges in Zambia. The Otto Beit bridge was very advanced for its time: the 380-metre bridge was suspended with parallel wire cables being the first one of its kind built outside the US, following the approach of the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges among others.

After waiting for a while for the incoming traffic to pass, we crossed and arrived in Zimbabwe. We needed to re-fuel so we stopped at the first petrol station that we found. As we entered it, we were very surprised to find that there were more elephants than attendants! We feared for our lives and remained in the car waiting for the pachyderms to move away. They did not.

When we asked the petrol attendant about the elephants that he seemed to ignore, he explained that they were always there but that they did not bother anyone, feeding on the surrounding trees although they would cross the petrol station to move among the trees! Frankly, while our petrol tank was being filled, I expected an elephant to come and wash our windscreen!

It was the first time that we experienced such “closeness” with elephants but we soon realized that this was not uncommon in Zambia and Zimbabwe, something unthinkable in other countries we knew.

After the novel experience of “fuel with elephants” we carried on. The good road decorated with abundant elephant dung, traversed dry country but soon the hot valley ended, and we started climbing the Zambezi escarpment where we found lots of slow heavy-loaded lorries that slowed us down. Many of the trucks were carrying copper but there were lots of different goods being taken to Zimbabwe as well as to be shipped at the various ports in the East coast of Africa.

At the top of the escarpment, we stopped at the veterinary cordon fence that blocked wild animals from going beyond and into land destined for cultivation. Apart from elephants that would create havoc when raiding crops, buffalo (a foot and mouth disease reservoir) were the ones being stopped as they could pass the disease to the commercial cattle industry of Zimbabwe.

The post also checked that we were not taking tsetse flies with us. The procedure consisted of a control officer armed with a small net walking around the car catching any flies that may have been in the outside of the car. After that we were also sprayed inside to kill any flies that had decided to travel more comfortably!

After the control gate we drove through Morongora first and then Makuti. At Karoi, 86 kilometres further, we decided to stop for lunch. The Twin Rivers lodge looked nice and clean from the road and we decided to try it. It did not disappoint us. While waiting for lunch I ordered a ginger beer, a non-alcoholic drink new to me. I was pleasantly surprised by its piquant taste and became a fan of this drink from then on!

Beyond Karoi, agricultural land dominated and we saw numerous irrigation systems and dams from where water was taken to transform the dry land into crops of various kinds, mainly wheat and maize. The road was excellent and there were many well sign-posted secondary roads that reached other localities inland. There were good road signs and grass-cutting tractors were working at several places to keep the grass on the side of the roads, short. Zimbabwe looked like a more developed country than Zambia.

The large silos plants were an additional proof of the grain production of the country that was considered at the time the “Granary of Africa”. We reached Chinhoyi, a busy town where lots of people were moving about, including many “white farmers”. After passing Banket we finally got to Harare, still admiring the beautiful land we were travelling through.

We had no difficulty to find the Bronte Hotel and Harare still maintained the aspect I remembered from my earlier visit in 1985. However, we realized that requirements for tourists had relaxed and we were not “inspected” before we were allowed to enter our hotel!

The memory of my 1985 experience with my Swiss friend François (a tick ecologist) still fresh in my mind. We were staying in the Monomotapa Hotel in Harare, prior to our trip to Nyanga to attend a tick meeting, when we decided to have our dinner outside the hotel only to find that we were denied entrance as we were not dressed properly!

Although we were offered ties to be allowed in, we refused to wear them and left. Walking a few more blocks we came to a North American-style restaurant that did not care about ties so we ended up enjoying a few pounds of the excellent Zimbabwean beef. Dinner over, we walked back to our hotel only to be stopped at the entrance by the conciérge, for not being dressed well!

We were still in a heated argument with the man that was very stubborn and refused to understand that we were guests in the hotel when, luckily, one of the meeting organizers happened to come and talked to the doorman that finally gave in, but he still looked down on us whenever he spotted us in the lobby!

The Bronte Hotel boasted about its garden and it was right as it was well kept and large. Although Harare was much cooler than Lusaka the rooms were comfortable although the corridors and garden were quite chilly so we did not spend much time outside as we were not prepared for the cooler weather. Dinner was simple, good and trouble-free, apart from the issue of two bills, one for the food and another one for the drinks with the consequence that you paid one and started to move off only to be interrupted by an embarrased waiter bringing you another bill!

Breakfast was included in the price, but we also had difficulties understanding the serving system. The waiters worn bands of different colours across their chests and each colour fulfilled only one function and there was no flexibility between them. I do not recall what each colour did but let’s say the green was for drinks, the red for food and the blue for paying. After a few futile attempts asking a “green” or “blue” waiter for food, etc.  I adjusted to it after a couple of days, but still found it weird and somehow irritating.

Dr. John was good and all was well with Mabel’s situation. He recommended another visit after two months. The Avenues Clinic looked very nice from the outside, so we were satisfied. The return journey was uneventful and so were the next journeys required for the various check-ups that also went well.

About a week before the estimated time of birth we travelled again to Harare and we settled down at the Bronte Hotel to wait for the first signs of birth to appear but, after a few days, although there were some false alarms, nothing happened. We decided that I would go back to Lusaka after having spent seven days waiting. Paternity leave did not exist in those days and the work needed to continue.

I believe that Murphy’s Law applies in all situations and the birth of our daughter was no exception. As soon as i got to Lusaka I phoned the hotel to talk to Mabel and they told me that she had gone to the hospital! I could not locate her so I decided to refill the car with diesel from our fuel reserve [3] during the night and return as soon as I had a few hours rest as the border would only open at 06:00hs.

Before leaving I informed Bruno, who stayed in charge of the project in my absence, that he should not worry about us and continue with his work at Lutale. “Do not phone me unless the project burns down” I told him trying to make the point! I left early and, not having had any news about Mabel, it was an anxious journey and I made an effort not to drive too fast.

I went straight to the Avenues Clinic and, fortunately, I found her in good health and very cheerful as she had gone through the birth process and our daughter Florencia (Flori) was also well. She had been “deposited” in another room, together with other babies. I looked at her through a glass and hoped that they would not swap her for another baby but then I convinced myself that it would be unlikely as she had an identification bracelet and it was clearly different from the other babies with her dark hair and eyes!. I was relieved to see them both well and immensely happy!

A laughing Flori.

The following day we moved to the hotel and settled down to wait for a day to start the journey back with our newcomer. Then, in the evening the phone rang. It was Bruno and, before he could say anything I reminded him of my parting words about not phoning me. He let me rant for a while and then said: “the project office burnt down!”. “It is a joke, right?” was my reply but he repeated the news and I believed him.

The project offices were local huts with straw roofs, and it was October, the end of the dry season and the dry straw had caught fire. We lost important records but, luckily, we had duplicates of everything, except the latest records that were lost forever and a gap can be seen in all our publication graphs that remind us of the fire and the birth of my daughter! Before he hanged up, Bruno did congratulate me about the birth! He calmed me down telling me that the burnt office was being re-built and I forgave him instantly for calling!

The following morning, we needed to take Flori to the pediatrician, a very young and nice doctor. He saw that Flori was rather yellow and told us that she was suffering from infant jaundice, a common problem that required a couple of days to improve and no treatment. The following day she turned very yellow but afterwards the problem cleared, and we got the green light to travel.

Although we had a birth certificate, we still needed a travel document to enable us to cross the border. So, after taking Flori’s photograph, we went to immigration and got the needed document that even included her thumb print with no pattern, just a black stain! Armed with this new document, we travelled back to Lusaka with our new arrival and started our new family life.

The bushsnob learning to be a father!

[1] Sir Otto John Beit, 1st Baronet, KCMG, FRS was a German-born British financier, philanthropist and art connoisseur. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Beit

[2] The Beit Trust was created with funds left in his Will by Sir Otto’s older brother Alfred for infrastructure development in the former Northern (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Beit

[3] At the time we were going through a fuel shortage and I kept fuel at home.

Fighting itself!

There was a “tap-tap-tap” noise in the bedroom window and we discovered that a Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) was pecking at its own image reflected on the window.

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This male bird had, for the last few weeks, been busy building nests, trying to convince its girlfriend that they were nice but failing to do so, as usual in these cases.

As the bird pecked the window for a few hours, we decided to close the curtains to give it a break.

The following day we opened the curtains again, and very soon it returned to fighting with itself in an effort to keep its territory free of male competitors while trying to get his architectural skills improved.

 

I smell a rat…

When “Bella”, our Jack Russell bitch, spent about three hours fixed on the generator, we knew that there was trouble in that area of the house.

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We checked all around, including the firewood -my candidate- that was next to it without success. We did detect chewed bits of insulating sponge lining on the floor, though.

We decided to open up the generator and have a look.

We expected to find the damage to the sponge lining material but not what we found, a full nest that occuppied half of the free space inside the machine!

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I must confess that I saw the nest builder often walking in front of me while seating in the veranda writing but I did not think that the beast would get inside the generator so I chose to share my life with it!

It clearly abused my hospitality and it paid for it as todaya trap was set by Stephen means that there is one less rat in Harare!

Spot the beast 62

Today I needed to go to the garden and, as usual, I went for my Crocs shoes. When I tried to slip my left foot inside I found some resistance and I was surprised and amused to find a best inside. See if you can identify it…

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I know that it is not a very good picture but otherwise you would get it too fast!

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I am sure that you have guessed what it was:

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Understandably it wanted out of my shoe in a hurry! Soon it was released back to where it come from.

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I believe it was an African common toad or guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) of widespread distribution in Zimbabwe.

Luckily it was not a scorpion or worse!

Spot the beast 61

We are having a slow start of the rainy season this year but, searching among my pictures, I found this ones that show a beast of some sort from one of Nature’s kingdoms…

See if you can spot it!

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Here it is. As you have realized by now, it is not a giant fern sprouting but a chameleon digging its egg-laying hole with the rolled tail out!

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This is the culprit laying, darker after the effort.

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Rain bird

A few days back we have started hearing the by now familiar ‘wip-wip-weeu’ that the rain bird or red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) make endlessly at the time the rains should start in Zimbabwe. But, where have they been since their appearance last year?

 

Before I knew much about bird movement and migration, I often asked myself this question. I recall watching in awe widowbirds displaying in Northern Kenya and asking my friend Paul about their whereabouts during the rest of the year. His reply, was that they would go to the Sudd[1], a huge swampy area located in Sudan.

Sudd_swamp Credit NASA (Public domain)

Sudd Swamp -a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion in South Sudan. To the left the river/wetland Bahr al-Ghazal connecting to Lake No (top). This photograph was taken during the driest time of year—summer rains generally extend from July through September. Taken from space, May 1993. Credit: NASA (Public domain).

So, every time that someone asks me now where a particular bird is when it is not seen, I say that it is in the Sudd, a very convenient reply!

The truth about the rain bird is that they are intra-African migrants that breed in southern Africa between September and March, although most arrive in mid-October and the majority are gone by the end of April.

The rest of the year they reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries of Central, East and West Africa, including the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan!

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Rainbird distribution map. Attribution: BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Cuculus solitarius. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 02/11/2019.

Their preferred habitats are woodlands where they perch high up in the trees. The red-chested cuckoo is usually solitary and it takes on more than a single mate so it is polygamous. Every year they visit our garden where they are occasionally seen while they feed on caterpillars and other insects in the tall msasa trees.

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While in Southern Africa -including Zimbabwe- the rain birds practice brood parasitism by breeding through egg-laying in other bird species nests, some twenty-seven of them! The most common hosts are thrushes and robin-chats and the Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), the Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis) and the white-throated robin-chat (Cossypha humeralis) are the most popular hosts.

The cuckoo’s resemblance with a small bird of prey (like a sparrow hawk for example) scares the future parents from their nests and the cuckoo female lays the egg that, not always, resembles their hosts’. It is estimated that they lay about twenty eggs scattered in various nests every season. Then it is up to the surrogate family to raise the chick.

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A cape robin feeding an almost fully-grown rain bird. Attribution: Alandmanson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/Piet-my-vrou_%26_cape_robin.jpg. Downloaded from Creative Commons on 2/11/19

A very interesting biological phenomenon helps the cuckoo chick to have a head start from the other chicks in the nest: the female cuckoo literally incubates the egg inside her for 24 hours before laying it! [1] This ensures that the chick will hatch first and eliminate the competition at the nest.

Cuckoos are great travellers, capable of flying enormous distances during their migration and, although the red-chested cuckoo covers less distances than others, it uses the same mechanisms to do so. These navigation skills are genetically passed on to their young. The latter stay behind to complete their development while their parents depart but the new generation are able to fly back north on their own to join their parents!

Now we only need good rains while we watch the cuckoos until they depart and then we wait for them to announce the rains in 2020.

 

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11401254

Piggybacked

We do have scorpions in the garden. They are small, about 4-5 cm in length and dark brown. I believe they belong to the genus Uroplectes but I am not sure. Occasionally they enter in the house where they scurry fast with their tails extended straight back, trying to get away.

A few weeks back, something that I could not see stung me while handling one of the chairs in the patio. I have been stung by bees and wasps several times but this was a different kind of pain, stronger and durable! I suspect that it was a scorpion.

Yesterday Stephen, our caretaker, brought a scorpion that he found in the garden. At first I was surprised but then, when I looked at it I realized that there was a reason. It was a female carrying its progeny on its back as scorpions do until the babies first moult. Scorpions are viviparous, producing live offspring rather than eggs.

Here are some pictures taken with my usual camera as well as with the cellphonwe super macro that my son Julio A. gave me as a present. This small gadget has been a great success for these kind of findings that require detailed pictures.

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I will re-visit the scorpions subject in the future as i have some more interesting facts and pictures to share with you.

News from Africa – Goats trouble

Although we are in Argentina at the moment, Stephen, our Zimbabwe housekeeper for the past 20 years, periodically keeps us up to date of the situation in the country, city and house. Like this we learnt that the rains in Harare have been good so far and that he is already starting to enjoy the first fresh mealies (corns) from his nearby field. Unfortunately this event, together with the ripening of the mangoes in the garden happens when we are away!

Through his message we learnt that he spotted a gravid chameleon laying eggs in the garden and we hope they will hatch next year. In our experience, chameleon eggs spend the entire dry season buried and only hatch during the rains the following year, probably when the earth gets soft and they can dig themselves out of the ground in a wise “delayed” development.

We also had an account of what happened to him recently that I believe is worth telling in his own words. The news came in a Whatsapp message we got on 18 February. I have only inserted clarifications in brackets.

“…I have been so busy since late Friday afternoon (15 February) running around to try and find my goats which I almost lost to thieves in the rural area (near Mukumbura in the border with Mozambique), if it wasn’t for my brother who quickly alerted me that they have gone missing the previous day. I agreed with the suspicion because there had been a truck seen loaded with goats in the area destined for sale in Harare where they fetch good prices.

After getting the news, I asked if there was anyone with the contacts of the driver or anyone amongst the people in the truck. When I got the driver’s number, I phoned him pretending to be someone who was in the business of buying and selling goats and wanted to know to which abattoir he had gone to sale the animals or if he had encountered any problem with police along the way.

He told me he was at one of the abattoirs along Seke road, close to the airport in Harare (about 25km from our house).

I quickly boarded a commuter omnibus to the abattoir. When I arrived I was shocked to discover and identify my six goats among the animals, which were about to be sold and slaughtered.

I managed to recover them and they arrived back home late evening yesterday. The same truck was asked to take them back. Unfortunately, with (the) difficulties people are facing, they are grabbing and selling anything they see can give them money to survive.

There was lots of celebration in my rural area.”

Later he gave more details:

“They were boys from my village and happen to be my relative even though not close, he raided them from the grazing area. In my area goats move freely and the owners only collect them in the evening and check if they are none missing to lock them in the kraal and open in the morning.

I had to make a report to the police to make it easy for them to facilitate the transportation of the goats back home (otherwise) it was not going to be easy for me to get them back home because I should have spent money to hire a truck, get a permit & explain to the police how the reason the goats end up in Harare.”

As you can see from the story, the “bush telegraph” is working more efficiently these days and I cannot but admire Stephen’s quick reaction that enabled him not only to recover the stolen goats but also to arrange for the culprits to return them to his home in the bush!

Thieves…

We have a few macadamia trees at home that have not yielded very much for luck of water. Last year we had very good rains so we were rewarded with a good harvest and we are busy drying them under the sun so that I can then proceed with the rather time-consuming exercise of opening them.

Macadamia’s shells are extremely hard and, after trying various methods, I have resorted to a vise in the workshop that so far is still working until its thread gives in!

Some time ago we have discovered hollowed out nuts in the garden and we could not believe that an animal could be so powerful as to gnaw such thick and hard shells! Eventually we found lots of empty nuts near a large hole and realized that we had a colony of Southern Giant Pouched Rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) [1].

After a while we stopped seeing them and they disappeared. Apparently they moved off our house one night in a group and entered under the gate of a neighbouring house but I was not a witness to this Pied-piper of Hamelin-like migration!

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The empty shells after the rats ate the tasty inside.

More recently, we noted that the nuts we were drying were being peeled from their green outer cover and taken away whole from the sunning box. We “smelled a rat”!

A search up and down the garden was organized and, eventually, a large hole was discovered at the farther corner of the garden. Suspecting that the giant rats were there I set up a camera trap pointing towards the suspected burrow and this is what I got:

We confirmed our fears as the various videos taken showed one rat at a time either entering or leaving the burrow. As I was curious to see how many there were, I decided to put some food hoping that they would gather to feed. Although I got over 180 ten-second videos, I still failed to get a rat gathering! However, I got a few that prompted me to write this post!

I have selected a few that I find interesting and/or funny. Please note that one is eating a few carrot pieces on the ground while the others are chewing a chunk of (delicious for humans at least) butternut hanging from a bush, the idea being that they would not drag it into their nest!

This giant rats are widely distributed in mainly tropical regions of southern Africa, notably Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I first saw them in Monze, Zambia while driving on the main road and I had difficulties stopping my Zambian workers from jumping from the moving vehicle to catch them as they consider them a delicacy!

Later, also in Zambia, Bruno, a colleague from Belgium, invited me with a surprise roast that happened to be delicious and it was a giant rat -as tasty as a piglet- with baked potatoes (tasting like potatoes!)! Giant rats were very abundant in that area at the time and I am sure contributed to food security of the village where the project was based.

Giant pouched rats are named after their large cheek pouches and they are only distantly related to the true rats. Recent studies place them in the family Nesomyidae and not in the Muridae as they used to be [2].

They are able to produce up to 10 litters of one to five young per annum and they are nocturnal and omnivorous with special taste for palm nuts and, as we have experienced, also for macadamia nuts. Interestingly, they are hind gut fermenters and coprophagous, producing pellets of semi-digested food that are consumed.

They are not only easily tamed as pets but useful for detecting land mines as they have an excellent sense of smell, particularly sniffing TNT while being too light to detonate the mines! But this is not all. They are also being trained to detect tuberculosis by smelling sputum samples. This procedure is faster than the normal diagnostic test and remarkably increases the sample processing. [3]

So a few disappeared nuts ended up producing an interesting story and  I am now positive that we  have a colony of rats (being fed on expensive macadamia nuts) that could potentially be bred to remove mines and improve human lives!

I regret now having eaten one (and liked it!) and I will not do it again!

 

[1] I am not a rat taxonomist so I base my identification more on distribution and abundance than on their morphology. The other possible species in Zimbabwe would be C. gambianus but the whole pouched rat taxonomy is under review. See: Olayemi, A. et. al. (2012). Taxonomy of the African giant pouched rats (Nesomyidae: Cricetomys): molecular and craniometric evidence support an unexpected high species diversity. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 165, 700–719.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_pouched_rat#cite_note-MetH-1. Seen on 6/12/18.

[3] https://www.apopo.org/en. Seen on 6/12/18.

 

Purple rain

Prince explained the meaning of “Purple Rain” as follows: “When there’s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple… purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” [1]

I frankly have no idea if the late Prince ever saw the Harare jacarandas in October but I am sure that they could have inspired him to some lyric description that I am not able to do.

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However, I do not get tired to travel through purple lined avenues and to watch the jacaranda tree in our garden. It is not only the colour and the flower rain that takes place but its perfume and the bees that visit the falling flowers in search of their nectar wealth. So much so that you should not wear flipflops when you wade the stagnant purple rain.

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Looking forward to next year’s purple October…

 

[1] NME.COM. “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Purple Rain”NME.COM. Retrieved 3 May 2016.