The Death of a Dream; One Zimbabwean Farmer's Story


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Aug 21, 2009
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The Death of a Dream; One Zimbabwean Farmer's Story

For more than four decades, Larry Norton and his family farmed the same stretch of land in northern Zimbabwe. Here, he tells the devastating story of the pressures that forced him to leave 15 August 2002.

I sit in a storage shed in Harare, surrounded by the chaotic elements of our life and home and our piles of possessions, and try to reflect on the past few days. Last Thursday, 8 August 2002, we evacuated our farm - Dahwye - in the Mvurwi region of Mashonaland in north-east Zimbabwe, about 100km from Harare, abandoning the home in which three generations of our family had lived for almost half a century. After two years of mayhem, we could not go on. The government-sponsored land invasions had begun in March 2000, shortly before our 14-month-old son Oscar died from cancer. We were unable to spend his last days on the farm because of the trouble. He died in an apartment in Harare surrounded by refugee farmers from Macheke, where in April that year David Stevens, a supporter of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was the first white farmer to be killed. Since that time we have lived through the unparalleled destruction of country and economy, under the corrupt and dictatorial rule of President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party. Our farm has been a microcosm of the battlefield. My mother and father came north from South Africa in the 1950s. They worked as managers on various farms and borrowed money to purchase Dahwye in 1957. They nearly went broke, and for a time my father lived in a tent made from fertilizer bags while he opened up a tobacco farm in virgin bush. It was in an area described on the map as "Terra Incognita", but he made enough money there to pay off the loan. We returned to Dahwye in the mid-1960s. I was born in 1963. Over the next 40 years, my parents developed Dahwye and later Braidjule Farm into fully irrigable units, farming tobacco, maize, wheat and cattle. A game-farming operation on the marginal parts of the farm resulted in massive herds of wildebeest, zebra, impala, eland and tsessebe. Excess animals were sold to expand the wildlife business. My father conducted more than 3 decades of pasture research work and perfected legume/grass pastures in the harsh wetlands, increasing carrying capacities twentyfold. For him, the farm was not his own, it was a heritage for us, and our children. Every cent was reinvested in dams, irrigation and development.

In 1999, Sara and I decided to build our home in the Dahwye Game Park, not far from where we were married. The old farm cottage we had lived in was falling apart and we decided to develop the wildlife and tourism potential by building a guest lodge and launching a safari operation. It was not to be. Soon after our magnificent home was complete, Oscar's long illness disrupted our plans. The land invasions put an end to them. Our last day on the farm was a nightmare. We still had tons of household goods and machinery to move. Early in the day Zanu-PF youth and settlers illegally broke through the homestead fence to erect a flag near the lorry we were packing up. The police were called in and the mob was dispersed as far as the gates of the security fence, where the police officer advised that they should watch us in case we tried to steal anything. (Once a farmer has received a Section 8 - a final notice to quit farming - he may not remove certain assets from the farm.) They lit fires and hacked the word "Zimbabwe" into an old Msasa tree standing at the gate. The waiting media were made unwelcome by the police. During our last drive around Dahwye, my father said it looked as empty of wildlife as when he had first seen it. Finally we stopped to collect a bag of soil to take to Cape Town.

As my father watched, tears rolled down his face. Finally, we paid off the staff and at my father's request bowed our heads in a prayer of thanks for the long years we had lived and worked together. We had left the workers some cattle and hardware to assist in their new lives. My mother sobbed and tears burned in my eyes as we said goodbye to these people and left them to their fate. Mum locked the house for the last time. At last, our final convoy of 4 vehicles left the rubbishstrewn thatched house that had been a family home for 46 years. We drove towards the gate. The mob locked the gate as we approached. Sensing a bad situation, my father, in the lead vehicle, did not hesitate; he revved the engine and smashed through the gate.

We left Dahwye, without looking back, our beloved farm empty now of cattle, game and equipment, in parts burned out and already derelict. Alive only with the sound of axes and dogs. Irrigable land lies fallow, the dams stand full of water and soon the spectre of hunger will stalk the empty fields, as settlers dig for mice beneath the weeds. The night we left the main pump for the housing area was stolen, and the mob broke into my studio and office and my parents' home, which I hear is to become a beer hall.

The Dahwye we have known and loved is dead. Many impressions come to mind as I try to recall the events of the past 2 ï½½ years. First, I recall my son Oscar's memorial service, held at the same rock altar in the game park where Sara and I were married and where our children were christened. It is a naturally sacred place. As the service began two fish eagles appeared overhead, circling and ululating their haunting cry, witnessed by the 250 people gathered below. By April this year, resettlement pressure on Dahwye was growing. Zanu-PF youth, who could not be paid for their work during the presidential election, were allocated our farm instead. The youth base commander began to build his hut at the rock altar. Our workers were appalled at an act so sacrilegious to traditional culture that they appealed to him to stop. But this was clearly a psychological strategy designed to cause us maximum pain.

For the next 3 months Sara and the children would have to go past this obscenity on their way to school. Huts multiplied across the game park. We watched our game in despair, wandering amid the chaotic resettlements, surrounded by dogs, people, huts and fires. Pillars of light rose into the night sky from the settlers fires. Entire segments of the country were consumed in an orgy of burning. By a small miracle we obtained a game capture permit from the authorities. In a dramatic operation, over 5 weeks, we captured, saved and sold about 180 tsessebe, 75 zebra, 60 wildebeest, 3 eland, 85 impala and 12 ostriches. We had already lost animals to poaching and I am convinced that many of the settlers in our game park came with meat in mind.

Our children attended Barwick Primary School, not far from our farm. Teachers there have described the deep trauma that they have observed in farmers' children who, over the past 2 years, have been silent victims of the baying mobs and the daily humiliations their families have endured on the farms. The ever-present anxiety they observe in their parents is silently taken in. I have often seen our own children trying to work out ways to protect us from the daily dramas. During the weekends and holidays, security briefings on the farm radios do not allay their fears.

When things have been bad children have expressed fear at returning to boarding school as they have to leave their parents alone on the farms. There have been times during this ordeal that have been worse than others. When farms were being burned and looted in the nearby districts of Chinhoyi, Mhangura, Doma and Hwedza, we waited, expecting the worst. Some members of our family were trapped in their home, unable to escape as their neighbours were being ransacked. Packed suitcases and food rations stood in the hallway at all times, in preparation for a hurried exit. The house was emptied long ago of sentimental objects and photographs. As a community we tried to plan for worst-case scenarios. Community plans for the evacuation of schools were, and still are, realities that those in farming areas face on their own.

Before Oscar died, we planted a little Christmas tree that we had bought for him in Cape Town. The day before we left the farm, we dug up the tree and replanted it beside the children's ward of St Anne's Hospital, Harare, where the nuns (who remember Oscar from his stay there) have decided that it will be decorated each Christmas, and that from now on it will be called Oscar's Tree.

It is hard to describe the courage I have witnessed in my own family. My dad and mum, 73 and 64 respectively, humorous even amid the destruction of all they have loved and worked for, battling to finish the job of packing up their home and farm. Sara, my wife, determined even under these adverse circumstances to raise money for the Red Cross Children's Hospital, which looked after Oscar. She trained for the London Marathon on farm roads throughout the mayhem, ran the marathon and raised ï½£7,000 for the hospital. My daughter Megan, who is 11 years old, a rock for all of us, always smiling and unfazed. My five-year-old son Ben, who cried often for the loss of his beloved farm, decided that we should make crosses and scatter them around the farm and throughout our house to protect it in our absence. Madeleine, who is six months old, is one of the few people in Zimbabwe, oblivious to its woes, who has smiled through it all.

The unreported daily acts of courage and integrity by farmers in this impossible time must be mentioned. Their lonely vigils against the forces of intimidation have been humbling to observe. One day, I hope it will be recognized. Even now, impossible labour laws and propaganda have in some situations turned the labourers against them. Farmers are barricaded into their homes by labourers demanding pay and gratuities few can afford. In the past 2 years, I have seen young men take on the visage of battle-weary soldiers, with lined faces and grey hair, as they strive to protect family, friends and defenceless farm. I have seen their desperation as the authorities and so-called new landlords have prevented them from moving their own equipment, livestock and household goods from their seized farms. I was told, categorically, by a war veteran leader in front of a mob of 200 people, that we would not move one thing off our farm. Fortunately, he failed. Now that we are in Harare, and off the farm, there is time to try to analyze what we have been through. We are sharing a house with another displaced family, the Mitchells from Beitbridge. Billy's father collapsed and died from a heart attack soon after they received government papers of acquisition earlier this year.

One thing I have learnt, as we try to make sense of these terrible events, is that it is impossible to judge any farmer or farming community by the course of action they have followed. Each farm and farmer has faced a unique circumstance. All have fought lonely battles against overwhelming odds, outgunned by the full force of state machinery. We don't want sympathy. Many farm workers, rural black people and opposition supporters have faced worse. Some of us can move from here. I, at least, have another trade, as a wildlife painter. Others have no options. The government has, by its own definition, attempted to conduct an ethnic cleansing of the farmland. White farmers, by nature of their race, have been targeted for displacement at a time of fast-approaching and unparalleled starvation. Why? Why, 20 years into Zimbabwe's nationhood, this sudden assault? The answer lies, of course, in two bloody and farcial elections, the results of which have failed to impress the world.

No one disputes the need for viable, transparent land reform, although it's significant to note that about 60% of white-owned farms were purchased after independence, under Zimbabwean law.

The parallels between watching Oscar die from cancer and our beloved Dahwye's slow destruction are profound. The grief process of watching that which you love slowly destroyed is the same. My soul will always be in Dahwye. It holds my earliest memories and those of my children - and no one, by decree or destruction, can ever take that away.

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