Column: Rough times in Zimbabwe

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe – I have been out, working 12-hour days as a volunteer for CNFA. Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture is a United States NGO (non-government organization).

This little thing you do is not new. In the past 20 years I have journeyed to Russia and African countries to train farmers.

This trip was a winner.

There are groups of farmers seeking training in the areas around Bulawayo, in the southwestern part of this country. It lies southwest of the capital, Harare.

I was assigned to work with four groups. Wait. After discussions with an official of Amalima — an adjunct of CNFA — it was suggested I take on two additional groups.

What do you do when someone tries to layer on more work? You smile and point out the fact it will be hard to have graduation ceremonies for six groups on one day.

These groups, incidentally, are located miles and miles away on hard roads, a long way away.

When you are assigned to do such a job for CNFA, coordinators have already vetted the people asking for help. Their request has to be legitimate.

The two first groups — Paswana and Tsolopelwa — passed that test. I spent three days doing back-to-back training sessions in spots way out from Gwanda.

The terrain in the Gwanda area is diverse. There are amazing rock formations, dry river beds and sandy soil. My poor driver Brian lost his way one trip, and we had to fight our way out of sand pits.

For a break, I got a weekend in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. This was heaven.

In Gwanda I stayed at a “lodge.” Generators provided lights, but for only three hours a day. In Gwanda town, if you’re thinking about air conditioning … forget it.

There is, however, running water.

In Bulawayo, accommodations at the Banff Lodge are comforting and consoling.

There is actual good food.

No More Sadza. If you are wondering, Sadza is white cornmeal turned into stuff you pull apart with your fingers, then add to meat (goat, beef, chicken), plus vegetables. Yum.

And the libations are pretty good, too.

On a Saturday, I sat at a comfortable table, waited on by Margaret. She was efficient and personable.

A group of Asian gentlemen, accompanied by one woman, sit at the table next to me.

They were getting special service, I could see. They wanted big bowls to hold soup with noodles. Plus there were platters piled with Asian compatible foods. On the table there were platters filled with pistachios.

They had the serious attention of Banff staff.

I felt a little ignored because the stated dining hours start at 6:30 p.m. This, right beside me, was happening at 6:15 p.m.

The lone woman with the Asian group was clearly the arranger. She commanded the scene, made sure everything was truly in place.

But, there was one oversight. Someone said: “We forgot the chopsticks.”

Sometimes on these trips I realize there is something I really need … a good laugh. And I got it. There, presented to me by Lee Song and her friends, was a table full of Asians without chopsticks.

I savored my meal, a common salad and fish and chips, served with a lowly fork.

I tell the people with CNFA who I work for that the reward for this volunteering is seeing gratitude in someone’s eyes.

The farmers I work with receive information that would be basic for Americans: record keeping, budgeting, business planning, marketing strategies, financial planning.

Many here do not have reading or writing skills, so when a volunteer discovers something they have already done — on their own — it is a bonus.

These farmers in Paswana and Tsolopelwa have the “thank you” to the trainer down. On their final training day Friday, they hugged, took pictures, sang.

I bowed humbly to them, because in spite of hardships, they smile and continue. Their work is done without mechanical equipment, with nothing more than muscle. They use their hoes and haul water.

I’m pretty sure they don’t obsess about their hard lives.

They probably would have laughed about the problems for the people without chopsticks, too.

I’m pretty sure they don’t obsess about their hard lives.

They probably would have laughed about the problems for the people without chopsticks, too.