One of the best parts of the trip was meeting people along the road side. We were not supposed to take lifts, but it was difficult to refuse when you knew you were the only vehicle on the road for miles around and some old woman was trying to get her bag of clothes to the other side of the district. I also needed to talk to some people to get a sense of history out of them. It was all very well us sampling the vegetation and looking at the land use, but we were also trying to see how much the situation had changed, and get a feel for whether people were aware of and supported the idea of getting money for wildlife trophies and tourism rather than extensive farming. So, while Joe and Bob might be looking at the vegetation and the soils, I would go and find a nearby hut and see whether anyone would talk to me. My interviews with these people would never stand up in any critique of sociological survey technique, but I was finding some basic information that would help Ben Manyuchi who was our sociologist on the project in later months. I did manage to glean some interesting facts about the areas we were travelling through. What I think surprised me most was the mobility of the families and individuals in the region. Although many people were living miles from any main road or settlement, they or other members of their family would spend much of the week or perhaps months in Harare, catching one of the multitude of buses which headed up out of the valley and across the veldt. In the middle of fields I would come across young men who were teachers trained in England. One was an ardent Liverpool football supporter and made sure he travelled to one of the bars in the valley every Saturday to watch the matches from the satellite TV.
I had one experience which showed my deficiencies in interview technique. In the middle of a very sparse scrub, so many of the trees already shredded for fodder and firewood, were a bunch of small huts. They looked almost deserted apart from one very old woman who was sitting still at her hut entrance. I approached gently and saw her head move towards me. She was wrinkled from head to foot, her joints stuck out and stretched her leathery skin. She was squatting on a small wooden stool, her clothes wrapped around her slight frame and her bare limbs poking out at all angles. A bedraggled headscarf sat precariously on frizzy white unkept hair. It was fairly obvious that she was completely blind. Her corneas were blued out and she turned her ear towards me rather than full face. She knew good English and I was able to talk to her for a while. I found out she was originally from Malawi and her family were out in the fields somewhere about. But any line of questioning beyond that was just responded to with an affirmation or a repetition. What unnerved me the most was the way that this lady of over 90, who had probably had much more experience of life than I, at the time 24 years, had had or perhaps ever will have, kept calling me “master”. Whether it be a throwback to colonial times she had lived through, or an unhealthy servitude towards any form of officialdom, or just a manner of her English speech, I would never discern, but it made me realise how much I was intruding on these people and that my line of questioning was probably giving me little information – it was either reinforcing my own opinions as people were willing to give you the answers you sought, or just raising suspicion amongst a group of people who had seen researchers come and go with no discernible improvement in their lives. After my time with that old lady, I both curtailed the enthusiasm for talking to people and changed my technique in asking the questions.
But talking to people was inevitable in the heavily populated areas close to the rivers and escarpment. One day, when with Knowledge, he decided that the best way to talk to people was to go to a town and get in amongst them. His conclusion came from the fact that he thought that the way I was just picking individuals at each rural location was not yielding huge opinions. In a way he was right – it would be more useful to reach the gatekeepers as sociologists sometimes call them; the people who both yield power, know the history of the place and can communicate it effectively and objectively. I have some suspicion of this approach as it often just gets you to the loud mouths and those who think they yield the power. In many African communities, the women are pushed to the back of such a throng as they are not perceived as knowledgeable enough, but in fact since they do most of the farming and household chores, they would be worthy interviewees.
So we followed Knowledge’s advice and at the next settlement, where a market was in full flow, we stopped Judith and got out in amongst the throng. I was rather nervous as there were about 100 men and several women and children in this market area. It was the most basic of markets; a series of rugs and baskets on the floor with all manner of knickknacks being sold; food in the form of vegetables, nuts and fruit, a few pots and pans, baskets for sale, loads of little hardware items like locks and hoes, pipes, guttering, and the ubiquitous cigarettes and sweets. The arrival of Judith generated a huge amount of interest and before I had got off her footplate, a throng of inquisitive bodies were squeezing up against the Land Rover. Knowledge, with the patronising nature that befitted his Harare Chiefdom roots, quickly moved the people back a way so I could at least breathe. I started talking to the nearest people about what we were trying to do, flashing some hard copy prints of the satellite images we were using.
Everyone was interested but no-one answered my questions, but then a small posse headed away from me. I was wondering what was going when they re-emerged from a nearby store with a small man. I could not get a close look at him until the crowd in front of me parted and this wizened man of about sixty came right up to me and stared me right in the chest. He was wearing a Davy Crocket hat; why he needed so much fur on his head in this heat, I have no idea. He had a small whitish beard and the complexion under his facial fur and wrinkles was lighter than many of his co-villagers. His checked shirt was worn at the edges but was originally of a fine cut, and he stood in a dominating manner, despite his diminutive size. He was also half cut and it was only ten thirty in the morning. Knowledge introduced him to me as the chief. I started to explain to Knowledge that I wanted to tell the Chief about the project and the lands. The Chief interrupted me and in a dramatic pose said in clear English that he wanted me to speak directly to him. So I showed him the satellite image in my hand and started to explain. He concentrated hard on the image for about ten seconds, then stepped back impatiently and said to Knowledge for him to explain in Shona.
The conversation followed on from there without further embarrassment. The chief nodded enthusiastically as I explained the project to him, and answered the questions on the history of land development very enthusiastically. He told me some enlightening experiences of the CAMPFIRE programme, where wildlife were being used as an economic tool. One of the aspects of the CAMPFIRE programme is to give farmers compensation if a wild animal damages his crops. The most usual culprits are the elephants. The idea is that the rogue elephant comes down from one of the wilderness areas to plunder the rich crops in the village. The farmer can get a message to the local CAMPFIRE office which organises a shooting party. The elephant is shot and the meat distributed amongst the locals, and a payment is made to the displaced farmer.
That is the theory, but the chief told me the practice in his village had been worse than useless. For one thing, the damage is done before the farmer can get his message to the CAMPFIRE; the elephant sneaks down in the night and has escaped back up to the forest before any action can be taken. Secondly, although the whole village benefits from any CAMPFIRE money raised, for the individual farmer who has lost his years of crops being trampled or eaten, there is no real recompense in any small money bag handed over. He has no security for the following year.
I was fascinated by the Chief’s stories, although I had to stand very patiently as he rambled in his half drunken stupor and waited for most of the crowd to agree unanimously with everything he said. At the end of half an hour in this market place, we really needed to move on, but as I started to make great thanks, the Chief shouted in pure English that “Now you buy me Scud”. I thought it was the least I could do after all the information he had given me, and he agreed “I gave you something, now you give me something”, and he laughed, and the whole village laughed around me. He took me by the hand and forced me through the parting crowd, leaving Bob, Joe and Knowledge standing back in a bewildered state. We entered the shop from where I had first saw him and he led me up to a Spartan wooden bar. He shouted “Scud” and instantly a plastic container was put on the table.
I had been told about Scud, I had seen hundreds of the small plastic barrels that it came in, on lorries, next to bars, in people’s hands. But I had yet to taste it. It was an intoxicating mixture of brewed maize meal (“foodanddrink” as people always would tell me when they had one in their hands), the colour of which I never found out because you drank it straight from these brown barrels with their dark blue caps. Its real name was Chegutu, after the town where it was made, and traditionally it was drunk out of wooden gourds. But with the inevitability of progress, plastic containers were easier to produce and transport and so these strange containers were born. In 1991, hoards of intoxicated Zimbabweans were watching the war against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and saw that the rough missiles used by the Iraqi’s against Jerusalem and other cities, the “Scud” missiles, were very similarly shaped to these barrels, and the name Scud stuck.
It is not an unpleasant drink, rather yeasty and with occasional bits of maize sticking in your teeth. But I was a little shocked when the Chief ordered a second Scud and expected me to drink it. At this time in the morning and with half a day’s field work still to come, this was a bit of a shock. I took a few mouthfuls under the inspecting gaze of Davy Crockett. I said how good it was and he seemed satisfied that I had not breached any diplomatic rules he was setting out. I pleased him even more when I handed over the money for both drinks, and he was ecstatic when I left three quarters of the two pint barrel for him to finish and I went out to rejoin the rest of the field crew.