More plant and people photos

We are safely back in Oxford, and have great internet. We have been able to upload a few more audio files to sound cloud and have linked them to some of the relevant photos.

Excitingly we have added a whole lot of new photos, and have added captions and titles to many of the photos.

In the next week we will discuss and work out the potential for an exhibition and audio tour at the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens. If that goes well it will be a week of work to pull resources and ideas together but it is very exciting.


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The end of Africa

In a few short weeks we will be back leaving this continent for the UK which is both sad and exciting.

In the last month we have travelled from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Back to Kira Farm, Uganda overland (and water). Google maps said it should take 44 hours but we took a little longer. Depending on which route you take it is about 3200 km. We have spent about 130 hours on buses, trains, and a boat, and had some interesting experiences along the way featuring men with guns and driving past fresh new refugee camps. We have recorded no plant stories in this time as we have not stopped anywhere long enough to get to know people. We have seen some amazing things along the way that relate to plants and plant based food.

Rwanda and south west Uganda must be some of the most productive agricultural areas there are. And they are beautiful. Rwanda is known as the land of one thousand hills and this hilly landscape extends into Uganda. The agriculture is carried out on steep hill slides with terraces. This gives the landscape the appearance of having been draped with a green and brown patchwork quilt and is stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately we do not have great photos as we were only there for 3 rainy days and all the photos we took were out the bus window but here is one (out the taxi window) from the road between Kisoro and Kabale. IMG_6936 (800x600)

While we have not recorded any stories recently, we have put some work into cleaning up audio files, editing, and organising photos. Upon our return to Oxford we plan to contribute our material to the development of a Plant Stories audio walking tour at the Oxford Botanic Gardens, and hopefully put together an exhibition too. We have had very slow internet for quite some time now so it has been difficult to upload our work. We are looking forward to the UK and faster internet speeds.

Until then we are doing a weeks travelling in Uganda to some forest areas, and to the tourist mecca of Jinja. We will spend most of our last week at the wonderful Kira Farm, where we began our African journey.


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Zimbabwe– The good, the bad, and the food relief


A tourist in Zimbabwe could fly into the International Airport at  Victoria Falls, take a taxi to a very swanky hotel, go rafting, bungee jump, drive on good roads to Hwange where they could stay in a very upmarket safari lodge and see amazing wildlife, and then leave, making the claim that they have “done” Zimbabwe but they haven’t seen the half of it. Zimbabwe has (the semi functional skeleton of) amazing infrastructure set up during the Rhodesian times, and, in Harare and Bulawayo a burgeoning educated middle class but to imagine that is a fair representation of the whole country is to side step reality. We have had a glimpse of a very different Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe is a bit dry just now. It is not dry in the same way the horn of Africa was dry.  But crucially it is too dry for maize to grow. As a result, people are hungry.  I am not talking about the distended bellies of acute malnourishment that we’ve come to know from world vision ads in the early 90s – just people who are really hungry and trucks full of maize coming from Zambia being distributed by the government, and many and varied NGOs. And don’t get me wrong – there has been some rain. Flowers are flowering and many plants are green, but “the rains did not come” at a crucial time – that time was when the maize should have been growing.

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The result is acres and acres of maize which grew a bit, but crucially didn’t form kernels on the cobs.

People in Zimbabwe eat sudza – almost everyone, almost every day. Sudza is maize meal, or mealie meal, similar (but different) to polenta. Essentially it is white maize that has been smashed, had the kernal skins and some other bits removed, and then cooked until it is a cakey glueish lump of carbohydrate goodness.

For people to have enough to eat, Zimbabwe needs to produce 1.8 million – 2.2 million tons of maize each year (depending on who you believe). That is about 180 kgs per person per year or about half a kilo each per day.  This year the forecast production is about 1 million tons.  Normally large amounts of maize would be grown by the people who eat it. Maize is not only grown in rural areas, but also on roadsides in small towns, in peoples back yards, and even on the sides of some streets in Harare. It is grown everywhere (except in places that are always too dry, then millet, and sorghum are grown). 

Many people, rich and poor have a plot or field of maize to ease the food budget. At this stage it is probably appropriate to point out that the average annual income in Zimbabwe is just $313 US per year.  If you measure wealth by GDP (Which is a silly way, but does the job), then Zimbabwe is 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th poorest country in the world, depending on who measures it.  ( Human development index puts it slightly higher at  173rd out of 187 countries.) Maize production is obviously very closely related to rainfall and therefore rainfall affects GDP. However, since the late 1990s something else has been happening.


Land Reforms

When a farmer takes land from someone else, that is theft, therefore it is good and just to give it back, but when a farmer buys land from the government, then the government takes it back and occasionally beats up or kills the farmer, that is bad, and unjust. When this happens in a country where the economy is fuelled in a large part by those farmers, and the government gives that stolen land to people who do not have the training to manage large farms, maintain farm equipment, maintain storage facilities, recognise pests and diseases, or work international markets the way the previous farmers did there are dire consequences for all the other people in that country. The farms stop making money. This money stops going into the economy, and things start to fall apart.



Since land reform, things have not been so great and various things have come together to pull Zimbabwe down to being one of the poorest countries in the world.

So, when Mugabe came to power in 1980 the country looked ok, but since then, things have gone down hill pretty sharply. I don’t blame him for the lack of rainfall, but the empty grain silos, empty reservoirs, hyper-inflation in 2008, and failing infrastructure can be linked fairly directly to bad governance.  Kicking the white farmers off the land has not gone so well for Zimbabwe.  In addition to being illegal,  it has meant that Zimbabwe, once described as the bread basket of Africa, has started importing Maize (it cannot afford) from Zambia (often grown by the very farmers who were kicked off the land in Zimbabwe), and importing wheat from Russia.


I can only write this stuff as we have left Zimbabwe. Reporting there is illegal without a licence, and walking around with a voice recorder, laptop, business cards saying “Plant Stories Project” with a link to this blog kept us slightly nervous (we did in fact end up at the police station after taking an innocent photo of a market scene but more on that later).  Activists in Zimbabwe against some of the things I’ve mentioned occasionally disappear.

There is a lot more I could say but basically due to the actions of 1 man and his close associates, life for the average Zimbabwean is exceedingly difficult. They are lovely friendly people, and the country is an amazing place to visit. Please keep in touch with what is happening in this country, especially as elections, and a new constitution are in the pipeline. 

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For me, the irony in the above photo sums up the situation in Zimbabwe quite well.

Women walking up to 2 hours onto the farm where we were working, to spend the day illegally cutting firewood for cooking, then walking back under power pylons with up to 30kgs of wood on their heads,  to their homes, where there is no (or very occasional) electricity. This example is not from a rural area but from Bulawayo, the second city of Zimbabwe.  It is not even an example of extreme poverty – just a really stupid easily avoidable situation.


Data from the World Food Program

Estimated population: 12.3 million
Life expectancy at birth: 51.4 years
Under 5 mortality rate: 94/1,000 live births
Under 5 stunting rate: 34%
Adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate: 13.7%
Number of orphans: 1.6 million
People living on less than US$1.25 per day: 56.1%
People living below the national poverty line: 72%
GDP per capita: US$313.9
Global Acute Malnutrition rate: 2.4%
Chronically food insecure: 34% of households
Primary school enrollment rate: 91% (national)
2011 Human Development Index rating: 173 out of 187

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Working on outputs

A large focus of the Plant Stories Project is the educational outputs which we intend to produce. The aim is to put resources on the web so that individuals or organisations can piece them together ways that are most useful to them. We are still working on exactly how this will come about, but the first step is to get some of the photos with attached stories we have written down on flickr. We have added a photo bar to the side of this blog which randomly displays photos from the collection on flickr.  We already have a few videos on vimeo, and  have just started putting some of the audio we have collected on Soundcloud.  We are also working on some downloadable pdfs which pull together information on the plants for which we have stories. All in good time. All in good time.

There is a lot of work to be done and high speed uninterrupted internet is not always available in Zimbabwe but we are doing our best.   Hopefully we’ll get a whole lot of photos up, with stories in the coming week. Enjoy

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Hlekweni–and drip irrigation

After a fantastic 10 days travelling around some of the sites in Zimbabwe we are at Hlekweni Rural Training Centre near Bulawayo. We arrived in time for a four day break over Easter which was a great way to recoup some sleep after a number of early morning starts.

We have now been here just over a week and have mainly been working with computers and some brochure design etc. but we have also been out and seen what some of the students are working on.

A recent development has been the installation of a drip irrigation system. Food here is expensive and rains have been irregular at best. A bore hole and drip irrigation system is a sure way to guarantee your crops will produce fruit.  It is quite something to look at fields of maize that have failed. Digging and planting are all done by hand here so the first problem is the lack of return on time invested. The second and bigger problem is that you may not have enough food to feed your family.  Food in Zimbabwe is much more expensive than in the UK yet a teacher at a private school in Harare might only earn $1000 USD a month and the average income is just $313 per year. The World Food Program is doing its bit in some areas of Zimbabwe, but that is not an ideal long term solution.

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Gods Gardens

Amanda and I love to find natural areas that look like they have been gardened (and gardens that look like natural areas). This happens very rarely, as what we like in a garden requires balance, variety with simplicity, and a good colour mix. We are often looking at things at the wrong time of year, or one plant has taken over, or it has been dry and everything looks dead.

At Nyanga in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe we found perfection. There were amazing colour combinations, fascinating plants, and great textures. All this was set among rocks, and the occasional stump, with a great backdrop (of the rest of Zimbabwe).

The silver leaves plant is a Helichrysum (one of about a dozen that live there). The red is a Rumex (a dock). Orange flower balls on a stalk are Leonotis (probably molissima)

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There were also about a dozen types of orchid we found flowering which Amanda wrote about here

Just while I am talking about Zimbabwe – you should come here. At the moment it is safe. The people are very very friendly. And it is a beautiful country full of amazing plants living in a great variety of habitats. Enough said.

We collected a plant story from Benjamin – the ranger at Matobo who took us to within 5 meters of a white rhino. His more important plant is Mopane (Colophospermum mopane). He was the first person to find a plant important for an ecological reason – mopane trees stop erosion. He went on to tell us about their medicinal properties. Fantastic (wind ruined the recording but we have some great photos of him).


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Still alive

We are in Zimbabwe and loving it. We have recorded a few plant stories – Cotton, Maize x 2, Paper Bark Acacia.

Internet is less common here than we have been used to and we have been busy people but we are still here doing our thing.
Victoria falls today, game drive tomorrow.

It is very exciting times.


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