After a year of peace and plentiful rain, my farm in Kenya is fantastic. Peace, rain — leave a farmer alone and he can just get on with growing food for Africa. So my thoughts are with my fellow farmers Gary and Jo Hensman, both in their seventies, who last month were chased off their property by thugs in Zimbabwe. Two decades after Mugabe began his disastrous farm invasions this story has gone entirely unnoticed by the world — but November was a busy month for Zim.
Police attacked civilians in Harare. Colonial streets were rechristened after heroes such as Leonid Brezhnev, Mao Zedong, Castro — and President Emmerson Mnangagwa himself (ten of them). Hyperinflation zoomed above 350 per cent and more than half of the population were starving. Just as the government allocated the budget for the launch of a space rocket programme, British diplomats arrived to top up the £550 million in aid taxpayers have already splurged on Zimbabwe over the past five years. ‘No money is given directly to the government,’ said the UK bumph, but the Zanu-PF comrades were licking their lips. ‘Boris Johnson is in
a hurry to usher in a more positive and exciting chapter in London–Harare links,’ said one, predicting ‘bountiful prospects’.
As the British were hobnobbing with Mnangagwa, in Mashonaland West the Hensmans were being surrounded by riot police armed with assault rifles, plus a dozen goons who looted their home of booze, money and valuables. Led by a court sheriff, the men threw the rest of the Hensmans’ belongings out of the home where they have lived for 55 years. Cattle, sheep and horses were pushed out of the farm into the bush and when the pigs wouldn’t go they had rocks chucked at them. After dusk the farm locks were all changed and the elderly couple were homeless with all their dogs (13 of them). ‘Bloody traumatic,’ Gary told me on the phone from his daughter’s home some distance from the farm. ‘My wife was in tears. I don’t blame her.’
Gary’s family has been in Zimbabwe for a century this year. In 1959 his dad bought 1,000 hectares and they farmed wheat, soya, cotton and maize. During Mugabe’s land reforms, his holding was reduced to 348 hectares. ‘We hung in there.’ Two years ago a mob invaded and he was reduced to 200 hectares. By now he had switched to dairy farming, producing milk for hungry people. A few weeks ago a minister arrived in the local town and spoke to Gary. ‘He said, “We want you white farmers to stay — grow crops.” That was the best news I’d heard because that’s what we’re good at. That’s all I want to do!’ But a few weeks later the Hensmans were told their house and remnants of the farm were now the property of a Zanu-PF hotshot and somebody’s girlfriend. Gary, who has gone to court 38 times since 2005 to defend his right to live on his land, feels confident Mnangagwa’s government is much better than Mugabe and that he will be back at home by Christmas. I lack his optimism and ask what happens if he stays homeless. ‘Go fishing on Kariba,’ he laughs. God, Zimbabweans are tough.
I ask about his ten farm workers. ‘They are fantastic,’ he says warmly. ‘They’re guarding the livestock.’ A black Zimbabwean neighbour is sheltering cows in her paddocks. He says most of his neighbours are ‘fantastic’. Hundreds of black Zimbabweans from as far away as Harare have contacted the Hensmans, offering them shelter, space for their animals, or just love. ‘I walked into a shop the other day and seven people came up to hug me and shake my hand. They said: “We hope you’re going back.”’ Until this point Gary’s strong voice has not wavered during our chat but now it cracks with emotion. He says: ‘Where else would you find such people in the world? Fantastic.’
Recently a Ugandan Asian friend of mine told me his wealthy relatives in England keep a portrait of Idi Amin on their wall. Each time they pass it they say: ‘Thank you for deporting us.’ If Priti Patel does introduce a points system for immigration to the UK, Zimbabwean farmers who can’t currently get any right of abode would do very well, as in my experience they are enterprising at whatever challenges they face after all their ordeals. I ask Gary if he’d like to leave Zim and he says: ‘I don’t need a UK passport. I was born here and I will die here.’ I completely understand his love for home, but why must it be so hard! Post-Mugabe, the nightmare continues for all Zimbabweans — but in among that I wonder if anybody will stand up for the Hensmans. ‘I like white farmers,’ I heard Boris say on a visit to Africa two years ago. I hope he still does.