Adversity: The day I lost all my coffee cups.

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Lali Masriera via Compfight

If that seems like an odd title for a post on a blog that attempts to help you overcome adversity and live an extraordinary life, it is, but there is a very good reason for it.

Yesterday, I read a post by my good twitter friend Roberta on her More Thyme Than Dough blog about the ” life as the coffee, things as the cup” parable as told by a wise professor to a group of former students. The story has been doing the rounds on the web for some time. If you have not read it, go to Roberta’s blog and read it. Go there anyway, her words, recipes and amazing food photos are food for thought as well as nourishment for the body.

The point of the story is that life is what is important, not the “things” we acquire.

Reading the story again, reminded me how true that has been on a few occasions in my life, particularly the most dramatic and frightening one, which at the time seemed likely to be the final one. Although I have written about stories from my life here before, many in the category “Memorable Moments” as a blogging a book exercise, I have not related that one in detail. I thought it might be time to put it down on paper. Not to seek sympathy, but to show that, to use the coffee analogy, when you have lost all your own coffee cups, just the aroma of coffee is a gift and even a half filled paper cup of mediocre, luke-warm coffee can be like a taste of heaven.

In my story on the About Peter page, I have briefly described the events in Zimbabwe during the illegal farm seizures which started in mid 2000 and ended when, as the last but one operating farmer out of formerly 43 in our district and after weeks of severe intimidation, theft and death threats, I was grabbed by the police, interrogated for hours and thrown in a police cell.

Over the next few days I found out exactly what it is like to “lose all your coffee cups” – and not even smell any coffee. In the following weeks and months, I discovered how difficult it is to replace those cups, but more importantly, how unnecessary most of them are. 11 years later, I still haven’t replaced most of them, probably never will, but I am enjoying the coffee more than ever.

Here then is my story about that dark period of my life, how resilience and perseverance helped me overcome adversity and move on to a new chapter, new coffee experiences and a new life.

November 8th 2002, we had been subjected to increasing intimidation for over 2 years, visits from security police, political thugs, government officials, all telling us that the government was taking our farm, that we must move off as soon as possible leaving all our equipment behind. As time went on, the visits became more frequent and the visitors more aggressive, they were joined by groups of drunk, drugged or both, ruling party faithful, surrounding me on my motor bike on one occasion, trying to pull me off and beat me up. Gangs of “surveyors” drove around our farm driving steel pegs into our fields, lethal for animals feet and tractor tyres. They used government and private, pick up trucks, including one displaying in big letters that it had been presented to the Zimbabwe government by World Vision to fight Aids in Africa. Any wonder why I am no longer a fan of big-name charities?

In late September, the pressure was turned up, by now all our neighbours except one had been forced off their farms, crowds of illegal occupiers from neighbouring farms, trucked in by the government but left without any resources, poured through our fences every day to steal crops, equipment, fencing, to set snares for wild animals, to attempt to poison our dogs.

The government issued a decree, all farmers who were being, or had been, deprived of their farms and all their assets were compelled to pay their workers a “package” so exorbitant that it would have made the most ardent union organiser green with envy. The justification for this was that as the farm was being carved up into un viable plots for party faithful, judges, local officials and others, there was no place for the former workers, therefore their former employer should pay them enough to survive the rest of their lives. Inflation was then running in the 1000’s of per cent, the amounts to be paid out increased exponentially every day.

We had resisted all attempts to be forced off our farm, including two visits from the police attempting to take me by force. Finally the thugs came and forced our workers to stop work and demand their “package”. Our crops in the field could not be irrigated and were lost. As a still expanding operation, we had a large bank overdraft, with the intimidation, interference in our production and theft, our cash flow was rapidly dwindling, there was no way we could meet the demands for many millions of dollars. Some of our newer workers turned against us, piling lumber outside the gate in our security fence, barricading us inside for days at a time. They were joined by more political agitators, kept up all night chanting and beating on oil drums to prevent us from sleeping, lit fires all around the perimeter of our security fence and continually shouted that they would burn our house and trucks, kill our livestock and kill us if we did not leave.

Two of the mob barricading our gate.

Two of the mob barricading our gate.

The only reason they did not break down the fence was that I carried a pistol at all times, had a shotgun in the house and told them that if they came through the fence, I would shoot. They knew I was a good shot, had plenty of ammunition and as a former soldier would have no hesitation in shooting until I ran out of bullets. Other farmers had used their weapons to protect themselves and their families, some had subsequently been forced to leave when their houses had been set on fire by petrol bombs thrown over the fence. In one case when the farmer reacted to a sustained attack from a large group firing AK by returning fire, he was killed by an army and police unit sent in to execute him.

Calls to the police were met with one of a number of useless responses ranging from “we have no petrol / vehicles / time / policemen” to “just pay the people and leave your farm”. On two occasions my brother went to the village police station and transported police officers to our farm in his own vehicle. On their arrival, we were told that as white farmers we were enemies of the state, to hurry up and pack our clothes, leave everything else and the police would escort us off the farm after we had paid out the millions in extortion that was being demanded.

On the odd day that the mob got bored, hungry or tired and drifted away from our gates, we would drive into the village to get supplies, on two occasions between 6 and 10 men rushed out of the bush and jumped on my pickup truck before I could get up to speed, forcing me to drive to a government office where I was subjected to lengthy interrogation and threats in an attempt to get me to pay out the millions of dollars to my workers and leave the farm. There was no point in using my guns to stop this, even if I had shot all the thugs, eventually the police and army would have sent enough firepower to out gun us.

To buy time during one of the periods when the mob had departed for a few days, we contracted a private security company to guard our house and farm buildings. The guards were only armed with large sticks, the police would not allow them to carry guns. They did keep the mob away from our gates and reduce the amount of equipment being stolen, but they were not cheap. Finally we were able to sleep at night.

It is important to place on record the bravery of many of our workers who defied the mob and continued to work as best they could. Mildred our house maid walked through the mob every morning to come to work in our house. She can be seen in the photograph above waiting for the two thugs carrying poles to leave so she could squeeze through the gate. Others continued to care for our horses and cattle. Sadly, with the economy ruined, no jobs in agriculture and no possibility of leaving the country, we understand most of our former workers are now dead.

On the Monday of that last week, the pump on our main borehole (drilled well) was stolen. It was a large submersible pump.  Because it was over 500 meters from our house, for protection against theft, we had built a reinforced 9″ brick wall around the installation with a welded metal grille under the roof and a strong welded security gate with large well-protected locks securing it. That was not enough, a gang of determined thieves managed to break the walls, force open the gate and steal the pump. That was the water supply for our house, all our workers’ houses and our livestock.

We knew our days were numbered, but as a matter of principle, we refused to surrender, the farm was legally ours, had been in Sue’s family since 1956. We still, naively, hoped that Britain and the other Western powers, our former allies from WWII and directly responsible for creating the disaster in Zimbabwe would come to our aid and compel the Zimbabwe government to abide by the rule of law.

Our guards had followed the pump thieves tracks and followed them to the fence on our Western boundary, the neighbouring farm had been illegally occupied for some time and was a known refuge of criminals. Ironically, the police still attempted to investigate criminal acts. Ironically, because it was possible to be threatened by the police for political purposes and treated courteously by the same officers investigating a criminal act on the same day.

I had phoned the police to report the theft (and many previous thefts of equipment), I had phoned again with the information from the guards but there had not been any action.

Being extremely frustrated, I foolishly went to the police station on that Friday morning. Foolishly, because it was a known intimidation tactic for the police to arrest farmers on a Friday knowing that even with a top lawyer, there was no way to get a decision from a judge until the following Monday. It was a guarantee of a very unpleasant weekend. It also gave the mob a whole weekend to attack and trash an unprotected farm.

While standing in the charge office demanding to see a senior officer for an update on the pump theft, I was grabbed from behind by three security police in plain clothes and escorted across a courtyard to an interrogation room.

I was told that I was going to be questioned as I was suspected of:

  • Being an enemy of the state.
  • Refusing to comply with an order to leave my farm.
  • Insulting President Mugabe. (This was true, I had been overheard describing him as a terrorist).
  • Collecting and storing weapons of war.

When I demanded to know whether I was being charged with any of these offences, I was told that no decision had been made, but I would not be allowed to leave the police camp. I was told to wait, a police woman was told to guard me. After an hour or so, I told her I needed to get something from my truck, I was allowed to go to my vehicle and get my cell phone, I phoned Sue to tell her what had happened and asked her to contact our lawyer and get him to start the wheels turning for my release.

Although my situation got much worse over the next few days and my life would never be the same again, that day Friday, 8 November 2002, was the day I really did lose all my coffee cups, it started a chain of events that resulted in us losing almost every bit of material property that we possessed, our home, our business, our income, most of our animals, a move to a new country, new careers. But we still had our lives, we could still enjoy the coffee, no matter what type of cup it came in.

This story is too long for one post, I will continue it in the next post.

There are two important lessons in this story:

It does not matter how secure your life is, how wealthy, well-connected or skilled you are, your life can be turned upside down in a heart beat.

It’s not what happens to you in life, but what you do about it that counts, not the cups but the coffee.

 

Peter Wright

 

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