My 60-year old father’s finger wagged as he pointed west, north, and south across the wattle and pine tree timber plantations, with old-charm Scottish names like Westward Ho, Tilbury, Lord Bullock, Plankett, and Glencore.
“My sister was buried here in 1960,” he mused, “or perhaps it was over there.”
These remnants of European colonialism live on, still, in Chimanimani, a vast rural district in eastern Zimbabwe. My father was born here in 1945, and grew up among the thousands of Black families who were expelled to the hot, low-lying valleys of eastern Zimbabwe in the 1950s, to make way for British colonial timber plantations.
My father opened up to me about it in 2006, a year before his death. “We abandoned entire family graves. That’s what I weep over.”
A Violent End to Colonial Timber Profits
In the 1920s, British colonisers in Zimbabwe expelled Black inhabitants from their fertile farmlands to hot valleys. Hunger shadowed Black lives until they had no choice but to offer themselves as cheap labourers on white, European-held farms. These diabolical land grabs persisted until the early 70s when an armed rebellion was launched by Black guerrillas promising to return land to the Black masses.
But when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 and the British flag was torn down, the return of land ownership to the locals never materialised. White farmers continued to hold on to over 60% of the fertile farmland, because colonial-era laws guaranteed European farmers’ “property rights.”
For decades, Black grievances over the broken land promises bubbled just under the surface. But in 2000, the increasingly corrupt and de spised Black government encouraged thugs to seize prime land from European owners. This deceitful political tactic, disguised as restoring land to Black Zimbabweans, was really a ploy. A violent melee began in our district, bands of government-sponsored plantation invaders bussed in from hundreds of kilometres away, burnt hectares of land, trapped wildlife for fun, and ransacked timber mills in the name of “correcting a historical land-theft crime.” None were locals.
It took the colonial lumbermen up to 20 years to start honouring our community graves that today lie blanketed by the soft, quiet pine forest floor. Every year, the colonial plantation owners would summon our community’s elders, and sponsor opportunistic breweries. It was thought to pacify timber spirits—a native belief among the locals that ancestral spirits are the spiritual owners of the timber forests.
A Family of Black Lumberman
I come from a family of Black Zimbabwean lumbermen. My father ́s only surviving sibling, a celebrated forester, was the first in our district to visit Finland on a sawmiller’s course sponsored by the colonial regime back in 1979. In the 90s, all my cousins made a living driving American-made trucks to vast forested valleys where they would spend their days bulldozing timber logs.
Growing up, thousands of people, even in East Zimbabwe, depended on smoky timber mills and vast forests to earn a livelihood. Earnings were usually spent on basic necessities like food, firewood, medicine and school fees; or on occasional musicians hired by European plantation owners to entertain native labourers.
“Pulling logs up forested valleys was a risk. A muddy log once landed on my windscreen, that’s only what saved my face from being crushed,” says Solomon Mwareya, 49, a veteran lumber lorry driver. “The free gigs were essentially bribes to make timber workers accept low wages. What I regret most is how heavy lumber work made Black workers turn to all types of strong beer, first as a way of coping, and later a lifetime addiction.”
A Free-for-All Timber Looting
Today, the famed colonial timber fields of East Zimbabwe are barely recognisable. A dogged fight has broken out among Black elites over the timber plantations—there are no more crops or cash to loot elsewhere. And Chinese prospectors are moving in to harvest the timber, triggering envy and greed among Zimbabwe’s elites who want to join in on the plunder.
“Timber forests, untouched for years, are the new frontier for selfenrichment in Zimbabwe,” says Saviour Kasukuwere, an exiled former Zimbabwean minister, who once headed the country’s environment ministry. “It’s hard to say this is wrong because the colonialists benefited from the pillaging too. It’s improper to say this is good greed, too, just because it’s Blacks’ chance to eat too.”
But Gerald, nicknamed the “The Terminator,” who leads a band of timber harvesting marauders tells me it is a “Catch-22 situation.” “Chinese business can strike fortune in our timber treasures if we watch and fold hands just like Europeans cut and shipped our timber for over 50 years.”
For John Siwela, 60, a retired log saw operator who cut timber from 1975 to 1999, it is the brandishing of guns by timber marauders that alarms him the most. “The new Black timber swaggers and their thugs don’t hesitate to unbuckle a gun if you try to stop them from burning unripe wattle trees,” he says. “I’m having sleepless nights over how Black elites will someday expel local Black communities again when timber forests vanish and gold mining picks up in the forests. Its ugly history is out to repeat itself.”
I’m Unsure Whether to Condemn the Colonial Timber Legacy
In recent times, Zimbabwe ́s lumber production and exports have plummeted; its mill men are impoverished, its timber fields lie desolate and international buyers shun the country ́s lumber.
“If nothing is done, soon Zimbabwe, for the first time, will start importing timber instead of exporting timber,” says Darling ton Duwa, the chief executive of the Zimbabwe Timber Producers Federation.
But I’m caught in a moral dilemma, watching at close range. I want to condemn the new violence and plunder of ex-colonial timber plantations. But it is newly gentrified Black lumbermen who are the ones out to take over the mills, milked by colonial corporations for over half a century.
Sidwell Mhondera, my 50yearold uncle who for ten years worked as a barman serving drinks in a whites-only timber plantation pub, is unfazed about the new Black elites and their thugs exchanging blows for prime timber.
“I’m rubbing my hands in glee wanting to join the timber race,” he says candidly. “This is a first chance for us Black Zimbabweans to make timber money in half a century, even via dubious ways. The European timber landowners were brutal and rogue on Blacks; the Chinese arriving now, will probably do similarly. I’m Black, why not join the cake too?”
Who should I be angry at? The co lonial timber barons that exploited our families’ labour and legacy and 15 uprooted them from their land; or the new band of Black timber crooks out to sell forests to the highest bidders?
Anger is easy. The tricky part is knowing who to blame.