The Tobacconist

Dated: 19 FEB 18

Never take someone’s advice! Or at least heed their’s with a generous pinch of salt. Everyone is eager to warn me of endless hills or blistering heat, which is great, but the hills never seem to be insurmountable and I pack plenty of sun cream. Though my ego may become insurmountable. I’m called ‘strong man’ or told with a slap on the thigh ‘you are strong’ on a daily basis . Who knows, maybe I will finally rid myself of my chicken legs. Though they do question why I’m still single, the standard curiosity as to why a thirty year old man isn’t married continues to be a daily query. I never thought anything of it until I was asked the follow up question of ‘what about sex’ it would seem that they assume I’m a thirty year old virgin.

I’m well into the swing of camping rough but sometimes it’s bloody good to have a shower. Late in the day I start the hunt for a good spot for my bivouac, but the ideal pitch is at a farm or homestead: God they treat you well. When staying at the Happy Land Guesthouse outside of Gweru I was offered to camp for free as a way to support my cause, Save the Children. The staff whisper to me that she is very religious and wants to do what ever good deeds she can – no complaints from me! I go about my usual routine and have a bird bath, washing my honking kit in a sink. As I’m hanging the stuff out on the line the girls are very surprised that I’ve done my own washing. In the early evening a storm is a-coming and they are worried that I will get washed out of my tent. Despite my assurances, they wouldn’t believe me that my tent is waterproof and I found myself tucked in bed with a good book and a roof. What a treat.

I’m well on my way to Harare and pull in for the night at a farm. I ask the owner at the gate if its ok if I pitch my tent on the grass outside. He goes off to check with the boss, his wife. It’s a small tobacco farm with two smokers or barns. Emma, a round woman in her late fifties, is in charge. She mothers me, asking if I’m well fed and not too tired. I’m led to the back of the barns, where the wood fires are heating the the rafters, full of green moist tobacco leaves. McDonald is the farm hand. I love his choice of name. He is as far from a pasty ginger Scot as someone could be. He is ordered to sweep the ground which has been picked for my tent. Although I assure Emma that it doesn’t need sweeping, she is farm proud and poor McDonald stops what he’s doing and bends down to sweep the dirt despite my offer to do it myself and my objections!

Now there are some draw backs to peoples generous hospitality. Emma wont stop fussing and chatting. We sit chatting by the fires, eating monkey nuts which are roasted on the fire. I’m pretty ripe after six days with no flowing water and could really do with a few minutes to clean up. I’ve been told that I will wash in the bath house come the morning but I’m weary. I’m not entirely sure if she intends to give me a sponge bath or if I will be permitted to wash myself, I don’t imagine her to be particularly gentle. My stomach is rumbling, it’s past nine now and I’ve not eaten. McDonald’s sister is cooking dinner and I’ve been invited to join. Pre dinner I’m told to change (she’s a slave driver) so I get in my tent. Tents are pretty thin; I cant just put clean clothes on so I feel pretty creepy as I strip off and do a wet-wipe wipe down in the confines of my mobile home, practically curled up in the foetal position with them so close it seems they are in there with me.

Dinner is sadza with meat. Sadza is a ground maize and has the consistency of mash potatoes crossed with a dumping. You eat with your right hand, rolling a small ball of the stuff then compressing a divot to form the spoon. I was wondering why dinner took so long to appear but apparently meat is reserved for guests so I suspect that my late appearance led to them busting out the good stuff and delayed McDonald’s one meal of the day. To make matters slightly awkward between myself and McDonald my portion was epic in proportion to the point that I couldn’t fit all the dense sadza in me. I had requested that we swap plates but once again I was hospitably refused.

The fires raise the temps of the barns which are full of neat rows of browning leaves to 70C, they will burn for a week before the leaves have dried enough to be bundled. Take a look inside and the nicotine infused air will tickle your throat. I stay up stoking the fires until I become a nodding dog and have to excuse myself, after all I usually go to bed at sunset. In the morning I get up early and prep my stuff for the day. When Emma arrives, I’m ready to leave without my sponge bath.

Strangely enough the next day when staying at a friend’s farm outside of Harare, I find myself on my second tour of a tobacco farm but this time on a commercial scale. I normally get bored on tours, but this was something completely different. Huge trolleys of leaves line the barn which is kept at the optimum temperature and humidity. These trolleys are propelled by the workers clad in nothing but their skivvies. As we had women with us, they used a towel to retain some dignity, though they just ended up looking like they were wearing loin cloths to me.

Now if you want to get in shape and get your beach body ready, sack off crossfit or whatever the latest fitness fad is and get yourself a job in a tobacco farm. These chaps are serious lean machines, pushing around tonnes of tobacco in a giant steam room. The sorting warehouse, where the leaves are graded and bundled ready to be shipped to China, looks like something Pablo Escobar would be proud of. The sort of place drugs are made. And I suppose in some ways it is, just legal nicotine rich tobacco.

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