They Start Over After All Is Lost in Africa

Matt Ehlers, News & Observer, (Raleigh) October 19, 2008

In Zimbabwe, Wally Herbst would’ve left this kind of hard and dirty work to his hired hands. But in North Carolina, stripped of his vast African ranch and starting over at 58, his only hands are his own. So he bends to his filthy task, the removal of a bloated, dead pig that weighs more than 200 pounds, its stink thickening in the humidity of the July afternoon. He ties a simple knot with a piece of rope—a “bit of African technology,” he says—and pulls a loop tight around the pig’s hind legs. Using a 4-foot board as a ramp, Herbst yanks the carcass into the bed of a pickup.

In Africa, Herbst worked a 13,000-acre farm, part of which had been in his family for generations. He grew paprika that was exported to Spain, ran a successful safari business, raised cattle and employed more than 150 people during the busy harvest seasons.

That life ended in 2002 when men armed with automatic weapons evicted the Herbst family from its farm. In a land redistribution campaign overseen by President Robert Mugabe, political loyalists seized thousands of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe and turned them over to impoverished blacks.

The seizures wrecked the country’s agricultural infrastructure, leading to extensive food shortages and stratospheric inflation. The United Nations estimates that 1 million people have lost their livelihoods and homes as a result of the redistribution.

Herbst and his wife, Helen, are among them.

Theirs is a refugee story turned upside down. They were not poor political dissidents, but successful farmers whose skin color and economic achievement made them vulnerable in a violent, hostile environment.

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Nearly broke when they arrived a year ago, the Herbsts need to save money so they can eventually retire. Wally secured a visa and a job with a large hog operation near Greenville. It’s grunt work, but he does not complain.

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Dispossessed

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Wally and Helen, both born in Africa, were married in 1977 and have three children. They lived and worked in rural Matabeleland, a region in southwestern Zimbabwe.

Wally employed about 30 permanent workers, who lived in traditional African huts on the property. Their homestead was a three-bedroom, two-bath house that, until 15 years ago, depended on generators for electricity.

Chaos and violence has defined Mugabe’s 28-year presidential reign. In the 1980s, he dispatched troops to attack a rival tribe in a campaign that became known as the Matabeleland atrocities.

It was during this time that Wally found a mass grave on the farm. The police removed about 20 skulls, including those of children.

By 1997, Mugabe announced his plan to seize white farms and redistribute the land. Five years later, Helen was home eating lunch when an employee rushed to tell her that police were parked at the gate and wanted to speak with her.

Sitting at the kitchen table in the couple’s apartment in Ayden, Helen remembers vividly what happened next. Two Mazda pickups, bristling with armed police, were waiting for her. Their leader snatched the gate’s keys from the employee and turned to Helen.

“This is no longer your property. You have 24 hours to get out,” he told her. If you don’t, “we’ll kill you or put you in jail, whichever you prefer.”

It was not an idle threat. In 2000, war veterans killed a neighbor after he refused to leave his farm.

The Herbsts prided themselves on the relationships they formed with their black employees, many of whom worked with the family for years. The couple had provided a pre-school on the property for workers’ children, and a free health clinic where mothers could take their babies. Wally had hoped that his family’s longstanding ties to the area would spare his farm from seizure.

Frantic packing

In the end, it did not matter. With the help of neighbors and friends and their vehicles, the Herbsts were forced to pack up as much as they could. Police pilfered from the trucks as the woman who would be moving into their home gave demands.

The Herbsts were barred from removing anything needed to run the farm, including tractors. The farm would be turned over to a local politician, and his wife wanted some things inside the home as well.

This irritated Helen, who picked up a pottery vase her daughter Pam had made in school.

“I said, ‘Do you want this?’ and she said ‘yes.’ I drew my hand back, and I turned around and smashed it on the floor.”

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The Herbsts’ son, John, returned soon after to tend to the cattle, only to be kidnapped and held for ransom at the farm.

The kidnappers had gained access to the Herbsts’ bank records. They demanded exactly what the family had on deposit. Helen doesn’t remember the precise figure, but it was millions of Zimbabwe dollars. It took Helen five trips with a suitcase to fill the back seat of her car with enough money to free their son.

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Starting over

The couple who helped bring the Herbsts to America, Tom and Bonnie Ellis of Raleigh, first visited Zimbabwe in the late 1980s. Tom, an avid hunter who has since retired from the state Department of Agriculture, had always wanted to track game in Africa.

A travel agent sent them to the Herbsts, and he hunted sable on the family’s land.

The Ellises and the Herbsts became fast friends.

Tom and Bonnie have returned to Africa many times. After Wally and Helen were forced from their home, the Ellises treated the couple and their daughter Kelly to a Christmas trip to North Carolina.

Work in Africa dried up for Wally. Inflation climbed astronomically. A loaf of bread in Zimbabwe can cost more than $1 trillion Zimbabwe dollars.

The Herbsts decided to move abroad.

Says Wally: “Eventually, all our assets were gone, and we thought”—clapping his hands for emphasis—”let’s try America.”

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With Tom’s help, Wally learned to drive on the other side of the road than he was accustomed to. The Ellises helped the Herbsts navigate the red tape of auto-insurance rates, which treated them as brand-new, 16-year-old drivers.

Some of the adjustments were more subtle. When first arriving, Wally and Helen would sometimes stroll through stores and not buy anything. The abundance on the bread aisle alone was enough to make Wally smile. In Zimbabwe, the stores are bare.

At work, after managing so many people for so long, Wally found himself near the economy’s bottom rung. He worked long hours doing manual labor, and it was tough on his body.

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Climbing the ladder

In early August, things started to look up for Wally and Helen, even after he thought he might lose his job.

His boss told him about a possible downturn in the pig business and said it would be OK if he looked around for other work. With Tom’s help, he quickly had an interview with a Wilson County farmer who needed someone to oversee a pig and cattle operation. Wally’s visa is specifically designed for workers with specialized occupations. His decades in agriculture are what qualified him for it, and he will need to remain in farming to stay in America.

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They still don’t have much money. From time to time the Ellises give financial help, which Helen works to repay.

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Tom says they’re family. “They just needed a helping hand, and we could provide it, so we did.”

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Wally is here on a three-year visa that’s renewable for another three years. After that, if an employer is willing to sponsor him, he might apply for a green card. But that’s in the future.

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