22.09.2009 - 24.09.2009
There are stories – and true stories at that – of people going into shops to buy something. Whilst waiting to pay, the shop assistant had a phone call to be told that the currency had changed again, and that prices were now double. The customer, not having enough money, walked out to get some and came back 10minutes later to pay the new price. Whilst trying to pay for the second time, news came through that the currency had jumped again. The Zimbabwean Dollar in the late 90's and early-mid 00's descended into such hyper-inflation as to be utterly meaningless. Notes with ever increasing numbers of zeros on them were produced, culminating with a note of 100 Trillion. That is, 14 zeros.
Clearly, this could not continue.
And so after making it illegal to exchange Zim Dollars to hard (foreign) currency – though pretty much everybody converted their wages on the black market anyway – common sense kind of broke through, and the Zimbabwean dollar was officially withdrawn. Certain factors of the government want to see its re-introduction, arguing that Zimbabwe is a proud independent country and should have its own currency, although to this point these factions have yet to win through. Which all basically means that the once strong Zimbabwean financial system is a bit messed up, although you wouldn't necessarily know it from walking around Harare where large, gleaming offices of banks dominate much of the city centre.
Zimbabwe now officially uses the US Dollar: Government wages are paid in dollars, and all prices quoted in them. Refreshingly, Zimbabwe is also one of only 2 African countries (DR Congo being the other) that I have visited that do not care about crispness. Trying to use any note in most of Africa that is any way marked, torn, dirty or not looking in pristine condition is futile. In Zimbabwe, however, money is to be used, not looked at, so dirty well worn bills are the norm.
It is not quite as easy as all that, though.
Prices are given in dollars and cents, but there are basically no cents anywhere in Zimbabwe. You rapidly learn to mentally add up your shopping to ensure that you get as close to a round dollar number as possible to avoid loosing out. You also become accustomed to receiving sweets and candies as change to top up the sum. This is not unique to Zimbabwe – I have received sweets in Zambia, Malawi and Kenya on occasions – but is certainly much more regular in Zim. It does at least mean that you are not loosing out, although really the only people that can be happy with this situation are sugar addicts, kids and dentists.
An extra layer of confusion is then added by the fact that in most shops and establishments, you can also pay in other currencies at rates posted near the tills, and as these are not changed daily, if you know what you are doing and follow the market you can often get better value for money. But that leads to a situation where at least 4 currencies (USD together with South African Rand, British pounds and Euros) can be used interchangeably, whilst in places this rises to included Swiss Francs, Botswanan Pula and even Japanese Yen and Chinese Yuan Reminbi. Any change, naturally, is generally given in USD (and sweets) leading to some brain frying calculations. But apparently, this multiple currency system makes life easier. Hmmm.
The finally whammy is that whilst Zimbabwe has a good network of ATM's, at the moment pretty much none of them work: Allegedly, the system is in the middle of being converted to pass out USD, but at the moment getting any money in Zimbabwe means either bringing it into the country with you, or queuing for many hours (or days) to get into a bank and talk to a teller there. Such fun.
But it definitely makes life a bit interesting, and so for me, it's no problem.