In coming to a country such as Zimbabwe I obviously expected there to be aspects of everyday life that I would have to get used to. It would have been foolish of me to expect otherwise. For example, I came prepared to experience Zimbabwe’s notoriously unreliable power grid and, predictably, I have already had to deal with a few random and at times lengthy blackouts. The same can be said for the lack of hot water and often terrifyingly aggressive traffic flow. All of these are deviations from my habitual life in Canada but did not manage to catch me by surprise.
What has caught me by surprise – and I fully realize how inconsequential this will sound compared to power cuts and death-defying traffic – has been the country’s complete lack of change. By change I don’t mean something’s inevitable evolution over time, but rather the jingle in your pocket, flip for heads or tails, kind. The whole country is absolutely devoid of coins.
I realized it when I first went to the grocery store. My uncle bought some stuff, I can’t remember what or for how much, but it came to a price that required him to receive change, we’ll say it was $24.35. He handed $25 over to the cashier and I stood there, waiting for him to receive his change. It never came. Instead, a strange little back and forth between him and the cashier took place.
“If I get this chocolate does that make up the difference?” he asked.
“No but if you get this chocolate too and a bag it will bring you close.”
“Ok, lets do that.”
It wasn’t until my uncle saw my perplexed look that he explained what had just happened.
Zimbabwe no longer has its own currency, that much I knew. The Zim dollar was abandoned in 2009 after one of the most epic and preposterous currency collapses in history. After disastrous land reform took place in 2000 Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed. Agricultural output plummeted and the country began resorting to importing food. Combined with serious security issues the whole economy crumbled. The much dreaded hyper inflation set in and in the summer of 2008 inflation reached an absurd 231,000,000%. The Zim dollar devalued so rapidly that the price of goods would change multiple times a day with small items such as a loaf of bread or a lollipop comically costing billions of dollars (equivalent to only a few bucks). The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe had to resort to printing 100 trillion dollar bills, of which one sits framed in my parents restaurant back home in Canada. The situation was bleak to say the least and many Zimbabweans did not make it through those dark days.
In 2009, the government decided to abandon the Zim dollar completely and the use of foreign currencies for transactions was legalised. There was a transition to the American dollar which is the most common currency in use. This transition, however, was not officially brokered with the U.S so, unlike other countries who legally make the switch, Zimbabwe didn’t receive it’s allocation of U.S currency from the Federal Reserve. The only American money it has in circulation then is what it gets paid from the few exports it makes and from foreigners, like myself, who come with fresh currency. What this means is the country has only a very small amount of bills that are actually in circulation and absolutely no coins. This has led to tattered bills that would normally be taken out of circulation to remain and the only coins to be South African Rands. Even those are rare. Some of the dollar bills passed around have become so faded and so dirty you can almost not even tell what denomination it is. The paper has become so thin and worn it feels like nothing between your fingers.
And so, with so little money in circulation, scenes like the one at the grocery store, where change is unavailable, have become everyday occurrences. Shoppers are forced to make up the difference of purchases with small items or forfeit the change altogether, something which an impoverished people is reluctant to do.
It’s strange what can take you aback sometimes. Coming from Canada, who would ever guess this could be the case. We take for granted cash registeres filled with money and convenient and exact transactions. What would create outrage at a store back home is simply a way of life here.
Until next time!