Zimbabwe makes us criminals again
Dear Family and Friends,
Zimbabwe started 2024 with the news that that we’ve got the highest inflation rate in the world. Johns Hopkins Economist Steve Hanke, said that on the 4th of January our annual inflation was 1024%, 38 times higher than the rate stated by the Zimbabwe government. So, what’s it like living in a country with inflation of over a thousand percent? It’s not new to us but we are having to relearn the lessons of how to survive it.
The very first piece of information we go looking for every day is the exchange rate between Zimbabwe and US dollars and the second lesson is to only change small amounts of money at a time because the rate will have changed by tomorrow. As I write it’s hovering at around 11,500 Zimbabwe dollars for one US dollar, before Christmas it was at 8,000 to one. This must sound as alien to people reading this letter as it does to those of us living through it. A brief look back may help because the numbers change very, very quickly here.
In Feb 2019, one year after a coup ousted Robert Mugabe, and six months after Mr Mnangagwa got into power, the government reintroduced Zimbabwe’s currency, calling it the RTGS dollar. At that time, we were trading mostly in US dollars and the exchange rate was one US dollar for one Zimbabwe dollar but since then everything’s gone downhill, or should I say uphill.
A loaf of bread today is 13,200 Zimbabwe dollars, six months ago, it was 1,750 dollars. In six months a loaf of bread has increased by over 11,000 Zimbabwe dollars. The largest denomination bank note we’ve got is one hundred dollars so you need to count 133 pieces of paper to buy a single loaf of bread. How crazy is this?
The Central Bank continue to starve the market of Zimbabwe dollar bank notes forcing us to use US dollars and we all change our currency on the street because the bank rate is forcibly held far lower than you can get on the street. As I write you can get 6,100 Zimbabwe dollars for one US dollar at the bank or 11,500 on the street. It’s a no brainer which one to choose.
At one supermarket today a sign on a shelf says: SOUP, 50 US cents. With 4 packets in my hand I go to the till and asked the teller if he’ll be able to change a US$5 note and when he says he can’t I tell him I’ll pay in Zimbabwe dollars instead.
I watch the screen as the soup is rung up but each entry is for 75 cents. ‘Sorry, I think you’ve made a mistake, the sign on the shelf says soup is 50 US cents but you’re charging me 75 cents,’ I say. ‘But you’re paying in Zim dollars, so the price is up,’ the teller said. ‘That’s not legal,’ I say. ‘We have to restock our shelves,’ he declares boredly. ‘So do you want these things or not?’ And there’s the moral decision, do I want to go along with the illegality or not?
This is the reality of life in a country with the highest inflation in the world, our government have turned us all into criminals again.
At the next supermarket I paid with US dollars and they didn’t have 83 US cents change. ‘Bubble gum, chocolate or a pen,’ the teller says, trying to persuade me to buy something worth the value of the change. I don’t want any of the suggestions. ‘I’ll have a fresh mango,’ I say but that makes it worse because a mango is a US$1. In the end I give up, accept the chocolate and a bubble gum and give both to the security guard on my way out.
Next I go to a wholesale warehouse and as I’m leaving I see a wad of dirty US bank notes lying on the ground near my car. Picking it up I went back into the warehouse and held the money out to the security guard telling him where I’d found it, but he wouldn’t take it from me. Five young shelf stackers gathered round us to find out what was going on. ‘You keep it’ one of them said to me. I laughed and said: ‘no, it’s not mine, I’m not keeping it.’
By now everyone was looking at the wad of US dollars. Eventually one of the young guys takes the money from me and I leave. As I start reversing, I see them counting the money and everyone’s laughing. I turn back for one last look and everyone waves.
I knew that in that moment I had made my conscience theirs. This is something every Zimbabwean has been grappling with for over two decades since the government sanctioned the seizure of private property and everyone has to decide for themselves: do I take what’s not mine or do I stand on my integrity.
My last stop was on the side of the road where I knew I would find sanity I walked around the big muddy puddle and greeted an old lady sitting on an upturned red plastic crate. She is selling fruit and vegetables on a home-made stall made of planks and poles with torn black plastic overhead for shade.
I greeted her and asked how many bananas I could get for one US dollar. ‘Seven’ she says and puts eight in a small black bag for me. Smiling she says ‘one extra for you today, thank you for buying from me.’ That gave me the hope for Zimbabwe that I’d been looking for and it was there under a sheet of black plastic on the side of the road.
There is no charge for this Letter From Zimbabwe but if you would like to donate please visit my website. Until next time, thanks for reading this Letter From Zimbabwe now in its 24th year, and my books about life in Zimbabwe, a country in waiting.
Ndini shamwari yenyu (I am your friend)
Love Cathy 11th January 2024.
Copyright © Cathy Buckle https://cathybuckle.co.zw/
All my books are now available on Amazon and Kindle www.amazon.com/author/catherinebuckle The hardback edition of my evocative Photo-books: “Zimbabwe’s Timeless Beauty” (the 2021, 2022 and 2023 collections) and my Beautiful Zimbabwe Calendar for 2024 are available exclusively on LULU www.lulu.com/spotlight/cathybuckle2018. Please visit my website for further details, to contact me or to see pictures that accompany these letters https://cathybuckle.co.zw/