Zimbabwe: The land of pedestrian billionaires

HARARE – As I was about to step into a public taxi in Harare's Unity Square, a shout drew my attention. "Ladies and gentleman, the fare is cheap today — one million Zim dollars only," boasted the scruffy young taxi-rank marshall. "If you don't have change don't board."

I had just withdrawn my new maximum amount of Z$100-million from the bank after six hours in the queue. That made me rich enough by Harare’s standards: I could afford 100 trips in and out of town.

But a new sense of funny reality began to unravel inside me as I took a closer look at the new red Z$100-million dollar note. A queue started to form behind me in the taxi rank. The anxious crowd was keen to go home and escape Harare’s evening thunderstorms.

Each of the commuters held a red Z$100-million note, but complained that despite their newfound riches they could not afford the Z$1-million taxi ride home! I thought they were being illogical until a young retail assistant uttered to me the words: "Change, buddy."

Forget cholera and hunger. The new kid on the block of crises in Zimbabwe is change.

I decided to take a laidback walk to the nearby Nandos and buy two loaves of bread and tea. After a short wait in the queue the bill came to Z$30-million. When I produced my red Z$100-million, the cashier frowned and looked aside.

"We don’t have change, mukoma [brother]. Your money is too big. Next!" she said, stuffing small notes from the till into her handbag. I dropped the goods back on the shop’s empty shelves.

But I reasoned that a pint of my favourite Windhoek Lager would do the trick. As I beat the pavement to my favourite bar at Ximex Mall, I couldn’t help cursing Gono, the country’s all-powerful central bank chief. A day earlier I’d been praising his name for having raised the cash withdrawal limit to Z$100-million per week.

The dimly lit bar was full but only two patrons were drinking — even though a pint was a mere Z$20-million. "Ray, I can serve you," said the barman, smiling. "But if you buy one beer, I won’t have the Z$80-million change you’ll need."

To my disbelief he proposed that I use the whole Z$100-million to buy five lagers, informing me that the patrons killing time in the bar had the red notes but couldn’t afford a lager costing Z$20-million — all for lack of change.

As my frightening new situation dawned on me, I saw young men just outside the bar holding bundles of old notes. At first I thought they were the now familiar forex dealers. But then I was astonished to see a new form of lucrative trade –exchanging your Z$100-million note for Z$20-million denominations.

For this you paid: the streetboys were pocketing Z$20-million a time. "It is up to you to take up our deal, shamwari [friend]," bellowed the leader of the street dealers, "or you can walk home with your red Z$100-million note in your pocket."

At first I thought it was daylight robbery, needing the attention of the Anti-Corruption Commission. But as the night and the rain descended I was left with no option but to trade the red note.

Never mind about forex: the new gold in Zimbabwe is change. Those with access to lower denominations are selling them with interest and raking in super-profits overnight.

As the squeaky taxi roared towards Avondale surburb every soul inside was nodding their head and muttering the word "change". And hordes of people with single Z$100-million notes were walking home just because they didn’t have Z$1-million notes for a taxi. What a land of pedestrian millionaires!