Zimbabwe started 2024 with the news that we have the highest inflation rate in the world. Johns Hopkins economist Steve Hanke said that on 4 January our annual inflation was 1 024%, 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 Z$11 500 for one US dollar; before Christmas, it was at Z$8 000 to one.
This must sound as alien to people reading this 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 February 2019, one year after a coup ousted former president Robert Mugabe and six months after Emmerson Mnangagwa got into power, the government reintroduced Zimbabwe’s currency, calling it the RTGS [from real-time gross settlement balances] 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 Z$13 200; six months ago it was Z$1 750. In six months, a loaf of bread has increased by over Z$11 000.
The largest denomination bank note we have is Z$100, so you need to count 133 pieces of paper to buy a single loaf of bread. How crazy is this?
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe continues to starve the market of Zimbabwe dollar banknotes, 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 Z$6 100 for one US dollar at the bank or Z$11 500 on the street. It’s a no-brainer as to which one to choose.
At one supermarket, a sign on a shelf says: SOUP, 50 US cents. With four packets in my hand, I go to the till and ask the teller if he’ll be able to change a US$5 note. 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 replies.
“That’s not legal,” I say.
“We have to restock our shelves,” he says, bored. “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 has turned us all into criminals again.
At the next supermarket, I pay with US dollars and they don’t have 83 US cents change. “Bubble gum, chocolate or a pen?” the teller asks, 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 US$1.
In the end I give up, accept the chocolate and 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 go back into the warehouse and hold the money out to the security guard telling him where I’d found it. He wouldn’t take it from me. Five young shelf stackers gathered around us to find out what was going on.
“You keep it,” says one of them.
I laugh and say: “No, it’s not mine, I’m not keeping it.”
By now everyone is 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 maintain my integrity?
My last stop was on the side of the road, where I knew I would find sanity.
I walk around the big muddy puddle and greet an old lady sitting on an upturned red plastic crate. She is selling fruit and vegetables on a homemade stall of planks and poles with torn black plastic overhead for shade. I greet her and ask how many bananas I can 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 I’d been looking for, and it was there under a sheet of black plastic on the side of the road.