September 26, 2014
Zimbabwe suffered from skyrocketing inflation during my visit to this country in November 2007. The hyperinflation noted over 66,000 % and the IMF expected a rise till 100,000 % by the end of the year. This development took place notwithstanding the government’s statement that inflation was illegal. The highest denomination was Z$ 500,000 by July 2007, valued at about US$16 at the official exchange rate.
Shortage of the most basic food supply was notorious. Shelves in shops and supermarkets were empty and people lined up for bakeries, greengrocers or other basic daily provisions in the center of the capital Harare. Prices were super high in Zimbabwean dollars but paying in US dollars using the official exchange rate was outrageous.
My colleagues at the office proposed to exchange US $ into the local currency at the informal market. I exchanged 200 US dollars for four days. The result was staggering. I got a huge pile of bank-notes with the denomination of Z$ 100,000 tied in rubber bands. I had to empty my shoulder bag to fill it with my treasure and still I needed a large plastic bag. The exchange rate was 1 US $ for 700,000 Z$.
Back in the hotel I counted the smelly dirty notes. I was struck to discover that I was a millionaire for four days. After the closing of government offices at 16.00 I strolled to the shopping center with a huge bag full of millions of dollars on my left shoulder. I felt myself as the super-rich Uncle Dagobert of Donald Duck. However I could not feel good and safe recalling the warnings for the dangers on the street.
My first experience spending my richness was in a hotel bar. I handed over to the bartender few piles of banknotes for one glass of beer. Yes, I was a rich man.
The next day I spent some time in a department store. At the counter I put piles of tied notes of Zimbabwean dollars for my purchases. The cashier counted the notes, one by one and pile after pile. He had on his right hand middle finger a rubber finger-cap with buttons (as it was the case in post offices and banks) to be sure for a correct counting. It took some time. Finally he nodded with a great smile confirming that the amount was correct and that I will get my change. He instructed his assistant with authority to wrap up the purchases whilst putting the banknotes in a counting machine to be recounted. Recounting also took place in other shops and restaurants.
This act reminded me to my stay in the highly developed Japan by mid-seventies. My purchases were counted by the cashier using a cash register and then the cashier recounted using an abacus (soroban) to be sure that the amount was accurate.
Notwithstanding the assurance that the amount of banknotes in piles was exact, errors could happen. The woman in the shop said that to my advantage there was one note too much in the enormous pile. This luck happened once in my life and it was in Zimbabwe.
In the hotel in Pretoria, South Africa, my colleague asked for a Zimbabwean banknote as souvenir. The next morning at breakfast I gave him an envelope containing ten notes of 100,000 Z$ informing him “to make you feel a millionaire”.
At the airport, the television announced that a new banknote of Z$ 750,000 will be printed by the end of the year.