Posted by: Alex MacGregor | March 14, 2010

The Plunge Into Zimbabwe

We had a lovely couple weeks in Malawi, a country we found beautiful, friendly, and relatively hassle-free, but it was time to be moving towards our final destination in Southern Africa: Victoria Falls. We thought of taking the northern route through Zambia, but after hearing numerous accounts from Africans that the problems in Zimbabwe were over and it was okay to travel there, we decided to visit one of Southern Africa’s most embattled countries and booked a bus to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.

The tricky thing about this is that Zimbabwe’s economy completely collased just a year ago, charcterized by hyperinflation, food and gas shortages, political violence, and a tidal wave of Zimbabweans heading for the South African border. In order to have a safe arrival, we decided to play it safe and book a night at a nice hotel online, figuring we would find more reasonable accommodation the next day.

After a great night at the Crowne Plaza, we were surprised by our first daylight view of Harare to find a bustling place with a big-city feel. In fact, the flowering African trees and modern office buildings made this one of the prettiest cities to stroll in we had seen yet!

Unfortunately, the state of the economy soon became apparent to us. Central Harare has few restaurants, and those that still exist mostly just have sadza (the local starch) and meat, despite what their expansive menus might claim. We were hassled for money more frequently than in other countries, and encountered some extremely aggressive street kids. And the shopping malls in City Center were hit or mss: a couple were full of happy shoppers and storefronts, while others just had a store or two near the front of the mall, with lifeless, unlit corridors trailing into the distance.

The tragic thing about Zimbabwe is that the terrible state of the economy is only a feature of the last decade. You can still see signs of major corporations that have (or had) major operations in Zimbabwe: companies like Barclays, Apple, and Ernst & Young fueled the construction of modern skyscrapers the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Johannesburg. Zimbabwe was a success story.

And in addition to the modern side, Harare retains some of its British colonial charm from its days as Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia–an era which only came to an end three decades ago.

Zimbabwe is famous for its balancing rocks, so we decided to take a trip to the rocks in Epworth. We had no information on how to get there, but the park entrance seemed to be on an arterial road on the south side of town, so we went to the minibus rank and asked around. Soon, we were on a minibus “combi” filled with locals, zooming towards the beautiful rock formations in the south suburbs.

The Epworth rock formations found their way onto Zimbabwe’s infamous trillion dollar series of bank notes, just before the Zim Dollar went out of use.

On the combi back from the rocks, we got a feel for the bizarre currency situation that is currently taking place in Zimbabwe. Most payments in the north part of the country take place in US Dollars. However, there is absolutely no American change in Zimbabwe. None. Instead, South African Rand coins are used in place of US coins. 5 rand is 50 cents, 2 rand is 20 cents, and so on. Which is fine, except the Rand/Dollar exchange rate is actually 7.5 to 1 or so. So when you get on the combi and the driver says the fare is 5 Rand, if you hand him a $1 bill, you receive 5 Rand as change, which is almost worth a dollar!

Then, to our complete shock, Zim Dollars are still used for certain transactions! Bizarrely, there is no exchange rate. It’s actually the bills themselves that have value. The higher bills tend to be traded at a higher rate, but the relationship is far from linear. We saw wads of ten Z$50,000,000,000 bills traded as equal to fifty cents (or five Rand, as cents don’t exist in Zimbabwe). The bills go up to Z$100,000,000,000,000, so a linear exchange rate would imply this note is equal to $100; in reality, the Z$100 trillion note was equal to about a dime when the Zim Dollar ceased to be.

The reason for all of this wild trading of Zim Dollars? Zim Dollars are now valuable when they are sold as souvenirs to tourists in Victoria Falls. The fact that Zim Dollars are synonymous with hyperinflation makes them nice souvenirs, which gives them value, which actually turned them into a more viable and stable medium of exchange than when they were officially used as money!

Back in central Harare, we also went to the National Botanic Gardens, with some beautiful African trees.

Although the economic situation made certain things in Zimbabwe difficult, the more disturbing issue is the government. In many larger businesses, you see President Robert Mugabe’s framed picture looking down over you. Stern signs and soldiers warn against taking pictures of sensitive areas, most of all the presidential residence.

You even get some of the unnecessary, bizarre, and confusing restictions in the botanical garden. Walking down a path signposted to the a lookout point, we saw this decrepit old sign jammed into a tree, at a 45-degree angle to the path.

And this sign, in the woods next to one path, with another path heading into the woods about 20 feet to the left of this sign.

Is there any reason for this besides to confuse tourists?

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Responses

  1. Too much math for me! I’m glad you two can handle it all. I do like the balancing rocks. And the trees. Hey Sarah–do you still like the Beware of Hippos sign the best? I dunno, the is pretty good, too! And I think the Magic Obama gum is WAY better than the Che shirt as a souvenir, am I not right?–(No hints here, Caroline. Your pictures are the PERFECT gift! You and Alex keep taking them and posting them, please!)

  2. Yeah, Obama gum is a million times better than Che. I still have a fondness in my heart for “Beware of Hippos,” but “No Entry” in all directions is pretty great, and kind of scary.

    ZIMS!

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