Harare, Zimbabwe. Driving through any city is a joy, particularly if you are not the driver. That way you transfer unto the driver all your high blood pressure, and relax to observe in good detail the ridges and valleys, and the contours of all you survey: passers-by with mini bags tucked in armpits; neatly dressed men who forgot to comb their hair; rickety combis, the local version of trotro, abruptly stopping without warning; and teenage girls in ‘abbreviated’ blouses, virtually floating on foot.
But while in Southern Africa, watch out and make sure you don’t take over the driver’s seat, if you are not the driver. If you did, you would betray your West African origins; for not all countries joined Ghana in changing from right hand to left hand drive several years ago; and not all countries drive on the right side of the road as we do here.
In that sense, Zimbabwe is left-handed. Indeed you would instinctively feel there was something wrong with the country. Vehicles moving on the wrong side of the road; pedestrians looking at the wrong side before crossing; and the driver using the wrong hand to change gears? Life indeed looked odd.
But going to Harare I had also done something odd. I mistakenly took along several new Ghana cedi notes, which kept interfering anytime I reached for other currencies. But I later realized how useless these were, when I left a bundle in front of my dressing mirror at the Hotel, and returned in the evening to find it intact. Not stolen? I later realized my folly when I read from across the mirror, a message boldly inscribed on a card, and meant for careless clients like me: ‘And lead us not into temptations.’ But the room service boys were not tempted. They were either angels, or were simply uninterested in strange currencies. Their interest was probably in the Zimbabwean dollar.
The value of the Zim dollar paralyzed me when I was browsing through the room service menu card, looking for a familiar meal to gobble. I realized there was something wrong with the price list and nearly called the front desk to complain. Were the figures right, was this a typographical error? A small bread or drink was going to cost me 50,000 dollars? I looked again adjusting my glasses this time. But like any wise ‘Ghanaman’, I decided to visit my chop box that afternoon.
That evening, a colleague and I zoomed off to see Harare by night. Not much to see that evening since most parts of the city were in darkness. We went to a sprawling pub, which doubles as a cricket stadium, and walked out on realizing there was no seating space since a game just ended, and spectators were celebrating with booze. We shifted venue and sat for two hours at another location, chatting. It was there that the reality began dawning. I had taken a small local beer, while my two colleagues went for a bottle of wine. And what was the bill? I heard the bar tender whisper in my colleague’s ear, and in the next minute I saw my host counting a thick wad of notes to pay the bill.
“What did my beer cost,” I asked, anxious to know how much inconvenience I was inflicting. My host smiled, and reluctantly confessed how much he had spent on me. “Your beer was not that bad, it cost three hundred thousand dollars!” I jumped! “You don’t mean it,” I was incredulous.
“That’s normal; and the wine Yaw and I drank cost about two million dollars.” Wheeeew!!!
My head started aching from the breaking news.
“And by the way, what is the official exchange rate to the American dollar.” I quizzed.
“Nobody talks about that; it does not exist; but if you have one US dollar, you may get about two hundred and fifty thousand Zim dollars.”
Next day. We drove to a few shops to browse stuff on sale. Here and there, we were greeted with long queues without end and getting longer and longer. Looking at the front of the queue, it was hard to tell what was on sale, but the story later unfolded, and sounded like Ghana in Acheampong’s seventies, where it was advisable to join any queue forming before checking what it was about. Where Ghana would queue for milk and sugar courtesy Kutu Acheampong, Zimbabwe’s meandering queues I saw were for bread, a scarce commodity.
“Bread will come anytime from now, and some of them started the queue about three hours ago.” I was told.
But come with me to the supermarket, which had lost all its ‘superiority.’ If you need an after-shave in the poor man’s market, be ready with two hundred and twenty thousand dollars. If you need bran flakes get ready with seven hundred and seventy-seven thousand dollars. If you yearn for a box of honey flakes for breakfast, look for about one million five hundred thousand dollars! But please check your passion for Black Label Whisky if you are into sampling hard liquor. You need twelve million dollars at Bon Marche, the shop I visited in Borrowdale Brooke suburb.
But the situation with cash loads you needed to carry was better, I was told. Only last year, Zimbabwe did a redenomination exercise, knocking off three zeros from their currency, hoping the value would be the same! And at the time I visited four weeks ago, the Government had issued a fiat that prices of all commodities should be slashed by 50%; and notices had been displayed in stores: “Prices reduced in accordance with Government directives.” The outcome, which meant lesser money to carry, was what I witnessed.
And how busy were shelves in shops? The Bata shoe shop was virtually empty. Other super markets? Several yards of empty shelves; a cake of soap here and there; and about ten yards of void. In one store I visited at Borrowdale Brooke, I could have measured 30 yards of emptiness in one row, broken by two or three feet of cosmetics. It was as if an armed robber had visited the night before, and decided on selective looting, leaving a handful of items for charity.
Hardest hit among scarce items was meat. All private abattoirs had closed except one, I was told.
But shop owners are clever. They close two or three hours earlier than schedule, to avoid completely empty shelves, which could attract a charge of sabotage. Additionally, shops had complied with Government directives, and put up appropriate notices: “Not more than two per customer on all commodities.” Rationing is the word.
But where is the original Zimbabwean currency? The Zim dollar only exists in name. What are in normal circulation are bearer cheques, not the original Zim dollar which is extinct. If it existed, you would probably need a wheelbarrow to carry cash for shopping. The bearer cheques are in dollar denominations of 5,000; 10,000; 50,000; 100,000; and 200,000. On these cheques is an expiry date of 31st July 2007. But had they really expired? No, at the end of August when I visited, the bearer cheques still freely and legally circulated.
Well, after that stunning adventure we all agreed we had earned a good lunch meal. We sped on the Harare-Bulawayo stretch, but turned off and went to the city center, driving past the Rainbow Hotel, the Harare International Conference center, and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party headquarters: a huge 13 floor sky scraper which puts to shame all party headquarters in Ghana. The ZANU PF, after Osagyefo’s CPP has the cock as its symbol.
It had indeed been a long, tiring day. I could tell from my aching limbs, and trembling intestines. We drove to a nearby restaurant and ate to our fill. It was a fairly cheap meal, according to my good friend.
The cost of three plates of a restaurant meal was reasonable: only two million Zimbabwe dollars!
I hurriedly brushed my teeth the next morning and rushed to the airport. Then wisely joined the nearest available plane, and escaped to Ghana!
First published in August 2007
Source: Hon. Prof. Kwesi Yankah