Cathy Buckle: Letter from Zimbabwe

Thanks, sister, she said, as I emptied my purse of $70,000 she emptied heZimbabwe dollar sheds three zeroes as inflation rockets
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The Independent Online

The dying days of Zimbabwe's old bearer cheques, which have served as money but are not really money, have been messy, confusing and in many cases downright unfair.

Regardless of the pronouncement by the Reserve Bank governor that the old notes would remain valid until today, many establishments stopped accepting them almost a week ago. Shops and companies that were still accepting the old notes did not have any new ones and therefore either couldn't give you any change or gave you back old notes.

As the cut-off date drew closer, less and less new money was in circulation and everywhere people were desperately trying to get rid of old notes.

In the newspapers, a double-page, high-gloss, pull-out advert printed in three languages said: "Zero To Hero, let the hero rise in all of us."

Beneath that headline were smart subheadings in shiny blue, pink, orange and green boxes which answered many of the questions people may have about the new bearer cheques.

It explained that the central bank had struck three zeroes off the old notes. It told us how to write cheques, how to pay bills and how to round figures up or down when converting to the new bearer cheques. (As if anything is ever rounded down in the country with the highest inflation in the world - nearly 1,000 per cent.)

At the bottom of the page was a picture of a nifty little white pick-up truck. "Mobile Cash Swap Team" it said, "Coming to a town near you. Bearing good news." And written underneath the truck in purple print: "Money on the mooove!"

After reading the advert you feel encouraged; this looks smart, efficient and professional. For a moment you forget the body and vehicle searches for "illegal money" at roadblocks all over the country.

You forget the queues streaming out of the doors of the banks as people try to deposit box loads of old notes and you forget that the electricity is off again and there is still no fuel to buy - even if you could afford it.

And the more you look for the nifty little "Money On The Mooove" mobile cash swap team truck, the more elusive it becomes. You are left wondering whether it ever existed at all.

Three days before the deadline, I went to the supermarket to spend the last of my old money. I had Z$1.8m. Just six years ago, I could have bought a four-year-old Mercedes Benz 250D, with all the extras, in immaculate condition, for that kind of cash.

I wandered around the supermarket doing mental maths in my head, and in the end settled on a packet of salt, a box of custard powder and 20 plastic clothes pegs.

Standing in the line to pay, I realised everyone was doing the same as me - buying little things to get rid of the last of the money. The woman in front of me had a packet of soup, a bar of soap and a jar of peanut butter. Her bill came to Z$1,070,000 - she only had Z$1m. I gave her Z$70,000 out of my purse.

She clapped in thanks and the man in line behind me said: "Good, thanks sister. I'll help you if yours is short." Then the man behind him said: "and I'll help you." This is the real face of Zimbabwe and this is what makes our country so special.