Zimbabwe: Losing currency, the very sad tale

Harare, Aug. 6 -- Travel to Zimbabwe means a torrent of advice from family and friends, but the most common one is to carry a large bag. For most back home, Zimbabwe is known for its inflated currency rate and some cricket memories. At one point in 2009, the highest Zimbabwean currency was a 100-trillion note. Yes, you read it right! But on conversion its value was a paltry $5. The runaway hyperinflation - which reached an absurd 231,000,000% in 2008 - meant people often carried bigger bags to carry money than to buy the few items they could afford with a devalued currency.

For a country once hailed as the region's bread basket, scarcity means long waits in the line to buy bread and other essentials. The situation is much better now with the economy taking baby steps towards revival after the US dollar was made Zimbabwe's official currency in April 2009.

A STRUGGLE

The Zimbabwe dollar is no longer in use, the 100-trillion note is a collector's item. But making dollar its currency hasn't made it easy for travellers.

It would come as a surprise that Zimbabwe is not exactly cheap. A two km taxi ride costs $5 (Rs 300 approximately). Staying in a modest hotel still costs nothing less than $100 (Rs 6000 approx.). With 90% of the goods imported from South Africa, prices have hit the roof. Zimbabwe has gold deposits but they are hardly mined.

For a journalist travelling to Zimbabwe, the entry is not smooth. The volatile political situation and impending elections (it was held on July 31) meant one had to pay $150 (Rs 6000) for accreditation to cover the India-Zimbabwe One-day series. In 2005, Indian journalists had to cough up $600 (Rs 35000)!

Ray Price, the Zimbabwe spinner, who had protested against the Mugabe regime's policies, said: "Because of hyperinflation, and now that we have US dollars, it's got a lot more expensive. Hopefully, people here will get busy with tourism and other industries and then the prices come down."

One problem for retailers is a shortage of small change. One-dollar notes are filthy from frequent handling and coins are not in use. To get change is impossible, with a credit note or sweets given instead. Prices of many popular items are hence rounded off to $1.

The 89-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled the country since 1980, has hinted at reintroducing the Zimbabwe currency. With Mugabe romping to a landslide victory, the old currency might return. Most in Harare shudder at the thought. For them, the US dollar has been the silver lining, Even if it burns a hole in the tourist's pocket.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.

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