Zimbabwe Journal Entry Sent to Friends
From: Landon Romano
Date: Tue, 2 Sep 2008 13:16:59 -0500
It is a challenge to describe Zimbabwe.
It is a place where we learn how to have gratitude for life.
We arrived in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare at about 8:30am Thursday, August 28, 2008.
At a small café we learned that $500 Zimbabwean dollars would purchase a canned Coca-Cola. Keep in mind the currency was in the trillions (yes, 000,000,000,000) and ten 0’s were dropped! It’s unimaginable to those who experience 3% inflation each year. Zimbabwe has experienced hyper-inflation in the millions. It’s estimated at 30,000% each day or 55,000,000% per year – no joke.
Outside the airport was as still as if people were surfacing after a bomb exploded. The area was relatively clean but buildings were noticeably deteriorating. It was a feeling and look of a low life condition. Zimbabwe is indeed a third-world country and its once strong middle class of working professionals have fled the country.
My friend’s father-in-law came for us with his uncle. We left the airport toward a gas station. We stopped at a BP filling station where through the windows I saw nothing on the shelves. I did not think too much of it till later. The station looked unkempt and as if it had been abandoned for 20 years. The men sitting on the steps said there was no gas. My friend’s uncle left us by foot at this point.
We drove to another place where my friend and our host walked into a warehouse. When they returned I followed. They were filling containers with water. My friend went upstairs to settle the bill and I followed. As I walked into the office it was a scene straight from an old 1950’s movie. The ladies m behind the desk were dressed in very nice but worn-out suits. The surrounding office was simple and all the bookkeeping was done by hand. Papers were everywhere and even the phone was old. When I asked them where the weekend party would be hosted they kept a serious face. But when I said, “I bet this loft becomes a disco. Where’s the mirror ball?” They started to laugh.
We drove to another filling station where I paid in US dollars $65 for 50 liters. This is roughly $5.20 per gallon, which is similar to South Africa. However, fuel is relatively rationed to the affluent, as it’s scarce and costly for locals. On our way to our host’s house we passed a bakery – the only one in the region. Our host said flour cost too much, so bread could not be made.
We arrived at our host’s house. Two young men opened the gate. When I tried to take my bag, our host told me to leave it for the men to take to my room. The house is humble and simple. Because supplies and products are difficult to get in Zimbabwe, it is difficult to keep a house in perfect order. They keep it tidy in spite of significant paint chips on the inside and out. It has four bedrooms, a medium-sized kitchen, breakfast room used as an office, and a large living area. It sits on about one acre filled with gardens and nice landscaping.
We had a nice meal prepared by my friend’s mother-in-law and a cousin. We rested and then made rounds in town delivering goods to our host’s buyers.
Our host sells produce from his gardens and the water we retrieved from the warehouse for batteries at garages.
The residential areas have quite a few people walking the streets and very few cars. As we approached town there were considerably more cars and a huge population of folks walking the streets. Many of these people are highly educated and majority of university degrees or vocational certificates. Now they are unemployed and lacking a purpose.
What is also a disappointing challenge was the huge queue of people in line around city blocks to withdrawal their limited $500 Zimbabwean dollars for the day (remember this pays for a Coca-Cola). The government limits their withdrawals so not too much cash is in the market, which is according to their economics going to solve inflation! They need to go back to school.
Once well-kept office buildings stand tall and rotting in the central business district amongst the perfectly well-kept government buildings. We parked on Robert Mogabe Road (current President of country) in front of a Colonial-style white-washed very well-kept Standard Bank building where the lobby was full. The garden boy was instructed to get some school supplies at a market for my friend’s cousin. Out of curiosity I followed into the store.
What I will tell you is something you cannot comprehend – no matter how hard you try – it’s impossible to understand this even when facing it head on.
Imagine walking into your local supermarket. Picture how it looks. Think about what you see. What you hear. What you know to be there. Abundance.
As we walked into the store the lines for the checkout had a few people. We entered from the center of the store. Here’s what I saw –
Rows of empty shelves …
… NOTHING …
… except a few chips, biscuits, candies, paper, salt …
This is at every store in Zimbabwe – including rich neighborhoods.
… NOTHING … (or next to it) …
We walked next door to what was once a hopping department store – same phenomenon.
We found the school supplies and proceed to the cashier. The bill registered at about $54,000 Zimbabwean dollars. This was meaningless to both us. He was holding a three-inch wad of Zimbabwean dollars with thousands, millions, billions, and trillions on the face of the notes. Remember recently ten 0’s were removed, so the new notes are 100’s again. But the notes he was carrying were the old notes. He didn’t know what to do.
At this point my friend approaches and he, too, is just as perplexed because he has not been in the country for two years. So, the clerk, the garden boy, and my friend do not know what to do. I offer to pay in South African Rand what I think is the fair amount, but the clerk doesn’t accept the money. Two bystanders offer to use their ATM cards in exchange for Rand – we said no thanks. We decided to get my friend’s father-in-law, so I went to find him.
When he arrived he took the wad of cash, laid it out on the counter, and it was about three feet by two feet in area of stacked Zimbabwean dollars. After about 15 minutes of counting and negotiating with the store manager, the transaction was complete. When we arrived at the car the father-in-law told us the school supplies was equivalent to about 100 South African Rand, which is about $13 USD. However, it was likely worth $3 USD anywhere else.
All that time my friend and I were wondering how these wage earners earned enough to sustain a living and whether it was worth it for the security guard or the elevator operator to even come to work. We decided at least they had a purpose. But they don’t have the means to survive in Zimbabwe’s current state of affairs.
We went to a business appointment after that. Our host and his helper stayed in the car. The receptionist directed us to the management’s office. The secretary was counting coins which were stacked five deep and two feet by two feet. I asked her what they were. She said they were $1 Zimbabwean dollars which were worthless till a few days earlier when the money was re-evaluated.
She said people were digging them out from under their mattress now they were worth “something.” She told us to return in an hour for our meeting, which we did.
On our way to the house I mentioned that I would like a Coca-Cola. Our host said he had some. When we arrived he checked, but didn’t have any. On our way back to our appointment I asked my friend to stop at the store for Coca-Cola. The first store was in the same condition as the market aforementioned and had no Coca-Cola. The same was true with the second market. At the third corner store I asked the man sitting on a chair next to the door whether they had Coca-Cola and he said yes. I leapt out of the car and dashed to the refrigerator. Ahhh… there it was. I took four liters to the counter.
“Do you have empties?” asked the lady.
“What are empties?” I asked.
“Do you have empty bottles?”
“No, I do not.”
“No empties, no sale.”
“I’ll return these today or tomorrow.”
“No empties, no deal.”
“I’ll pay for the bottles.”
“No empties, no deal.”
I could not negotiate my way out of an empty bottle.
Discouraged I left without a Coca-Cola and another lesson on scarcity, supply and demand.
After our meeting we returned for a nice meal at the house and went to bed early. The chickens woke me at sunrise. We watched the US Open for a while. Alas, the car would not start and we had to be in town for a lunch appointment.
We did something daring. We took the local white minivan. Think African movie. Think local white minivan. Think sardines.
For $70 Zimbabwean dollars each we laughed our way to town about how interesting our round-about trip in the local white minivan in and out of neighborhood streets and a million stops up and down the main road picking up and dropping off passenger. People in the back sat on each other’s laps. We passed pedestrians carrying goods under their arms and on their heads. Think African movie. It was a wild and bizarre experience. And the “conductor” collects the money once the van is in motion and full. Oh, and most roads are half dirt and half paved and full of potholes.
When we got off the bus, my friend picked up the pace. “Hey, I don’t want to break a sweat,” I said. He said, “We have to cross town.” I decided we would take a taxi. Of course what would it cost? He spoke with the taxi driver who said it would cost something trillion Zimbabwe dollars. We got in the cab to further negotiate. We ask in Rand. He says 35 Rand. Ouch. It’s just cross town. Whatever – we needed to get there. I handed him 30 Rand and say that is it. He says, “Things cost a lot here.” I said, “This is a lot of money for cross town” (perhaps 10 NY blocks). He starts the car and we move.
We met my friend’s friend at his office. He took us to the “Royal Country Club,” which is next door to the State House – yes where Mugabe lives. We left the world of “have-nots” and entered the world of “haves.”
The atmosphere at the clubhouse overlooking the golf course was definitely a place of abundance. Ahhh … contrasting worlds. So close, yet so far apart. I had three Coca-Colas.
On our way to our host’s house we saw “the” motorcade and discussed the politics of Zimbabwe. My friend’s friend said, it’s one of optimism mixed with wishful thinking. The country was doing very well under the Crown as an African hub and destination. Now it is impoverished similar to its sister African nations. Today’s educated working professionals have fled the country. Four million Zimbabweans are in South Africa.
The next day I stayed at home while my friend and his in-laws went to church activities for the day (Saturday). On Sunday we left at 8:30am to Mutare, which is 250km away. We returned that night at 8:30pm. On our way to Mutare we stopped at my friend’s uncle’s farm where he is growing tobacco, sunflower, and other produce. He’s struggling to maintain the farm because he lacks skilled laborers and resources to keep it going. However, he is keeping it as he can. We continued to my friend’s house in the hills near Mutare near the Mozambique border. He is building a great brick house overlooking a magnificent valley. There are other stories around this day.
But I will leave them for some other time. (Oh – and we traveled with about 50 liters of extra fuel in plastic tanks in the back of the Toyota Forerunner – my nose did not work for a while).
I could continue with the Zimbabwe journal; however, that’s it for now. Frankly, we have much for which to be grateful. Next time I sip a Coca-Cola, I will remember how much a luxury good it is. If I have confused you with regard to the currency in Zimbabwe, then I have done my job. It is chaos.
And with chaos there is opportunity for change and growth. GOD knows what is to come. However, the people of Zimbabwe remain eternally optimistic.