My Brother Went to Zimbabwe, and all he got me was 100 Trillion Dollars
Anyone who has been to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe has had the surreal experience of seeing a real $100 trillion dollar bill. The world’s largest waterfall now competes with the world’s largest banknote, and the latter have steadily replaced carved wooden elephants as the quintessential souvenir pushed by hawkers around town.
When I visited in October 2011, Zim dollars had been out of circulation for nearly 3 years, a casualty of the country’s losing bout with hyperinflation, which escalated as Zimbabweans (and currency traders) became less and less certain of the country’s future, and therefore of the value of its currency. When inflation reaches a certain level, the lack of confidence in the local currency becomes pervasive, and the yo-yo’ing gets worse and worse every time new bills are released. By the summer of 2008, months before the Zim dollar was taken out of circulation, inflation reached 231 million percent, and the government stopped keeping track. By November estimates reached a number I can’t even pronounce: 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000%.
By 2009, Zimbabwe’s economy was almost completely “dollarized,” with most retailers accepting only foreign currency. Now, the country runs on American dollars as worn and beaten up as any money you’ve ever seen, because the US Mint isn’t there to supply Zimbabwe with fresh bills. American change — quarters, dimes, nickels — is so rare that shopkeepers are likely to refuse it.
But in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day, having a dollar as your smallest denomination has obvious problems. For transactions involving uneven dollar amounts, stores unflinchingly provide you change in two currencies: American dollars and South African Rand, worth about 10 cents. If a cashier is short on Rand, he’ll hand you a slip of paper promising, say, 63 cents in store credit, or — no joke — the equivalent value in lollipops, bubblegum, or mints. Officially, Zimbabwe now has four legal currencies, the third and fourth being the Euro and the Pound, but in practice, neither is nearly as common as hard candy.
Standing on the street in Victoria Falls, Chris Namotolo showed me how bad the situation had gotten in 2008 by holding Zim dollars to the light. The bills leading up to $100 trillion, he explained, had no watermark. At one point, the money became so worthless that the government started skimping on the paper they used to print it. As Namotolo recounted it, when the hundred trillion note came out,
you could go shop for one month’s groceries. But as time went on, maybe after a day, you could buy two loaves. Prices were changing almost every hour.
Namotolo, a softspoken man with hollow cheeks and a startlingly deep voice, is one of a few dozen people in Victoria Falls who makes his living selling Zim dollars as souvenirs. For $10 US, you can buy a whole set — ranging from $100 trillion down to 100,000, which seems almost banal by comparison. “We almost came to the octillion,” Namotolo told me in his singsong Shona accent, stretching octillion to four clear syllables. “Twenty seven zeroes. Do you know that one? The green one?
“Nobody knows,” he went on, “but we know because we are surviving on selling these notes.” The currency was abandoned before octillions made it out of the bank, but you could still find one on the souvenir market, he said, if you looked hard enough.
Along several blocks of restaurants, gift shops, and safari outfitters, men like Namotolo stand curbside tempting tourists with wads of billion dollar bills. “The time we started,” Namotolo said, “we were selling some wooden carvings and some stone carvings on the street, you see? Some tourists started asking for Zim dollars — they started buying Zim dollars when it was still working, while they were in circulation.”
Suddenly, Zim dollars, viewed as artifact rather than currency, became a source of foreign exchange. The shift not was without irony: at the time, the utter lack of foreign currency available to Zimbabwean banks was a key factor driving the government’s incessant printing of new money. If not for buying them as souvenirs, tourists had essentially no contact with local currency, and you could tell from Namotolo’s voice what a revelation this had been. “These things!” he said. “You could use them, sell them as souvenirs.”
Three years later, the trade for Zim dollars turned on tourists’ reliable fascination with Zimbabwe’s economic demise, and on the reluctant disillusionment of thousands of civil servants and farmers living in the countryside. These are Namotolo’s suppliers, people who saw their life savings evaporate during the inflation crisis.
As inflation skyrocketed in 2007 and 2008, teachers’ pensions became worthless overnight, and, stacks of large bills hidden under mattresses shrankto the equivalent of so many pennies, or even less.
When the Zim dollar was finally taken out of circulation, Namotolo explained, people wanted badly to view it as a temporary measure, to believe that it was only a matter of time before order was restored and their money regained its value.
That stubborn hope has faded over time, and Namotolo and his peers canvas rural areas around the country looking for holdouts. “Now they see that there is nothing that’s gonna happen with the Zim dollar,” Namotolo said. “They’re trying to recover their money, but nobody’s gonna replace their money, you see.”
“Some people can throw Zim dollars in the bin. They’ve got no use of them. Some, they can sell it to you. Some, they are still not selling: they think it’s going to change. We look for them, you see?” Namotolo said. Then, with an air of disbelief: “and we also buy them!”
You can see from the bills still circulating in the souvenir economy that the Zim dollar is money that was never actually used. The George Washingtons that make Zimbabwe tick are rumpled and blackened over the course of a thousand transactions, but Zim dollars are crisp and white, fresh from the bank. In the days of billions and trillions, actually buying something of value with Zim dollars often meant counting whole stacks of bills, rather than individual notes, in the way that most of us have seen only in Hollywood bank robberies.
At a Pick-n-Pay supermarket in the capital, Harare, I met Garth Jones, a white Zimbabwean whose family had had a wholesale business selling gasoline until 2008. During the inflation crisis (“That time” was the way he kept referring to it), this was business the forex-starved government required them to conduct in Zimbabwean dollars:
Essentially, what we would do is we would reverse our M-class Mercedes up to the loading dock of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, and we would take the back seat down, and we would fill the car, from floor to ceiling, with Zim currency.
All of that to get a single tanker of fuel — about $10,000 US. “And we did this about two to three times a week,” Jones said. “You could complain about it, but the thing about Zim people,” Jones said, “they just get on with it.”
Nowadays, the bulk of the wholesale supply for Namotolo and his peers comes from people who received their monthly salaries in Zim dollars, but were never able to spend the money or convert it to foreign currency that local shops would actually accept.
Namotolo buys “ten quad” — short for ten quadrillion, a stack of one hundred $100 trillion notes — for $100 US. “So it becomes difficult for us to buy such stuff, you see?” he said.
I have to call my friends, maybe five or six of them, and somebody brings twenty, somebody brings fifteen, somebody brings fourteen, somebody brings thirty five.
They’ll spend weeks selling a stack on the streets of Victoria Falls. “Some tourists can give you twenty bucks for one note,” Namotolo said. “But the price we won’t accept is anything below five dollars. Those notes, they are getting rare, you see.”