Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Letter from Zimbabwe

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I received this missive from a friend:

December 11, 2008
Harare 1.00am

It is just after midnight in Harare. I have just returned from a midnight tour of the ATMs in Harare with a cousin. There are queues of people still waiting to get their weekly cash withdrawal limit of $100,000,000,000 (US$2.50). I saw the queues this morning when I went for my first meeting at 7.45am. I did not know then that I would be seeing them throughout the day. Most of the ATMs had run out of money. Rather than go home, people saved their precious place in the lines by lying down where they stood and taking a nap. Covering themselves with sacks, newspapers and whatever warming clothing they had. Those ATMs that were still paying out cash had queues of policemen and soldiers. I dared not pull out my camera then. When I did pull out my camera, it was of people too tired to care. Needless to say, picture quality from a moving car using a micro camera is not the best. This is not a normal interpretation of 24-hour banking; seven days a week.

Three hours earlier, I had gone to one of the cholera infected areas where my aunt lives. I had not intended to stay long. It is a way out of town and I did not want her worrying about my safety getting back into the city. There was a power outage from 6 p.m. and it had taken us two hours to find a house I last visited 20 years ago as a boy. But I did ask how she was coping in Harare; and to her nephew she poured her heart out. No clean water for weeks on end, no food in the shops and constant power cuts. She drives an hour and half across the township in search of clean drinking water, which she brings back in plastic containers. When the city council water does run through the taps in the house, the water is discolored with sewer water. The shops in the neighborhood are empty of basic necessities including mealie meal. Her husband now lives at their farm in another town so that he can plant, guard and harvest the maize that they will live on next year. There are groceries in some shops in the city, but they are sold in US$ and priced beyond her means. I am glad I brought her a suitcase of groceries. Groceries that, 20 years ago, my parents once drove from Lusaka to Harare to buy when Zambia was going through similar madness in the 1980s.

December 12, 2008

Today the Reserve Bank increased the cash withdrawal limit from $100,000,000 to $200,000,000 (US$4). It also introduced two higher-denomination notes, $200,000,000 and $500,000,000. As expected there was a mad rush to withdraw and spend the cash before it loses value. It is widely expected that retailers will increase their prices in line with the higher withdrawal limits. There were long (and I mean l…l…o…o…n…n…g…g) queues at every single working ATM. Offices were abandoned. I took pictures of the lines outside Barclays bank by walking to the first floor offices of government labor department. In a large pool office with at least 20 desks there was a lone clerk who looked up at me for all of two seconds. As I walked across the room to the window facing the bank, the files lay unattended on people’s desks…probably untouched for weeks. With civil service wages eroded by hyperinflation, people necessarily spend more time in the parallel economy trying to make ends meet. Interestingly, there are no runs on banks. The value of the withdrawals is so meaningless that the banks will be able to meet depositor demands with ease.


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

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