One fast way into the story of an economy is a walk to the corner. In a country where the economy is as bare-boned as this, the corner tells you as much as the newspaper does. In a country where the press is as constrained as this, the corner tells you more.
David Simon, the chronicler of Baltimore in the HBO series, The Wire, knew this. He chose the cold stoops and corner-store steps of West Baltimore as the foot in the door to union meetings, press ravings, real estate shenanigans and political machinations. Trickle-down economics can be read back upwards too.
Let's read it.
On the corner of Union & 5th Grace, Dolphin and Lazy keep accounts. Grace, Dolphin and Lazy sit around a circular concrete table. Calls come in, cars pull up. Grace gets up from her seat with a small pocketbook and a thick pile of bond notes in her hands. Dolphin and Lazy stay at the table. Lazy should not, by rights, get up. Dolphin, by rights, should not be swimming around in a land-locked country. They sit in the shade of a broad Jacaranda under the greater shade of the Holiday Inn, which fills the whole block between Union Street and Samora Michel Avenue, in a sea of shockingly well-kept and very green grass.
The bond notes in their hands are hated, but have proved useful enough for a year. As American dollars have leaked out of the country, a currency crisis grew. There has just not been enough cash. Lines for ATM’s grew longer and longer, allowed amount of withdrawals dropped. The banks hang on to as many Uncle Sam’s as they can. The people suffer. Cue bond notes. It is a green note looking exactly like the old, useless Zim dollar, but with a ‘BOND NOTE’ declaration in the top corner. Not a currency (as no other nation or market will recognize or honor them) but an internal promissory system. The government promises it has enough gold to back the value of these bond notes, and the people believe them. Maybe they don’t, and if they don’t for long enough, the value of the bond note will drop and the currency crisis gets worse. Much, much worse. (Since writing this just two days ago, the bond value has dropped, fuel shortages have hit, and people are stocking up on basic foods in preparation for a commodity crisis. Bank lines snake from every ATM. Key activist Evan Mawarire has been arrested and newspaper headlines say ‘Zim to return to 2008 doom’.
With the thick pile of bond notes in her hand, Grace holds more green than the vegetable vendor on the NW corner opposite, where there is also a newspaper man, a taxi tout and an airtime agent. On the downtown corner across you can buy bananas, water or ice-cream. If you dodge cars diagonally you reach the green grass of Holiday Inn. No street vendors here. There is no room at this Inn for street-hawkers. No need, Grace, Dolphin and Lazy’s corner holds six money changers. Halfway down 5th stand ten more. Further up Union and Grace claims there are up to twenty. That’s a lot of money changing through a lot of hands.
Grace tells me each exchanger averages about 15 customers a day. They buy $100 US for $110 Zim Bond, maybe $120-130 if the buyer knows how to drive a bargain. (I get the mugs-price of $110.) They stack up the greenbacks, and wait for people to come buying. Then they sell the $US at $120-130 Zim Bond (by time of publishing – again, two days later, it is $140-150). The tiny mark up on deals is enough to generate about $15 per day income. ‘Enough for me to make a living, don’t you think?’, asks Grace. The average daily income world-wide, I check. Her Bond Note pile grows.
‘Who’s buying?’, I ask. ‘You’, Grace, Dolphin and the Lazy One answer in unison. Me, some of the very few tourists, but mostly Zimbabweans going out of the country. You cannot travel with Bond Notes. Businesses importing anything must find an exchanger and replace bonds with greenbacks or they will have nothing to purchase with in South Africa, Zambia, or wherever.
Dolphin has been doing this for almost 13 years. She was in the tailoring industry, and her company made uniforms for a government department. When the department stopped paying, the company stopped making uniforms, and Dolphin started money-exchanging.
‘Given that things are hard, why do you not fight each other for business?’, I ask.
‘Aaah. We are Zimbabweans. Times are hard. If we don’t have each other, we have nothing.’
What if more money-changers arrived on your corner?
‘They won’t. It is full.’
What if they do?
‘Then we fight’, they laugh. It is altogether unlikely.
I consider that Zimbabweans may be more polite than the English, until I remember that the English were not very polite when they ran the corners around here. (As I publish, two days later, 50 money-changers outside an exchange-center in Harare had a decent scrap, while we changed money 100 meters up the street.)
How can you walk around with so much money? I ask.
‘Aaaah. You do not have to worry about thieves here. We are Zimbabweans, we work hard for our living. This is not South Africa.’
As a friend of mine says, ‘In Kenya, they ask for your money, and if you don’t give it they shoot you. In South Africa, they shoot you, then they ask for your money.’
In Harare, the money-changers are safe, it seems. I wonder.
There may be more to all of this. A friend tells me that the money-changers are agents for those who have access to serious US cash. These people up from the corner make a tidy bit of money on money. Only so many people have access to a ready supply of US cash. ‘You can work that out’, he says. 'You can work out who that might be.'
And so I leave the corner, having dropped a few more crumbs into the pocket of someone who has already had enough cake, and follow the traffic in a trickle back up 5th. The newspaper says doom is coming. The corner says it is just around the corner.