Scott Hanselman

Memories of Zimbabwe - You can't afford to go home

April 05, 2008 Comment on this post [32] Posted in Africa
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800px-Dol_zimbabwe My wife and I have been married going on eight years. We try to go to Africa every two years as she's from Zimbabwe originally. We wanted to go to Zim last year, but ended up going to Tanzania instead as we were taking our (at the time) one year old, and my sister-in-law works for the Rwandan War Crimes Tribunal there. Zim didn't seem like a good first trip for the baby.

I remember when we went to Zim for the first time in 2001. I was meeting my then fiancée's family for the first time and was deep in lobola negotiations with her father. The exchange rate was US$1 to Z$55, and it was about Z$50 to ride in a combi (minibus/taxi).

My wife remembered at the time how she could go downtown and buy gum for a single Zim penny. Once, my sister-in-law got into huge trouble as a child when she asked a visiting relative for a penny.

When we returned two years later, the exchange rate was US$1 to $Z50,000. Mo's father passed away while we were there and it was surreal to spend a solid hour counting out $Z2,000,000 for his casket in Z$100 bills in the midst of our grief.

zim100kTake a good look at the Zim $50 note in the picture above. It had an expiration date.

Today, whatever Zim currency you have in your pocket loses value of Z$70 a minute just sitting there.

In January of 2008 the exchange rate was US$1 to Z$1,900,000 (1.9M). On March 1st, it was US$1 to $Z 24 million. Today, just two weeks later it's US$1 to Z$70 million. Arguably, Iraq has a significantly better economy than Zimbabwe as Zim's current inflation rate is in excess of 100,000%.  (Some figures point to it being around 164,000%, others closer to 200,000%.)

This Z$100,000 Bearer Cheque is not only two years expired, but were it not, it'd be worth 14/10,000ths of a US dollar, but that worth would last only a few hours.

f9e06f45-c479-4084-be83-68eb5c6da48d_mnThe gift that I gave my father-in-law to buy cows with would today be worth over $Z140,000,000,000, or 140 billion Zim dollars.

If these numbers seem overwhelming, they are. Recently the new Z$50 million dollar note came out, and it will by three loaves of bread (assuming you can find bread) a Z$16M each.

I can't tell you how painful it is to watch a country you love collapse from the outside when we have family there, but it's nothing considering what it's like on the inside. We talk to family there each week and each week the stories get worse.

I could tell you what it used to be like. I could tell you about the time we went to Chipangali Zoo with my mother-in-law and a mini-bus full of 6th graders. I could tell you about the two classrooms and bathroom (real flush toilets!) that we worked to get built.

P0004995 CIMG1645

I could tell you about the time we went to Victoria Falls and slept a hundred yards from an elephant watering hole. I could tell you about the time we went ekhaya to my wife's ancestral home to bury her father.

P0005136 P0005132

I could tell you about the time I found a goat in the my morning bathtub, then it disappeared, only to reappear on my breakfast plate the next morning. I could tell you about freaking out abantu abamnyama nxa ikhiwa likhuluma isiNdebele.

CIMG1653 Cropped CIMG1362

But, those days are gone and we have only pictures and memories. The Zim that we knew is gone and it's unclear what is coming. God help the people of Zimbabwe and our family overseas.

For updated news about the Zimbabwean elections, see the BBC Zimbabwe section or check Google News on Zimbabwe.

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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April 05, 2008 11:08
That's a really touching post Scott.

I'm myself from a 3rd-world country (Brazil) so I relate a little bit to some of this (definitely crazy inflation when I was a kid, plus a host of social maladies). But there's of course a large difference - Brazil is much closer to the US than Zimbabwe is to Brazil.

There was a book published on Mugabe recently that looks pretty interesting:

I don't know where you guys stand on it or even whether you can talk about it due to safety, but from the outside he sure looks like a rotten chap who's given Zimbabwe "increasingly vile rule" as the Economist put it.

Anyway, my hope is that with the Internet the economy will become more and more distributed to the point that spread out wealth will make it much harder for this kind of thing to go on. It is so fucking depressing to see this. Damn.

Anyway, thanks for the great blog, as I wrote you once I really dig the non-tech posts you mix in here.

April 05, 2008 12:42
Wow, you really hit the proverbial nail on the head with this one.

I grew up in Botswana and also remember going to Vic Falls every couple of years, eating burgers at Wimpy, buying curios from the market and all of that. Last month, I returned to Botswana together with my brothers (seeing my beloved Africa for the first time in almost 15 years IS overwhelming!). We also took a drive up north to Chobe and of course to Vic Falls. I had been warned that things were bad there but wasn't really prepared for how bad they really were. Crossing the border at Kazangula, we spoke to one of to security guards. At the time (this was in the first half of March) he made Z$50,000,000 a month. The going exchange rate at the time was US$1 to Z$22,000,000 (that is if we exchanged during the day. In the evenings the rate was a bit lower - around 18,000,000).

Driving in to Vic Falls we could immediately see how bad things were. People are really suffering. Necessities like gasoline haven't been readily available for at least seven years, for example.

We had a breakfast at Wimpys - not something I would recommend, really. We weren't really sure exactly what kind of meat they were serving and the place was really dirty.

One thing that struck me though. When we went out to eat, for example at one of the (used to be) great steakhouses, apart from the fact that we were the only people there, the waiters still somehow managed to make sure we had a good time. Sure, the steaks we got were dry and not quite as big as advertised, they had no coke (but we got a complimentary juice instead), the garnishing was barely a piece of expired lettuce and so on. But despite all this we actually felt we'd had a good meal.

We drove through to The Kingdom to have a look (it wasn't there 16 years ago when we were last at Vic Falls - at least I didn't remember seeing it). This place was absolutely beautiful. But pretty much deserted. It was a bit eerie to walk around this extremely luxurious complex where everything is switched on, there's music coming from the ceiling speakers, the casino with all its blinking lights is running and so on. But we hardly met one single person there.

The curio market in town was still there and was still as big as I remember it. And nothing about all the haggling had changed a bit. So it was good fun trading t-shirts and different currencies (we had US$, Botswana Pula, South African Rands and Zimdollars with us) for some of the beautiful artwork. If I had been up to it I could have walked out from there completely starkers but with as many stone and wood carvings as I could carry ;-)

Anyway, I'm sitting here in cold Scandinavia, crossing my fingers for the outcome of the elections. I really hope we're coming to the end of Mugabe. I'm planning on taking another trip in 2009 and it'll be interesting to see how things have changed - for the better I hope!

Thanks for your great blog - and especially for this last post. The memories really are fond and many.

April 05, 2008 12:58
Touching post, really. Inflation is the enemy of every country that runs an economy. Though my country is supposed to have a good economy status this year, I find it harder to live a simple live in a big city.
April 05, 2008 14:10
Like most South Africans I have had a keen interest in the Zim elections. Despite the delays and uncertainty it looks that "Bob" and his cronies are on their way out, which can only be a good thing. Difficult times ahead for Morgan Tsangvirai and company though; I can't even begin to imagine how difficult it will be to bring the country back from the terrible state it's in now.
April 05, 2008 16:06
Rhodesia was the terrible state and remember the British burned New York to the ground when they fled.
April 05, 2008 16:11
This is pretty depressing. I wish you and your family a lot of strength.
April 05, 2008 17:44
Sad to see Zim go downhill this way.

I have been there a couple of times when my dad used to work there. It was just before Mugabe brought the country down. It is a lovely place. Victoria Falls is amazing. I can still remember the hearing roar of the falls even before I could see it...

Hopefully this is the worst the country is seeing and the country returns to the good times under the new leadership...
April 05, 2008 18:22
I've been keeping up via the This is Zimbabwe blog:

See here for a little humor:

Hopefully Mugabe will see the writing on the wall and not take it to a bloody second round! The world is watching...
April 05, 2008 18:57
May God keep your family safe, and let's pray for an orderly transition (and I'm not ususally the Religious type). I think they need all the help they can get
April 05, 2008 19:18
they shouldn't have taken farms from white farmers.
April 05, 2008 19:47
they shouldn't have taken farms from white farmers.

Pretty disrespectful comment. Maybe you want to rephrase that to make you look less like a moron.

Hope your family stays safe and healthy, Scott.
April 05, 2008 20:32
I remember in 1993 in Serbia we had similar inflation like the one you described in the blog post. At the peak of inflation, we had a bill of 500 billions dinars which were worth around 1$ at the end too

There's the link to see how the bill looked like: 500 billions dinars bill link

Seeing once what hyperinflation is doing to nation, I can only pray for the people of Zimbabwe to find fast way out of the abyss

April 05, 2008 20:38
Like Jamie I also find a great source of information on the situation in Zimbabwe. It's a terrible what is happening there.

I just really hope that Mugabe lets go and release the election results soon. The fact that he lost despite all the rigging and intimidation shows how much the Zimbabwean people want change. Let's just hope this change is allowed to happen soon and without any more violence for your family there and all the other people of Zimbabwe that has to suffer under the current regime there.

April 05, 2008 21:50
But Scott, Zimbabwe had the Best Performing Stock Market in 2007. ;)
April 05, 2008 22:02
I can still remember the crazy days of hyperinflation in Argentina (some say it got to 2500%, some say it went to 5000%). I used to have a *JOB* re-marking prices in a supermarket, SEVERAL TIMES A DAY.

But 100.000%! I can't even grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe.

Can't even make up my mind on whether war or hyperinflation is worst for a country.

What a tragedy...
April 05, 2008 22:43
My God!! In two years time Z $50 went to $50,000 thats insane. I saw in CNN that Zim is going under strict dictatorship, which is bringing nothing but sufferings, unless or untill that ends it will soon end up printing an 1 trillion Zim dollar.

God Bless Zim, thats all we can say.

April 05, 2008 23:11
I was discussing Zimbabwe with a friend the other day who really didn't know too much about the current difficulties except for what he'd seen on the evening news. He was asking what happened to the "bread-basket of Africa". I sent him links to a couple of articles that add a little context to the current situation that may be interest to some of your readers:

Hitchhiker's Guide to a Failing State (The Independent, 2007)

How to Kill a Country (The Atlantic, 2003)

There's also an audio interview with the author of the above article, Samantha Power, on the now defunct radio show "The Connection":

How to Kill a Country (The Connection, 2003))

The Atlantic article is a dated but illustratres the problems in Zimbabwe at the time and you can see where they've ultimately led to today.
April 06, 2008 0:03
A local newspaper here in Iran wrote some days ago about Zimbabwe, and when I saw the 100,000% inflation rate, I simply thought it was a misspell.
Here we are experiencing an inflation of rate of about 20%, and it causes too much pressure on low-income families; so the current suffering of the people of Zimbabwe is beyond imagination.

The incompetence of those running the government, plus the fact that everything is in government's grip, is the saddening story of almost all developing countries.
April 06, 2008 8:42
The U.S. dollar has lost over 90% of it's value since the creation of the Frederal Reserve in 1913. The printing presses are running full speed over there - $200 billion printed in the past few weeks ago..

The Fed can "print" wealth in any amount desired at the press of a button while most of us have to "work" to create wealth.

Ummm me thinks we are in the same boat as "Z" as explained above.
April 06, 2008 10:31

My friend launched a foundation called "Africa Fellowship":

It's in a very young stage now, but here is the idea:

* Send people in their 20s and 30s to Africa on a tour that includes some of the most poverty-striken areas

* Inspire young American leaders to get involved with African issues, and take action when the visitors return home to the US. The goal is to get folks to invest into Africa through other foundations, charity work and many good causes.

It's a hands-on African experience to inspire young folks to think about Africa and contribute to solutions. I think that many developers, young lawyers and finance folks will participate because it will illustrate areas where they can really help.

If you guys have some free time, contribute time or knowledge to the Africa Foundation. It's done as a self-funded nonprofit, so my friend David could probably use as much advice as possible.

April 06, 2008 22:49
I just sent you an email to ask if your wife was from Zambia and 2 minutes later I read this post and found the answer.

I lived in Zambia for 6 years from 89 to 95 and during the time the currency went through similar conditions. It was during the rule of Kenneth Kwanda and his removal from power through election. I also remember when my parents bought or sold a car and we basically gathered the whole family to count the millions of Kwachas (zambian currency).

I remember we (people in Zambia) use to go to Zimbabwe for vacation and shopping because it was a much more developed country. It is sad to hear that things have changed so badly.

Check out this chart

How can government be so incompetent?

April 07, 2008 1:34
Thank you, Scott, for bringing some of that stuff closer to me in my little computer-programming world in an office in New Zealand. The world is getting smaller, and its getting more unbearable to have a place going through the pain that Zimbabwe is going through.

As you say, God help the people of Zimbabwe.
April 07, 2008 1:48
I have been following this countries story unfold on NPR for a long time now and its a very sad one. Its incredibly sad to see a country finally reach a descent point of economic development and then plunge out of control :(. My best wishes to all the people in Africa who are suffering under idiotic and ruthless dictators, one day i hope justice arrives in this part of the world in a bigger way.
April 07, 2008 5:58
Good to know these things. The only thing I knew was that ZIM was a Test Cricket (the longest of the three versions of the sport) playing nation.
April 07, 2008 13:51

Thanks for these thoughts, my thoughts are with you and your family at this time, I only hope that some sense prevails as they seek to bring a peaceful end to all of this and that Zim can really have a chance to get on its feet again.

Having lived across the border in SA for 17 years I too have a lot of love for Africa in my blood and especially for the bush. We have not been back to Africa since we left back in 89 but continue to follow events in the Southern Africa region with interest and are glad to see that Mozambique and Angola are coming out of their dark phases so now the hope lies with Zim.

All the best
April 07, 2008 18:48
Hi Scott,

I saw this post and could not help to comment. My wife is from SA and my father-in-law does 80% of his business in Zim. But the sad news is that SA is already starting down this path. The entire summer they have had this thing called "load share" where all business districts have their power turned off for 2-4 hours 3-5 times per week in the middle of the day. Apparently the government spent money on housing for illegals instead of building power generating stations. There's a few good jokes around, but the sad thing is they tell people to turn off their geysers (hot water tanks) to conserve electricity. That might be a good idea, but 90% of these tanks down there are powered by natural gas.

We are not sure what will change the situation over there, it's a combination poor education and culture.

April 07, 2008 20:37
And to think that I was having a pitty party the other day about paying 10 cents more for my diesel. I thank you for the touching post that has opened my eyes a bit more. I cannot imagine the day to day existence there. Your family and the people of Zimbabwe are in my prayers.

April 08, 2008 1:34
nice post, I was just reading about inflation and zimbabwe a few days ago actually. B.t.w for some reason i thought your wife was originally from Ethiopia?
April 08, 2008 1:38
No, I speak some Ethiopian and I have a lot of friends there and much interest, but no, Mo's Zimbabwean.
April 10, 2008 17:00
Great post Scott, Mugabe has turned from hero to zero and is dragging his countrymen though hell to appease his ego.
If only the other African heads of state ( especially T Mbeki ) would stand up to him but they issue vague ambiguous statements while Zimbabwe descends into a morass.

It's clear to anyone sane that he lost the election - fully 25% of the country is in exile and cannot vote, they had no vote but would be voting MDC without a doubt, all you have to do is ask a Zimbabwean in South Africa who he would vote for, Tsvangarai for sure.

Also , despite all the rigging , intimidation of candidates ( the pilot of a helicopter flying Morgan around was arrested on trumped up charges ) he STILL lost, the scale of that loss is hidden.

Everyone wishes him gone, and, although I have never wished anyone to be dead, I wish Bob Mugabe would dissapear as soon as possible, in whatever way is neccesary , to be remembered as a murderous tyrant, nothing more.
April 11, 2008 1:48
I am white but grew up in Zimbabwe as my parents were missionaries there. We lived there when it was Rhodesia and then during the war and transition to Zimbabwe. We lived in Harare and would go out to the townships every week where my parents worked. We left in 1983 and went back for an extended visit in 1987. It was a beautiful country with much going for it and it is very sad to see what has happened and is happening now. It is such a waste on many levels. I would love to take my family back to see where I grew up but wouldn't do it now. I loved living there and have many wonderful memories. It's not the country it once was, for sure!
April 12, 2008 3:51
I was reading news at HotAir about the degenerating state of affairs...

It reminded me of this post a couple days earlier. You folks (and the people there) are in my prayers.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.