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January 15, 2009
A letter from Zimbabwe on bank lines and cholera

Hyperinflation has plagued Zimbabwe, where $50 billion is equivalent to less than $1.25US.

The cholera crisis in Zimbabwe has now claimed more than 2,100 lives and the treatable disease has spread to neighboring countries.

Zimbabwe also has the world’s highest inflation, and released a $50 billion note on Monday that was worth only $1.25 U.S. dollars.

Shanta Devarajan is the chief economist of the Africa region at the World Bank and blogs at “Africa Can.” He shares a letter from a friend in Zimbabwe, where the lines at the bank are long and residents struggle to get clean water and power.

Letter from Zimbabwe

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 7.45 a.m. 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.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user ZeroOne under a Creative Commons license.

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1 comment


A very real look at a Zimbabwe that beggers belief when I consider what it was just 10 years ago when i left at the start of the economic collapse. It is with a heavy heart that I read such horrid stories from a place I consider home and a place that once was the bread basket of Africa. May god bless those people left to struggle on in such torrid conditions and may we find one day a true leader to lead us forward in the struggle to Rebuild Zimbabwe.

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