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It’s underwhelming, actually. One hundred and fifity billion dollars arrived by post today. Zimbabwean dollars.

My brother Alfred posted me two notes which he recently acquired from Valentine, a Zimbabwean housemaid working in South Africa. A 50 billion and a 100 billion dollar note.

Last month the Zimbabwean government dropped 10 zeros off their currency. These bank notes, cheques actually, were issued earlier this year in May and July and will expire on 31st December, 2008. Long before that they’ll be worthless, except as curiosities and collectors’ items.

A couple of months back a dozen eggs cost 35 billion dollars, a week later they were 76 billion dollars. I think my 150 billion might still buy me the equivalent of an Egg MacMuffin in Harare today — but perhaps not tomorrow. By next week they’ll be handing out 50 billion dollar notes as napkins. Some years back we joked that their biggest note at that time, a mere 500 dollars, would not even pay for one sheet of toilet tissue — which meant it was cheaper to wipe your butt on it than spend it. Those were the good old days. Today inflation is running at eleven million percent.

Valentine, says my brother, enters South Africa illegally to work. There is no work available in Zimbabwe. She has to take food home to her family every month. She re-enters Zimbabwe using her passport and loses a third of her groceries to the unpaid Zimbabwen customs officials. Having no visa to return to South Africa she walks through the crocodile infested shallows of the mighty Limpopo River and climbs through a cut razor wire fence (pictured is another woman crossing the border found here). This last time Valentine’s lip was punctured by sharp wire as she scrambled back into the country. The taxis which courier them up and down abet the process by dropping them off before the border crossing and then wait alongside the road a few kilometres into South Africa — all for an additional fee, of course.

A few months back Valentine had to hide herself from the xenophobic riots in South Africa against foreigners, whom the locals claim are taking their jobs.

But living in Zimbabwe isn’t easy either: Pictured is a recent election billboard in South Africa at the last town before the main Zimbabwean border post (found on Flickr here). It was speaking to Zimbabweans before the last, badly flawed, democratic election saying “We know why you’re in South Africa” and “Life in Zimbabwe is murder these days”.

I wonder what will happen to Valentine and her people: Their country, once a breadbasket of Africa, is still spiraling downwards, politically and economically, and their welcome in neighbouring countries increasingly in question.

Suggested reading: New York Times article How Bad Is Inflation in Zimbabwe? alluding to the Zimbabwean dollar going down the toilet | Reuter’s article Zimbabwe parliament to be sworn in next week references the 11 million percent inflation rate in August, 2008 | BBC’s Audio slideshow: Zimbabwe at 30 | The Zimbabwean Titanium Trillion Dollar Campaign on YouTube

UPDATE: Jan 16th, 2009 CNN reports Zimbabwe to print first $100 trillion note worth approx US$300 at time of printing

UPDATE: Feb 2nd, 2009 Independen Online reports that Zimbabwe “is battling the world’s highest inflation rate, officially put at 231 million percent“. They’re dropping another 12 zeros off the currency and inflation is running at 231,000,000%. Huh!?

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