Zimbabwe’s Filthy Lucre

Once nearly forty years ago in Suakoko, in up-country Liberia after I bought something to eat, I was handed a frayed piece of paper which?only when I held it up to the light?I recognized as an American dollar bill. It was so thin, so transparent, that only then could I identify it as American money, the official currency in Liberia at the time. I said to myself, “Yes, this once was a dollar bill.” I didn’t want to keep it any longer than necessary, so I quickly used the bill for another purchase. I’ve regretted the many years since then that I didn’t save it in a Ziploc bag.

I had another visceral experience with American money a few weeks ago when I was in Zimbabwe, which in January of 2009 implemented the U.S. dollar as the currency of the land. The South African Rand and the Botswana Pula are also used, but mostly for small change. In Zimbabwe, the American dollars are so filthy, so darkened by use, that the bills can hardly be identified?especially dollar bills and, intriguingly, a plethora of two-dollar bills. The money is so disgusting that you don’t want to put it in your pocket or your billfold. You just want to get rid of it as soon as possible. Even carrying around a bottle of Purell doesn’t alleviate the feelings of contamination.

The Zimbabwean government’s decision to use American dollars?and officially, the South African Rand and the Botswana Pula?was made to stabilize the country’s hyper-inflation. Unfortunately, the major result was propping up the Mugabe government, prolonging its life. I didn’t see any Pula or Rand bills in circulation but occasionally a coin in one of those two currencies was used for change, since there are no American coins in use. (Couldn’t we get rid of all the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea dollar coins that Americans hate and send them to Zimbabwe, possibly even selling them at a profit? They would certainly hold up better than paper currency.)

That’s the rub, of course, since the dollars in Zimbabwe are not there officially. The Federal Reserve calls it “unofficial dollarization,” which means that our paper currency is acquired through international commercial banks, but it’s not something these banks want to take back once it gets filthy. It’s in the country surreptitiously. Anyone who has traveled extensively overseas knows that American dollars are everywhere. The world is a flush with American currency. I’m not talking about fifty or hundred-dollar bills but ones, fives, and tens (and those ubiquitous twos), which American tourists hand out like candy to taxi drivers, bellboys, even shopkeepers, when they arrive in a foreign country and haven’t yet changed any money into the local currency True, the two times I used an ATM machine in Harare, Zimbabwe’s largest city, I received crisp $50 bills. Too crisp, in fact. I had a nagging feeling that they were counterfeit bills from North Korea, but I had no problem spending them.

Zimbabwe’s use of American dollars stabilized its hyper-inflation and stopped the printing of trillion dollar notes?that were virtually useless?just before the switchover.

The stores were empty in Zimbabwe before the shift; today they are overflowing with goods. Pessimists in the United States might ask why this strategy hasn’t worked for us. Whatever we as Americans might think about our money, the Zimbabweans (and citizens of numerous other countries such as Ecuador, Cambodia and El Salvador, to mention only three countries) have welcomed it. Still, Zimbabwe is impoverished, run-down, decayed. Millions of people have fled President Robert Mugabe’s brutal government, best identified as “trickle-up” (“Give it all to those at the top”). The filthy currency is an appropriate metaphor for Mugabe’s regime.

Filthy money is not something new. Freud equated money with excrement, stating that its true essence is its absolute worthlessness. But filthy paper money is another matter, usually implying something about the economy of a nation. I remember feeling repulsed by Italian lira well after World War II. In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a celebrated African novel by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, the ticket-taker on a bus obsesses over a one-cedi note:

“He rolled the cedi up and deliberately, deeply smelled it. He had to smell it again, this time standing up and away from the public leather of the bus seat. But the smell was not his mistake. Fascinated, he breathed it slowly into his lungs. It was a most unexpected smell for something so new to have: it was a very old smell, very strong, and so very rotten that the stench itself of it came with a curious, satisfying pleasure.”

Many African countries have paper money that is not clean by Western standards (though if you’ve asked for new one dollar bills at your local bank lately, you’ll probably discover that they aren’t available). A decade ago, The Economist ran an article about the filthy naira notes in Nigeria, remarking that since Nigerians didn’t trust their banks and keep their currency in “cocoa jars,” that “the banknotes themselves, after so much handling, are dirty and smelly. A study by researchers at Lagos university found that 86% of them were infested with the sorts of microbes that cause diarrhoea.”

It’s not just expatriates who complain about the filth of the money in circulation in Zimbabwe. A recent cartoon in one of the country’s newspapers showed a woman who had perfected a process for dry-cleaning the filthy bills. A sign behind her posted the charge: one South African Rand per bill. Wait until Robert Mugabe realizes that he can appropriate her process. He’s already taken his people to the cleaners with everything else.

Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.