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.


More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
Jasmine Aguilera
Lessons From South of the Border
Manuel García, Jr.
A Formula for U.S. Election Outcomes
Sam Pizzigati
Drug Company Execs Make Millions Misleading Cancer Patients. Here’s One Way to Stop Them
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Agriculture as Wrong Turn
James McEnteer
And That’s The Way It Is: Essential Journalism Books of 2018
Chris Gilbert
Biplav’s Communist Party of Nepal on the Move: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian
Judith Deutsch
Siloed Thinking, Climate, and Disposable People: COP 24 and Our Discontent
Jill Richardson
Republicans Don’t Want Your Vote to Count
John Feffer
‘Get Me Outta Here’: Trump Turns the G20 into the G19
Domenica Ghanem
Is Bush’s Legacy Really Much Different Than Trump’s?
Peter Certo
Let Us Argue Over Dead Presidents
Christopher Brauchli
Concentration Camps From Here to China
The Progress of Fascism Over the Last Twenty Years
Steve Klinger
A Requiem for Donald Trump
Al Ronzoni
New Deals, From FDR’s to the Greens’
Gerald Scorse
America’s Rigged Tax Collection System
Louis Proyect
Praying the Gay Away
Rev. Theodore H. Lockhart
A Homily: the Lord Has a Controversy With His People?
David Yearsley
Bush Obsequies