According to the Travel.State.Gov website on Zimbabwe, there is a “cash liquidity crisis” in the country which travelers need to be aware of… but it doesn’t provide much context or explanation. So what’s actually going on? How are things on the ground?
After spending a week there in March 2017, I have mixed feelings about how their very unique situation is affecting everyday life. Only somebody who lives there can truly understand the up and down waves, I suppose, but I saw a mixture during my stay.
Essentially, what’s going on is simply a physical lack of cash. People, literally, just can’t get their hands on paper currency easily.
For example, a person may have thousands of dollars available in their bank account… but to get even $100 into their hands is a mission. The ATMs are all dry, and there are rations and limitations on how much cash you can withdrawal from the bank – even if you have more than enough in your account. For this reason, you’ll see ridiculous lines of people waiting outside the banks and cash-starved businesses offering discounts to customers who actually have cash to spend.
A black market has actually developed to BUY and SELL money. Sounds crazy, right? Let that digest for a moment. People are actually BUYING money. When I showed up in Harare with a wallet full of crispy US $100 bills, I was told they have a street markup of 15-20% – meaning, each $100 was worth $115-$120 on the underground. Somebody who needs cash in hand will transfer, from their account to yours, $120 in exchange for the $100 bill in hand.
Is selling cash even ethical? Is it legal? Is it rational? I’ll leave all of these questions up for interpretation. But that’s what’s going on.
That being said – life in Zimbabwe continues to roll on forward. People are still working. People are still shopping. People are still socializing and partying. People are still LIVING THEIR LIVES.
Despite a lack of hard currency floating around, Zimbabwe is still just like anywhere else – people go to their jobs, they receive their salary to their bank accounts, and they can pay for things with their cards. To be honest, most Americans are living this way anyhow, even if they don’t have to be – just swipe, swipe, swipe. Most of my friends use their credit or debit cards for everything, despite having access to every dollar in their account if they wanted to go get it. Other than the strippers, drug dealers, and doomsday preparers – nobody really stockpiles cash at home these days.
While I was out and about in Harare – the bars and clubs were jumpin’ with people buying drinks. Stores are open for business and cars are fueling up at the gas stations, just like anywhere else in the world. People are dressed well, plenty of BMWs and other nice cars can be seen driving out and about, and you can even go scoop up some food from KFC or clothing from the Adidas store – just like the USA. The Zim economy may not be at its best, but it’s not as if everybody is running amuck begging and stealing. Life seems totally normal, despite a few unpredictable turns with the currency.
If there’s one thing I learned about Zimbabwe, above all else, it’s that the people are very resilient. Even when the economy is on its knees, people are still trucking into work every day – pushing forward, not giving up, living their lives and looking forward to the future.
For all intents and purposes – the so-called “Cash Liquidity Crisis” does not affect tourists at all. The only thing you’ll need to bear in mind, if you visit Zimbabwe, is to bring all the cash you intend to spend along with you since you can’t get it from ATMs or banks there. But aside from pocket money… or lack thereof… it has zero effect on visitors. The vast majority of places you would go within Harare (hotels, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, etc) accept Visa and Mastercard anyway. Cash is only necessary if you intend to pull up at the Mbare street market and roam around buying local stuff from vendors… kinda like I did!
Got questions about how to plan your trip to Harare? Hit the comments section!