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How Crumbling U.S. Dollars Bailed Out Zimbabwe

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Four years ago, Zimbabwe experienced one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in history. The country abandoned its own currency and switched to the U.S. dollar — a move experts say prevented a complete economic collapse.

But using American dollars has created a host of bizarre issues. The bills are filthy, crumbling and often in short supply. There are no U.S. coins to make change, so chocolate is handed out instead. There is, oddly, an abundance of $2 bills.

Restaurants often have trouble providing change. Customers who are finished and have paid their tabs with large bills sometimes have to wait for others to finish and pay with smaller bills so that change becomes available.

A World Of Currencies

Outside a shopping complex in downtown Harare, three women lean against a brick wall. They hold stacks of cash for people passing by to see.

One of these informal money changers, Satenda, has her 7-month-old daughter cradled in her arms. Yet she can change money in the currency of your choice: South Africa's rand, Botswana's pula, Zambia's kwacha, Britain's pounds or euros.

As Zimbabwe's economy declined over the last decade, huge numbers of Zimbabweans spilled over the border to escape food shortages and to find jobs.

Many still live abroad and send money back to their families. Satenda and others trade that cash for U.S. dollars. She makes money by offering a slightly better exchange rate than banks.

On a good day, she can make $15 to $20. On a bad day, nothing.

But the first thing you notice about the U.S. bills she's holding is that they are absolutely filthy. They look like they might disintegrate in her hands at any moment.

That's because very few people have bank accounts, so the bills are constantly in circulation and rarely, if ever, exchanged for newer cleaner ones. They stay on the dusty streets, going from the fruit stand, to the guy selling phone cards on the corner, to money-changers like Satenda.

Some banks won't accept the notes because they are in such poor condition, though the money exchangers almost always will.

Zimbabwe used to have the Zimbabwe dollar, but during the period of hyperinflation, the country found itself printing billion-dollar and even trillion-dollar notes. The biggest bill was for 100 trillion dollars — that's a one followed by 14 zeroes.

All those bills are now worthless as legal tender, though some trillion-dollar notes have taken on an afterlife as souvenirs that can be sold for a small sum to collectors.

Today, everyone uses U.S. dollars, particularly in Harare and other northern parts of the country. In the south, near the border with South Africa, that country's currency, the rand, is accepted in some places.

No Small Bills Or Coins For Change

Inside the shopping center, customers stand in line at a small grocery store. Brian Mbandule walks past the cash register empty-handed.

"I wanted to buy two cans of drinks, but they ain't got no change for a 50," he says.

Blessing Chivandile, the store manager, says this is a common problem. Keeping small bills in stock is difficult, especially on paydays, when people show up with larger denominations.

At the cash register, Chris Guruneta buys a bag of potato chips for 80 cents. He hands over a dollar bill. But instead of getting 20 cents back, he's given two pieces of chocolate.

"We are forced to get sweets," he says with a laugh.

It seems odd, but this kind of change is common in Zimbabwe. That's because there are no U.S. coins. They're heavy and expensive to import. So Chivandile says most stores offer small snacks instead.

"We give them sweets," he says. Or, he adds, "They choose apples, bananas to cover the change."

Guruneta, who makes just over $1 an hour at his manufacturing job, says it can be frustrating; he'd rather save the change. But he says most people have learned to tolerate the situation.

"We have been doing it for a very long time now," he says. "So we are kind of understanding the situation we have in Zimbabwe."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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