This is a guest post from a Zimbabwean NYU student. They wish to remain anonymous due to the political climate in Zimbabwe. For more background, check out the NY Times article on the change problem here.
This week as I pack, I will be looking for clever ways to carry dozens of pennies, quarters, and dimes in my suitcases without looking crazy. It has to be a balance—it’s the art of smuggling. I need just enough change to use in Zimbabwe for two weeks during summer when I go to the grocery store. But not so many coins that my bags will be clanking suspiciously at customs at JFK, at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, or when I pass by Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania.
It’s bad enough that I have the incriminating passport. Often, in Amsterdam, check-in agents at the airport take an extra look at my passport. It’s a dark, distinct green, slightly worn, with the big, gold letters ZIMBABWE fading on the cover. It’s tired of hopping from country to country, stuffed in folders and back pockets. “How’s Mugabe?” some of the check-in agents joke about our infamous Zimbabwean president. “I’ll ask him when I get there,” is my answer.
During the school year at NYU, a lot of people cannot tell where I’m from. I try to hide the little hint of an accent that I still have. In the city, people rarely guess my nationality. When asked, I say it quickly, “I’m from Zimbabwe.” People usually oooh, eyes wide, as if they have just spotted an exotic cat, then they conveniently leave it there. But others have “the look.” They feel bad and an awkward silence hangs between us. Then I know I’m in trouble, because they know the story.
Sometimes I feel embarrassed to be from there, even though an oversized flag hangs over my bed in my dorm room. Throughout the year, I can’t wait to go back home over the summer. I miss hearing voices joking in Shona, eating colored greens with peanut butter and biting into white and pink guavas from our garden. Then when the time comes around May, and I begin to collect coins, I remember why I don’t really live there anymore. It is still a small country right on top of South Africa. But it is now just a pathetic shadow of the Zimbabwe I knew in my childhood, the one where most people were happy, and not afraid of police on the street–not afraid of being beaten until the skin on their backs peeled off during election time because they voted for someone other than the president.
I remember that we don’t even have our own working currency in circulation anymore; Zimbabwean dollars are now a joke, worthless, sold as souvenirs on E-Bay. I remember when we changed to the American dollar in 2009, after we had an unsustainable monthly inflation rate of 79,600,000,000 percent, to the point where we were buying bread with bundles and bundles of bills. Foreign currency doesn’t flow into the country in coin form, since they are too heavy and expensive to ship in.
I hope no one asks why I have change in my bags. I hope they don’t ask what happened around twelve years ago to bring one of the most prosperous African countries to it’s knees overnight. It’s complicated. We don’t like to talk about it, all we know is that we are surviving. Mugabe has been in power for over 30 years, but we are still here. Some of us go home in the summer from the diaspora, grateful that our relatives are still living, that at least now the economy has stabilized.
We laugh that no one has change as we go to buy things at the grocery store. We are just glad that now there is actual food in the grocery store. Only a few years ago, when there were severe food shortages, the lines snaked around the block. Nowadays, we just have change shortages. “You better pain killers, lollipops, or pieces of chewing gum” the cashier shrugs, listing off what is exchanged in place of coins. At least now the stories on the news have evolved from people getting butchered to a small, embarrassing problem of missing change.
Change can be a lot of money in Zimbabwe. In the capital city of Harare, 50 cents is enough for two bus rides to work. A lot of people can live on two dollars a day. People get angry when they can’t get their change in the grocery store. So I see my minor smuggling as a duty to my country. Maybe I’ll only manage to carry a small few pouches between my suitcases. Maybe I won’t be allowed to at all. But hopefully this one summer, I will be able to bring a little change to Zimbabwe.