Money is an interesting thing here in Africa. Each country has its own currency. Well, almost every country.
Zimbabwe has the unique distinction of using the American dollar as its official currency. That’s right. The US Mint prints money for the government of Zimbabwe as well.
Back in 2008, Zimbabwe’s economy was so mismanaged by Robert Mugabe and his buddies, inflation began to spiral out of control. In fact, it got so bad so rapidly that people needed wheelbarrows of cash to buy a loaf of bread. Same phenomenon as what happened in Germany in the 1920s.
The Zimbabwean mint tried to keep up with the hyperinflation by repeatedly printing new denominations of bills. They finally gave up after their 100 Trillion Dollar note was rendered worthless (their unit of currency was also called the “dollar”). In fact, one can still purchase an authentic, discontinued 100 trillion dollar note on the street from enterprising street vendors.
The US dollar is also the preferred coin of the realm throughout Africa. Vendors will always want to take the greenback over their local currency. The reason? Similar to Zimbabwe, African currencies tend to be volatile (usually not to the degree of Mr. Mugabe’s blunder, but volatile nonetheless). By taking US dollars, the vendor can rest assured that he will not run the risk of losing value.
Another curious discovery. Remember the much-maligned US two dollar bill? It’s alive and well here in Africa. It’s shown up a number of times in my travels.
For those too young to remember, the two dollar bill was introduced in 1976 to much fanfare. The US Mint advertised that it would help streamline cash transactions by reducing reliance on the one dollar bill. The new issue quickly went the way of the dodo bird (which by the way, my friend Patrick from Mauritius said was exclusively indigenous to the island of Mauritius before it was hunted to extinction). The reason for the two dollar bill’s demise? Retailers hated it because their cash register drawers do not have a space for a two dollar bill. Ones, fives, tens and twenties, but no one was going to completely redesign the cash register for this new bill. Fifties and hundreds could go under the tray, but to do it for twos was too much hassle.
While still considered legal tender, the two dollar bill is virtually extinct in the US (except for collectors). Not so in Africa.
African currencies (at least the ones I’ve encountered) almost always have a depiction of some sort of an animal on the different denominations as well as a picture of a founding father (Mandela in South Africa, Sam Nujoma in Namibia – similar to the US and George Washington).
The currencies I’ve encountered on my trip:
Tanzania – Shilling (a holdover from the days of British rule)
Rwanda – Franc (likewise the days of French occupation)
Zambia – Kwacha
Zimbabwe – Dollar (previously Zimbabwean, now American)
Botswana – Pula
Namibia – Dollar (their own currency, but it’s tied to the Rand, so I’ve gotten a great exchange rate here too)
South Africa – Rand (though their currency has taken a beating recently due to economic mismanagement by Jacob Zuma, I’ve gotten a fantastic exchange rate while here)