Cathy Buckle: Zimbabwe’s ZiG – From childhood songs to chaotic realities

In a nostalgic reverie, the echoes of a childhood song mingle with the chaos of present-day Zimbabwe. The innocuous word “ZiG” once sparked laughter around campfires, but now it heralds turmoil as the nation grapples with a new currency. Abruptly introduced, ZiG brings a maelstrom of confusion—banks falter, transactions fail, and daily life spirals into disarray. Amidst the mayhem, citizens confront a surreal financial calculus, wondering how long this new reality will endure.

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By Cathy Buckle

Dear Family and Friends

All week I’ve been rolling the word ZIG around in my head wondering why it was so familiar aside from the fact that it’s the name of Zimbabwe’s new currency. Then I remembered the Zulu children’s song we used to sing around the campfire growing up in what was then called Southern Rhodesia. Spelling and pronunciation mistakes and all the song went like this:

‘I zig a Zumba, Zumba, Zumba; I zig a Zumba Zumba Zumba zey; Hold him down you Zulu warrior; Hold him down you Zulu Chief, Chief, Chief.’ Half the group would repeat the last line while the other half started singing from the beginning creating a round and soon we’d all be laughing and singing louder as we got to the chanting of the words Chief, Chief, Chief.  

But there’s nothing at all evocative, funny or happy about the word ZiG in Zimbabwe this April. The ZiG is the name of our new currency which was introduced out of the blue on the 5th of April; it stands for Zimbabwe Gold. It seems no one had been given any notice at all about the ZiG because banks, shops, businesses, utility providers and communication networks all went into an instant spiral. We were all in the dark and Zimbabwe tripped and stumbled into the inevitable chaos that followed.     

The statement from the Reserve Bank said that our existing currency known as ZWL, RTGS or Bond Dollars would cease to be legal in 21 days’ time and we should hand in all our bank notes and change them for, er, well actually to physically change them for nothing. Yes, you read that right because there is nothing to change them for as the new ZiG bank notes are not being released until the end of April.  How can you change a currency for something that physically doesn’t exist? It was bizarre. Use Virtual Money, the appeasers said but that’s only as good or as useful as your ability to do transactions via bank cards, internet banking, phone-banking or mobile money platforms and they were all unanimously DOWN, crashed, useless. 

 Immediately no one wanted our Bond Dollar notes, from supermarkets to toll gates and everyone in between and the confusion worsened. Our bank debit and credit cards suddenly didn’t work. Internet banking didn’t work. Phone banking didn’t work. We couldn’t pay our bills, buy food or get medical help.  The messages started flicking up on our phones and each one was opened with deepening dread. From the bank came this: ‘Dear Customer. Our ZWL platforms are down to allow for currency changeover. We will advise once service has been restored.’ Four days later the platforms were still down and we still had no access to our money and the bank sent this notice: ‘Dear Customer our conversion to ZiG is still ongoing. Thank you for your patience.’ What patience I wondered, we couldn’t buy airtime for our phones, buy electricity or pay overdue bills; patience didn’t come anywhere near the mess this had created in our lives nor the simmering disgust about the way this whole thing had been done. Meanwhile people outside Zimbabwe were sending congratulatory messages saying: ‘WOW, you’ve got a new currency backed by gold.’ Hmmm we thought, skepticism swirling after having watched the three Gold Mafia documentaries last year which exposed the massive smuggling of gold out of Zimbabwe to Dubai and beyond.

Seven days after the official statement about the ZiG, banks started to come back online, then phone banking, electricity purchases and other platforms and for the first time we got a look at our bank accounts and tried to wrap our heads around what we’d lost.  And of course we had lost, it all depended on the rate we had changed our US dollars for in the first place.

In an absurdly complicated calculation to find out how much you had lost you have to convert US dollars to RTGS Bond dollars at the exchange rate you got. Then you have to convert the RTGS dollars to ZiG dollars at the government stipulated rate. Next you have to convert the Zig dollars back to US dollars at that government stipulated rate and you will then be able to see exactly how much you lost in this latest nightmare. I lost US$26.31 for every one hundred dollars I had changed in order to pay my bills.

Crazy doesn’t begin to explain the nightmare of shopping at the moment, you need a calculator and pen and paper to work it out and everyone is counting decimal points and hoping they’ve got enough ZiG’s in their bank cards or phones to cover the bills. The question on everyone’s lips is how long the ZiG will stay at an exchange rate of 13.57, rumours are already swirling and threats against street currency traders by the government are rising a fortnight before they’ve even released their ZiG bank notes. The government’s insistence on not allowing a normal free flowing exchange rate and stipulating rates, it seems that nothing has changed except the name on the bank notes. Aaah to be a child at the campfire again urging that Zulu Chief to hold the perpetrator down.

Meanwhile we the ordinary people stagger on dealing with all the other normally abnormal events of everyday Zimbabwe, in my case that is no internet connection for 10 days; no electricity for five days, no water pressure for two months. We deserve better than this as we commemorate 44 years of Independence this week.

There is no charge for this Letter From Zimbabwe but if you would like to donate please visit my website. Until next time, thanks for reading this Letter From Zimbabwe now in its 24th year, and my books about life in Zimbabwe, a country in waiting.

Ndini shamwari yenyu (I am your friend)

Love Cathy 17 April 2024.

Copyright © Cathy Buckle https://cathybuckle.co.zw/

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