ERICA Mheterwa (54) and three other villagers in the Masarafa area of Nyamapanda spent the early hours of Monday morning gathering the wild masawu
fruit for sale at Harare’s Mbare market to fight spiralling poverty in the area.
As dusk approached, the quartet perched themselves on their masuwu bags along the Nyamapanda highway patiently waiting for transport to Harare.
Mheterwa’s sack has a label which indicates that not so long ago it used to carry foodstuffs donated by the European Union.
Experience tells them that all things being equal they will catch a long distance haulage truck around 7pm to get them to Harare before mid-night. Their major challenge would be to get somewhere safe to sleep and to eat before they start selling their “wares” the next morning.
When we stopped on the roadside to chat to them about the new currency introduced by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe last week, we realised we were alerting them to a new phenomenon they didn’t need to worry about on their previous trips.
They all admitted that the scant details they had heard of the new currency from their radios were not enough to enlighten them.
In this remote area the radio and occasional visitors from town are the only sources of information on important events in the rest of the country.
A newspaper is out of question because it rarely gets there. Even if it did, very few if any, would afford it. With hunger wreaking havoc in their lives and their houses precariously leaning against mountain slopes, the people have more pressing problems to worry about.
The next meal comes after a lot of scrounging.
All four say they have not seen any RBZ officials whom central bank governor Gideon Gono said would be sent in the remote areas to educate people on the new “family of bearer cheques” and the deadline to replace the old currency.
“We have not seen anyone from the Reserve Bank,” said Mheterwa. “We rely on the radio but the reception is so bad that we can’t hear everything. Sometimes it crackles for the whole day.”
The Zimbabwe Independent, on a tour of the area, spent half an hour with the four villagers to find out whether they understood the meaning of the new currency, and it was evident during that chat that they were all in the dark.
Worse still, they don’t understand the motive behind the new currency. It showed in their discussions that almost two weeks after its introduction, news of the new currency had not trickled down to the people.
When the Independent news crew showed them the new currency, Mheterwa scanned it with scepticism.
“Is this real money?” she asked as she held the $1 000 note. “What can it buy which we could not buy in the past? Ukundiko kutamba nesu chaiko (These people are playing with us.).”
The few RBZ officials sent to conduct education campaigns in the area spend their time in air-conditioned offices at the border post away from the poor villagers who need their help the most.
“So what do I get if I sell a bucket of masawu at the old $800 000 each?” asks Mheterwa.
A teenager who looks a little knowledgeable interjects saying she will get $800 per bucket.
But Mheterwa dismisses her explanation and instead says they will get $80 per bucket. And that marks the beginning of a five-minute debate that in the end creates more confusion.
At one time Mheterwa said she had heard a rumour in her area that the new currency would include “shillings”.
“I heard that they are going to introduce the shillings. Is that true?” Mheterwa asks.
She is however smart enough to know that the new currency, regardless of its form or colour, will not stop prices from going up. She might not have heard of the word inflation but she feels it when the price of a bar of soap goes up.
“Ndokuti igotenga zvakawanda here nhai mwanangu? Ayiwa tibvirei! Ndiyo inonzi chawagona hapana jeri reBindura chairo,” she responded to attempts by this reporter to explain the meaning of the new money.
The four are a microcosm of the kind of confusion that the new currency has caused especially in the countryside.
Mheterwa represents the genuine anxiety that pervades the rural landscape regarding the currency change.
With less than two weeks to go before the August 21 deadline for the change-over, it is apparent that the bulk of the vulnerable people have not been educated about the new currency.
A policeman we gave a lift at Kotwa growth point along the way said the 21-day transitional period was too short. He said elderly villagers in the area had piles of notes which they would not part with. He said the exercise should go on up to December.
But it is not the illiterate elderly folk only that are in the dark.
Nodia (23), a bar lady at Nyamuyaruka shops, about 10km from the border post, took more than five minutes to work out what the new $1 000 note translates into in the old currency.
“So this is a $100 000? No I think it’s a million. So what change do I give you for the beer you are buying?” asked Nodia as she tried to make sense of the new currency.
Such is the level of confusion that has engulfed the people. In the end she was rescued by one of the patrons who claimed to work for a freight agency at Nyamapanda border post.
Ironically, Nodia works in the same complex that the central bank team is booked into.
They are staying in obscure lodgings because The Pumpkin Hotel, the only decent place in the area, is fully booked.
Those who have passed through Nyamapanda and other border posts say the searching by state security agents are dehumanising.
The tight security at the border has forced desperate cross-borders traders to devise cunning ways to smuggle the old bearer cheques into the country.
Money is being smuggled in tyres. Reports said two haulage truck drivers were caught with money stashed in deflated tyres.
The enterprising ones use undesignated routes to enter the country. They cross into Zimbabwe through de-mined areas and hide in the bushes until the roadblock has cleared. Weary policemen normally dismantle search roadblocks in the evening to enjoy the hefty allowances they are getting from the RBZ.
While the targeted people struggle to make head or tail of the new currency, the exercise has turned into a money spinning venture for Zanu PF youth militia, RBZ officials and police officers who are getting hefty allowances for their work.
Senior police and RBZ officials are reportedly getting $50 million a day.
The militia and junior officers are getting between $30 million and $35 million.
The real crisis, though, is with the inflexible people who will not part with their old notes.
A policeman told the Independent that one old man had told them he had a trunk full of money but would not change it because it belonged to his son based in Gweru.
The central bank has a huge task on its hands. It has less than 10 days to educate the whole nation and collect bank notes from far flung parts of the country.