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Sunday, 24 August 2008

Rubbish money!

Why scores of hopefuls are digging for cash in the trash

Marko Taruwona is sweating. It's running off him in buckets. But that's not stopping him as he stands in the middle of the Harare dumpsite in Glen Norah and flails away with his shovel. There's money amongst the rubbish, and Marko is determined to find it.

We're not talking re-cycling here. This is actual currency that Marko and dozens like him were this week searching for amongst the city's trash. To be precise, he and his fellow-diggers are looking for $1,000 notes - and finding them.

Once these notes were useless. Now they may not be. Just like the coins that we once discarded as valueless due to our rampant inflation, the old thousand-dollar bill, once thrown away by the stack as so much waste paper, may suddenly be worth spending again.

This paper money-rush began last Wednesday. Previously Zimbabwe's hopelessly incompetent Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono had slashed ten zeros from the values printed on our notes. This meant that coins last used three years ago bounced back into circulation, regaining much of their former value. Gona agreed that they were legal tender.

On Wednesday the comic radio presenter Dr. Zobha, who is one of the top names on the government's ZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation), told his listeners that the old $1,000 note was also back in circulation at its face value.

Immediately people like Marko remembered that they'd thrown hundreds of these notes away when their previous value diminished to nothing. Where had they gone? Into the rubbish. Where was the rubbish? At the dumpsites. It was time for Marko to grab his shovel and get digging.

When I spoke to him, in the late afternoon, he had found twelve $1,000 notes - the equivalent of Z$120 trillion in the old currency.

"God surely speaks in many ways," he told me, as he paused for breath. "Whoever thought that from this rubbish we would extract such riches!"

I didn't like to tell him that ZBC that evening were announcing that the notes would not be accepted back into circulation. However, there had been no official statement from the Reserve Bank, and the bounty hunters kept up the search.

"We know their lies," said Dadirai Marime, who had brought along his wife and two children to help search in the rubbish. "They told us that coins would never be used again. Now we are using them. The same may be true for the notes."

And he could be right. A Harare lawyer, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me: "There has been no announcement from the central bank, to declare that the notes have ceased to be legal tender. And the fact that the coins have regained their face value sets a precedent. After all, the notes are still legal tender."

Out on the dumpsites, legal arguments mean little. And the digging goes on.


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