Tuesday, July 29, 2008

First Week Notes: Fifty Billion Zimbabwean dollars

I saw a fifty billion dollar Zimbabwean note yesterday. No, that isn't a mistake: 50,000,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars. A five and ten zeros. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what inflation was, but this completely baffles me. Something that cost one Zimbabwean dollar before is now fifty billion times more expensive? What does that mean? Are Zimbabweans fifty billion times poorer than they were before?

Could someone better versed in economics please explain this to me?

Another baffling thing, this time Zambian, is the price of living in Lusaka. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, 94 per cent of Zambians live on less than two dollars a day. I spend more than two dollars a day on local minibusses. The cola I'm drinking just put me back a buck fifty and my meal of cornmeal and chicken another two.

Someone told me, on good authority, that Lusaka is the fortieth most expensive city in the world and I believe it. Lusakans drive mostly late model Japanese cars if they aren't four wheel drive Land Rovers or shiny pickups. The shopping malls here feel ominously like home but most insane is the price of gas: almost double the Canadian average.

What I'm not seeing, of course, are the large townships, or “compounds”, spreading westwards from town. The ones that if you zoom in on Google Earth contrast with the genteel grid of eastern suburbs because of their anarchic streets and d.i.y. rooftops. Here people can survive, I'm told, on 5000 kwacha, worth of corn meal with a smattering of fresh vegetables and dried fish or chicken for protein. That's less than two dollars.

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