The three-block stretch along Fort Street in Bulawayo’s CBD, which was once Zimbabwe’s hub of financial activity and was nicknamed the ‘world bank’, is no more.
The ‘Osipatheleni’ (money changers) who made the ‘the great bank’ at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic turmoil have disappeared with a few that have remained there having transformed into airtime vendors.
Today, a cluster of forlorn-looking women clothed in the familiar white garb associated with ‘osiphatheleni’ can be seen seated on red plastic soft drink cases.
The big leather handbags they commonly carried and known to be ever full of cash – many trillions of Zim dollars and thousands in other currencies – have disappeared just as have the endless orders of chicken feasts that had become synonymous with money traders.
Instead, an assortment of biscuits and sweets are laid on the ground in front of the women, with weathered signs advertising the biscuits at One Dollar for two or R7.50 for two. Others stand at street corners loudly shouting prices for their new goods – cell phone recharge cards.
The demise of the Zimbabwean dollar and the inception of the American dollar and the South African Rand pulled the rug from under the feet of many illegal money traders and drumsticks of fried chicken were literally snatched from the mouths of the obese women.
Some members of the Va Positoris religious sect admit that life has become very difficult for them.
“As you can see, some of us are now selling recharge cards, others are selling sweets, biscuits and chips to make a living. Dollarisation really did us hard,” said one woman who preferred to only be called Mavis.
Mavis also revealed that some ‘Osiphatheleni’ who were ashamed of being seen in their ‘riches to rags’ state had fled the city centre and were selling little things from their homes.
However, the few money traders that are still involved in dealing with foreign currency are offering better cross rates compared to some shops in the city.
“In Bulawayo, one can get a few customers who want to cross rate because the cross rate in some shops is US$1 to R7 or R7, 50. We offer a better rate of US$1 to R8, so we get a few customers,” said Butho Nyoni, a money trader.
The closure of official Bureau de Changes gave rise to ‘Osiphatheleni’ in the city of Bulawayo who got their name from the fact that they used to stand along the street and say “Usiphatheleni” (what have you brought us?).
Now they can be heard shouting:“cross rate, US$ to Rand, Pula to Rand!” and so on.
The clever ‘Osiphatheleni’ who saved or invested their money have since opened ‘rand shops’ in the city and are making a descent living.
“We surely made a lot of money as money changers, but when dollarization came, things became tough. However, I had saved some money for the rainy day and I have opened my rand shop, so I can still take care of my family,” said Senzo Ndebele, owner of a shop named Tweezers.
Ndebele added that as a money changer, one had to be careful about their money as that was not a permanent arrangement.
“Being ‘Osiphatheleni’ was bound to end at some point, but there were some of us who thought it would never end and they would make money for the rest of their lives. Those are the ones who are now suffering,” he said.