“Hey guys, I made an investment of US$5 and got a return of Z$1 trillion. I’m now a trillionaire, can you believe,” a British tourist bursts into a sarcastic laughter as he waves a $1 trillion bearer’s cheque, he had just bought outside a popular fast food outlet in Victoria Falls.
Craig Stewart (54), a first-time visitor to Zimbabwe, is among hordes of tourists who find Zimbabwe’s famous bearer’s cheques so fascinating that they are willing to part with their money to acquire the currency whose lifespan came to an end after the introduction of the multi-currency system last year.
“This is the highest denomination I have ever seen and I think it’s worth the buy. My family and friends back home will be shocked when they see this note. I bought some curios and T-shirts but I think this note is the pick of my buys,” said Stewart in an interview soon after acquiring his prized possession.
“Because of this note, I will forever remember my visit to Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe. This is incredible.”
After seeing the unique note, the rest of Stewart’s companions dig into their pockets and buy bearer’s cheques of their own.
Norman Magure (16), a school dropout now surviving on selling currency in the resort town, says bearer’s cheques are so popular that he has managed to earn a decent living from selling them.
While some Zimbabweans frown at the cheques they see lying around, for Magure and other enterprising people in Victoria Falls, the currency represents a livelihood.
He has made it his business to scrounge around for the notes, which are a painful reminder of the downward economic spiral the country went through before the formation of the inclusive government last year.
“On good days, I can get between US$50 and US$100 from selling the notes. I have no fixed selling price because it depends on the nationality of the person who wants the notes, and also the interest they would have shown,” he said.
“If the client is American or British, I charge a higher price because they are good spenders. Germans and South Africans are also good spenders, so I quote a high price and negotiate downwards if the client is not happy with the price.
“If it is Asians, you start negotiating from very low rates because they do not part with money easily, but the standard is US$5 for a bunch. Good customers such as the British can pay more, even for a single note, depending on the value. The Z$100 trillion note is the most attractive to them although anything above $1 billion sells.”
Magure says he asks for the bearer’s cheques from relatives, friends and colleagues before selling them to tourists.
He gets most of the currency for free although some people who know his trade give him at a price.
The currency is popular among tourists but for different reasons.
“For me, it will be a reminder of my visit here and besides I collect relics. It’s is quite a unique relic, I think,” says Susan Ropes, an American tourist.
Others find the value of the notes ridiculous, hence their interest.
“Where in the world would you find a $100 trillion note? It’s amazing, that’s why I did not hesitate to buy the note. I will show it off when I get home,” says Peter Fling, a Canadian.
High denomination bearer’s cheques where introduced by Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono as the runaway inflation which peaked at 500 000 000 000(five hundred billion)% in 2008 eroded the smaller denominations.
This culminated in the release of the Z$100 trillion note, which is the most attractive to tourists and also the second largest denomination to be ever introduced.
According to an online free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the largest denomination banknote ever officially issued for circulation was the 100 quintillion pengo, which was introduced in 1946 by the Hungarian National Bank.
The banknote, however, did not depict the numbers, making the 500 000 000 000 000 Yugoslav October dinar and the Z$100 000 000 000 000 Zimbabwean dollar banknotes, the notes with the greatest number of zeros shown.
Ironically, the Zimbabwean dollar was among the highest valued currencies when it was first introduced in 1980 to replace the Rhodesian dollar at a ratio of 1:1.
At the time of its introduction, the Zimbabwean dollar was worth more than the United States dollar, the local dollar being equal to US$1,47.
Political turmoil and hyperinflation rapidly eroded the value of the Zimbabwean dollar to eventually become one of the least valued currency units in the world.
Despite attempts to control inflation by legislation and three separate redenominations in 2006, 2008 and 2009, the use of the dollar as an official currency was effectively abandoned on April 12, 2009 as a result of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe legalising the use of foreign currencies for transactions in January 2009.