via Money & identity | The Zimbabwean by Chenjerai Hove
Meeting businessman Pascal Chikara in the streets of Harare in the 1980s was like an encounter with some kind of a financial saviour of the nation. Before enquiring into matters of your health, he would assert that he was Zimbabwe’s youngest millionaire – even if that was uncalled for.
Glamorously-dressed and ruthlessly pushy, the man’s over-sized ego betrayed the power of his banked millions for all to see. Chikara had ‘solid Zimbabwean millions of cash’ in his bank accounts, and was not in the habit of hiding it.
But then years later when the Zimbabwean dollar was breathing its last, I remembered an old tale in which the animals held a big conference for the purpose of each one announcing what its identity was. That is, what identifies you: that which we can say if it is not there, you are not there?
Some boasted about their thunderous roar. Others, especially the small ones, identified themselves by their long tails or squeaky sounds, large eyes, magnificent ears like the rabbit’s, or soft ,sheep’s coats, brightly spotted fur, or long, elegant necks. Some even went as far as showing off their speed in the hunt.
The tortoise sat quietly among them. He had forgotten his shell at home, but was brave enough to announce that he was, indeed, the tortoise and could only be identified by his shell house.
Mischievous rabbit stood up and laughed, of course, with his usual missing front tooth and large ears. He shouted: ‘What is a tortoise without its shell? If you have no shell, you are not a tortoise, simple and clear.’ The tortoise shamefully slumped to the floor amid loud applause for the rabbit’s wit. Identity, that is the question, and national identity, that is the crux of the matter.
Many Zimbabweans, at home and abroad, always hide behind the mask of ‘it’s our culture’ when unpalatable aspects of their nation are discussed. There is a tendency to think that ‘our culture’ is a good shield against all argument. The animals were, indeed, discussing the issue of individual and collective identities.
Identities are a complex subject. A tortoise without its shell is not a tortoise just as a rabbit without large ears is simply a cat. But a tortoise is also other things, and a rabbit is also other things. We all have multiple identities – just like the animals.
Some of the national badges of identity are symbols – like flags, languages, anthems and Coats-Of-Arms. Zimbabweans have even adopted the Flame Lily as part of their grand national identity. Unfortunately, our national identity is never complete without the treacherous national currency, which, if one might say, is a major part of our personal and national ego. After the massive inflation in Zimbabwe a decade ago, I sat and wondered if ‘the youngest millionaire in Zimbabwean dollars’ would still introduce himself as such in a country where every citizen, child or adult, had become a multi-billionaire. Faced with inflation to the tune of over one billion per cent, the national currency became worthless.
The question is: with the death of our national currency, have we also become worthless?
I could imagine the millionaire gentleman probably feeling as worthless as the banked millions he used to parrot about to everyone he came across. Before, he had been king of his personal and public space, but when every beggar or maid became a billionaire, the man, alongside others, lost ‘value’ just as his millions had become stale.
For me, a national currency is a citizen’s pride. It is part of the arithmetic of our lives when we are born and learn how to count. Yes, we might begin with counting stones and sticks, but we soon learn how to count goats, sheep and cows. We soon learn how to buy basic commodities in our little village or corner shop, waiting for some change. People don’t learn to count just for the sake of it.
A national currency carries our national dignity, and identity. A currency crisis is also a crisis of individual and national identity, fracturing the national ego with disastrous consequences.
It was the same with the Germans when their currency was worth nothing overnight. Hitler was able to use that humiliation in order to restore the dignity and identity of the German nation. Someone had to be found to carry the burden of blame. In Hitler’s world, it was the Jews. President Robert Mugabe focused his wrath on the ‘whites, Western imperialists and colonialists.’
The lack of respect for the currency amounts to a massive degradation of self-respect as citizens hate to own worthless money which does not buy them anything. As the national currency became ‘nothing’ the nationals began to feel they were nothing, worthless, as undesirable as the national currency. No thief would even bother to steal or take those worthless billions which became a symbol of humiliation and national mockery.
Then, through the back door, enter the American dollar, of all currencies. RIP Zimbabwean dollar. The currency of the so-called ‘imperialist colonizers’ probably feels like a curse in the pocket of the colonized. It must be a heavy burden of conscience for President Mugabe to spend most of his waking hours condemning the Americans while waiting for his monthly salary paid in US dollars, not South African rands or Angolan kwanzas.
The implications of a worthless currency are grave. We ask ourselves what it means to do business in the currency whose features you do not identify with. I asked a Zimbabwean: ‘what are the words on the American dollar which is now our currency?’ He did not know. As for the picture on the note, he had no idea. He only knew it was the United States dollar.
‘Corruption became worse after this American dollar came,’ my brother, a priest says to me. His assessment made sense: the American dollar does not carry Zimbabwean identity, so to cheat in that currency does not bring the same guilty feeling one would have if they had been cheating in a currency carrying important national symbols like The Great Zimbabwe ruins and the Flame Lily.
‘All serious gangsters deal in other currencies, never their own money with their own national symbols,’ a friend joked to me not so long ago. Indeed, no Colombian or Zimbabwean drug dealer would want to be paid in Colombian pesos or Zimbabwean dollars. No Nigerian kidnapper wants to be paid in Nigerian naira. All crooks charge for their services in foreign currencies which do not carry their national identities.
When the noise-makers of sovereignty shout about their own sovereignty, I wonder what it is to argue sovereignty when their pockets are full of American dollars. ‘No interference in the internal affairs of our country,’ they say, while American dollars are allowed to interfere in the sovereignty of their pockets.
Zimbabweans are ashamed of themselves for not having a national currency. Without the national currency as identity, a citizen does not hesitate to cheat in a foreign currency which does not mean anything personal to them.
Corruption in Zimbabwe became worse with the use of foreign currencies from other lands. Cheating in US dollars is not the same as cheating in Zimbabwean dollars. It is the same with the national flag: seeing a foreign flag burning does not arouse the same emotions as seeing your own national flag on fire. Much as people protest against their dictatorial or tyrannical regimes, they would never burn their own flag. They can burn effigies of their presidents, but never the flag.
In the countryside, land is the currency. If you take away a villager’s piece of land, you have reduced him to a worthless rascal, a wanderer who owns nothing on this earth and does not deserve a place in joyful folk tales. That is why the liberation war was headed by ‘vana vevhu’, children of the soil. If the liberation war had been waged on the theme of occupying the presidential palace, no parent would have allowed their child to join it. Once the crowd symbol, land, was put to the front, then the thirst for land was worth fighting for. Other rights come low on the priority list of Zimbabweans.
But our politicians have this rare lack of a sense of irony. They spend most of their time talking about ‘our national sovereignty’ and condemn the so-called ‘imperialists’ whose currencies are in their pockets.
A country without its own currency is doomed to own a false identity dressed in a shallow national imagination. But what I loathe is a dual currency: an ‘imperialist-colonialist’ US dollar for those who have investments in colonialist countries, and a Zimbabwean dollar for the economically-crippled peasants and workers of our country with its shattered identity. – (C) Chenjerai Hove, 2013