The moneychangers’ flea market in Zim’s CBD

They wear flashy garments and loud perfumes, presenting themselves as uptown yuppies. Many have that bulging African backside oozing cellulite, celebrated by women and men alike as the quintessence of beauty.

They flaunt their huge behinds and sagging bellies as they stand by city sidewalks in broad daylight and make no effort to repress their sexuality.

But wait a minute: they are not soliciting for brazen quickies in filthy alleys as in the days of Zimbabwe’s economic boom. That — as streetwise lay historians will tell you — was during the early years when the one with a Hitler moustache had just inherited an enviable jewel this far side of the Sahara and the natives could afford all sorts of luxuries.

Usiphatheleni bhudi [What did you bring us, bro]?” they chorus as you go about minding your business — like ruminating over where you will get your next meal. Meet Bulawayo’s illegal moneychangers.

They yell their solicitations even with a visibly impoverished and bamboozled cop standing nearby — never mind that this street trade is supposed to be illegal, according to the country’s central bank. Everyone knows the poorly remunerated cops now get their bread (minus the butter) in the streets much like everyone else.

These women have so honed their survival skills that they can be heard telling off the very poor law enforcement officer who threatens them with arrest, yelling obscenities about the cops being undersexed, and if the cop is lucky, he gets off with a pitiable bribe of a few dollars, just enough to pay for a single trip home.

Moneychangers have colonised virtually every street corner of the CBD, turning it into a haven of illegal cash transactions. Pedestrians wonder aloud how many South African rands or US greenbacks flood these mean streets and whether these locals are causing shortages of the rand in Jo’burg.

It has been whispered that the hopelessly amoral central bank splashes stacks of local dollars on its foot soldiers in the form of these women lurking on street corners to purchase foreign currency from members of the public. It is this foreign currency that, the story goes, the central bank uses to pay the ever-ballooning debts of public utilities — like the power company that has to pay the neighbouring countries from which Zimbabwe imports its electricity.

While millions toil — poor residents can be heard cursing loudly — the ladies with huge behinds live comfortable lives. They gorge on junk food and are the elite who can afford takeaways in a country where many households last had bread more than a year ago. Many here believe the barons are fronts for well-heeled politicians and high-up bank officials who splash dollars on these streets and have the whole country complaining about cash shortages. These women are the types who have friends in high (some say low) places.

In the infancy of the moneychanging business — which some say can be traced as far back as the early 1990s — it was members of a religious sect who pioneered the trade. The women of the sect could be easily identified by their white religious garb, but many wondered when they actually made time to praise and worship.

These pioneering women bought foreign currency so they could cross the border and purchase goods for resale back in Bulawayo. Now they reportedly control the trade, alongside incorrigibly corrupt senior government officials, and the women have retired to their mansions, while the small fish do their errands.

Because their religious garb became associated with moneychanging, it was only a matter of time before imitators appeared. Though religion and prayer were the last things on their minds, they adopted religious garb to woo customers — and it worked.

But the trick had its downside. The cops could now easily ID the illegal moneychangers in this once peaceful CBD, and wearing religious garb soon became an occupational hazard.

Members of the public also knew whom to target for mob justice when they’d been conned. The story back then, and now, was that the women would sandwich fake banknotes — actually old newspapers — between genuine Zim dollars, then rush you into accepting the stash by claiming that plain-clothed police were watching the illegal transaction. Now, however, the religious garb has disappeared, but the cons continue.

Believe or not, the central bank expects members of the public to sell their foreign currency to banks so the impoverished government can have a source of forex after it decimated all foreign currency-earning sectors of the economy.

But the ubiquitous women who yell ”usiphatheleni” and make a filthy rich living for themselves have become an important part of the local economy for thousands here who receive remittances from friends and relatives working outside the country.

 

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Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri is a freelance journalist

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