RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Four years ago, Zimbabwe experienced what's thought to be the worst case of hyperinflation in modern history. In response, Zimbabwe abandoned its currency and switched to the U.S. dollar, a move experts say prevented a complete economic collapse. Still, as Anders Kelto reports from the capital Harare, using the dollar has created some unusual problems for Zimbabwe - the bills are becoming filthy and there are no coins for change.
ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: Outside of a shopping complex in downtown Harare, three women lean against a brick wall. They hold stacks of cash in their hands, for people passing by to see. One has a baby cradled in her arms.
SATENDA: My name is Satenda.
KELTO: And who is this little one?
SATENDA: This is Robafazu Makuyere, she's my daughter. Seven months old.
KELTO: Satenda is an informal money exchanger. She trades U.S. dollars for a wide range of foreign currencies right here on the sidewalk.
SATENDA: We sell rands, pula, pounds, euros, kwacha.
KELTO: As Zimbabwe's economy declined over the last decade, huge numbers of Zimbabweans spilled over the border to escape food shortages, and to find jobs. Many still live abroad and send money back to their families. Satenda and others trade that cash for U.S. dollars. She gives a slightly better exchange rate than banks - that's how she gets clients.
Do you make good money doing this? Like, how much do you make on a good day?
SATENDA: Maybe 15 dollars or 20 dollars per day. Or some of the days you get nothing.
KELTO: But there's something odd about the bills that she's holding. They're absolutely filthy. They look like they might crumble in her hands at any moment. That's because very few people here have bank accounts, so the bills are almost never deposited or exchanged for cleaner ones. They stay on the dusty streets, going from the fruit stand to the guy selling phone cards on the corner, to people like Satenda. And while some banks and stores won't accept dirty notes, money exchangers almost always will.
(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)
KELTO: Inside the shopping center, customers stand in line at a small grocery store. A customer named Brian Mbandule walks past the cash register empty-handed.
Why didn't you buy anything?
BRIAN MBANDULE: I wanted to buy two cans of drinks, but they ain't got no change for a fifty.
KELTO: Blessing Chivandile, the store manager, says this is a common problem. Keeping small bills in stock is difficult, especially on paydays, when people tend to show up with larger denominations. At the cash register, a customer named Chris Guruneta buys a bag of potato chips for 80 cents. He hands over a one dollar bill. But instead of getting twenty cents back, he's given two pieces of chocolate.
CHRIS GURUNETA: We are forced to get sweets.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KELTO: It seems odd, but this kind of change is common in Zimbabwe. That's because there are no U.S. coins. They're heavy, and expensive to import. So Chivandile says most stores offer snacks instead.
BLESSING CHIVANDILE: We give them sweets, chocolates. They choose apples, bananas to cover the change.
KELTO: Guruneta, who makes just over a dollar an hour at his manufacturing job, says it can be frustrating. He'd rather save the change. But he says most people have learned to tolerate the situation.
GURUNETA: We've been doing it for a very long time now. So we are kind of understanding the situation we have in Zimbabwe.
KELTO: For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto.