24 – 24 – 14 – 24 – 24 -85 – 1.33 – 14 – 949 – 2,907 – 991 –  4,475 – 134 – 29 – 8 – 12*

One of the great masochistic pleasures of multi-country travel lies in the complex intricacies of currency conversion and the arithmetic pitfalls that accompany the process. The frisson of excitement at holding alien notes and coins when entering a new country is equal only to the short-term dementia experienced when attempting to adapt to their monetary value. The above sequence of numbers is the conversion rate of the currency of each of the sixteen countries of my African voyage against the formerly great pound sterling (GBP), in the geographical order my route has followed. Apart from the false dawn of the continent’s southernmost region, where three of South Africa’s five neighbours have tied their currency to the relatively stable rand, the last six months have been a return to the childhood traumas of long division and multiplication tables.

Had I visited Zimbabwe in 2008, at the height of its vertiginous hyperinflation, the 1.33 from the above sequence would have been replaced by a figure beyond the decimal display capacity of all but the Pentagon’s most powerful supercomputer. As the government attempted in vain to keep up with the spiralling devaluation of its worthless currency by printing ever larger denomination bills, each successive zero meant fewer slices of bread in the shopping basket. At the one hundred trillion dollar mark ($100,000,000,000,000!), the folly finally stopped and dollarization ensued. Today, as these paper relics of a failed economy are touted as souvenirs to tourists at Victoria Falls, the country has again run out of physical money and is in the grip of a wave of industrial action across all sectors of the economy.

For the humble and cash-conscious backpacker, the downside of dollarization means spending real money. Gone is the casual frittering of tens, hundreds and even thousands of spectacularly-named currencies (“That’ll be thirty-two kwacha please…”) and with it a carefree attitude to expenditure: every dollar counts. I happily splashed out $65 on a half-day’s snorkelling on an everage Mozambican reef with little sealife when I was paying in thousands of meticais, but cried foul play when asked for $10 to visit a world heritage Zimbabwean national park with unique geological features and breath-taking mountain scenery. I am now choosing to walk 2,5km with all my luggage in the midday sun rather than pay $2 for a local taxi, when I couldn’t throw enough Monopoly-like shillings at a Nairobi taxi driver to drive me two blocks. Welcome to the absurdity of misguided perceived wealth.

In a welcome display of recognition from the gods of backpacking, however, the months of mental gymnastics and mathematical comparison are about to pay dividends, and in the unlikeliest of locations. I celebrate my return to civilisation after a fortnight of backwater life with a cheeky Nando’s in downtown Bulawayo. As I finish picking the last morsels of flesh from what had been a satisfyingly plump poulet, a cursory review of my receipt reveals the equivalent total in the other currrencies accepted as legal tender. The USD 5.00 cost of my quarter peri-peri chicken equates to ZAR 77.52, EUR 4.63, BWP 65.00 and crucially GBP 3.25, a rate of USD 1.54 = GBP 1.00 – when today’s official rate is actually a measly USD 1.27 = GBP 1.00. Suddenly my brain whirs into action for the first time in months. It can’t be, surely, can it?

My heart skips a beat as I call for the manager in order to ask what I hope will come across as an innocent question borne of simple curiosity. Bingo! International accounting protocol at the world’s finest mass rôtisseur dictates that currency rates can only be updated every fortnight, meaning that the GBP value is STILL AT THE PRE-BREXIT RATE and I can get an extra 21% chicken for my pound!!! It is a magical moment and undoubted highlight of the trip. As I march triumphantly back to the till brandishing my debit card like a winning national lottery ticket, the cashier looks at me with both surprise and amusement. “Did you enjoy the chicken, Sir?” “Oh yes, I reply solemnly, but not as much as I will enjoy the next one.”

* South African Rand – Namibian Dollar – Botswana Pula – Lesotho Loti – Swazi Lilangeni – Mozambican Metical – US Dollar – Zambian Kwacha – Malawian Kwacha – Tanzanian Shilling – Rwandan Franc – Ugandan Shilling – Kenyan Shilling – Ethiopian Birr – Sudanese Pound – Egyptian Pound

Now where was that abacus again?

“Just the Twix, Sir? That’ll be $5,011,050,000 please.” 

Life status: winning

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