Zanzibar runs entirely on a cash economy. It’s rare to find places that will take credit cards, and those that do charge considerable fees. There are a few ATMs in town, and each dispenses a maximum of $179 at a time. So we’ve had to be strategic about going to the machine every few days to make sure we have cash to cover meals for our family of five, as well as any additional expenses such as a ride to Changuu Island or a SIM card. Everything runs on cash.
The largest bill is a 10,000 Tanzanian Shilling (TSH) note, which is about USD$4.30. A trip to the ATM ends with a large wad of 10,000 TSH, which is already beyond many street vendors’ ability to make small change for. A basket of vegetables might be 6,000 TSH, so handing over a 10,000 note results in the vendor going to his neighbor to see how he can make change for 4,000 TSH. It also means that I often find myself without many small bills, and passing a beggar on the street means a choice between giving him US$4.30 or nothing at all. It’s strange to be in a country where one can feel so rich by having so many TSHs in pocket, yet so poor by having to constantly find ways to source bills.
This Cash Economy is about to get far more real. There are very few ATMs on the island outside of Stonetown, and since we plan to spend the remainder of our stay in the beach towns of Nungwi, Paje, and Kendwa, we’ve had to make multiple trips to the ATM before leaving Stonetown to stock up all the cash we might need in the coming weeks. That wad of $4.30 notes has begun to feel weighty, compounding the strange feeling of being so rich and so much having to hustle to pull together what we need.
This small window into the Cash Economy is endemic of so much in Tanzania that we take for granted in the developed world. A brilliant idea in the United States can be met with loans; here, it is met with hurdles upon hurdles to secure a loan and then execute on the plan against all odds, whether it be potholed roads, an employee sick with malaria, power or internet access cutting out, and the list goes on. Where Trump calls the countries of Africa “shithole countries”, I see remarkable perseverence and ingenuity against all odds. Where those who expouse capitalism and hard work as the solution to all ills, I see the indomitable human spirit that perserves despite how readily hard work is not uniformly rewarded.
What stays with me through all this is how incredibly lucky we are. We do have access to funds. We do have 10,000 notes that is a day’s wage for so many Tanzanians. And we have a Serengeti (“the endless plain” in Swahili) of opportunties to turn to, whether in United States, Spain, or here in Africa.