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As Zimbabwean Dollar Dies, So Does a Lucrative Career

Zimbabweans struggle to find food and clean water during a raging cholera outbreak, while even burying the dead has become difficult in a devastated economy and unstable political situation.

Meanwhile, the nation is in an odd currency limbo, as its new coalition government makes plans to rescue the economy and mulls whether to euthanize the Zimbabwean dollar. Tendai Biti, the new finance minister, has vowed not to officially adopt the rand, despite encouragement from South Africa's president and Zimbabwe Reserve Bank Gov. Gideon Gono, the man widely accused of ruining the currency by printing too much of it in ever more colossal denominations, such as the $100 trillion note.

At the same time, Zimbabwe seems to retreat from its dollar each day. This week, the nation's stock exchange reopened after three shuttered months -- trading only in U.S. dollars. Last week, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition party, vowed to pay civil servants in foreign currency. On Friday, he told reporters in Cape Town that Zimbabwe would move toward a "multi-currency denominated approach."

"We are looking at the U.S. dollar, rand and so on," he said, without offering specifics.

For the money dealers who found riches in greenbacks, it all meant a return to the Zimbabwean norm of scraping by.

The high life already seems like a distant dream, Mugova and Diva said. Both worked at a low-slung string of downtown shops that turned into fronts for dealing foreign cash when the market rose.

Police often raided the place, but they were easily bribed, Mugova said. Runners from the Reserve Bank stopped by regularly, too, they said -- to buy up the foreign cash.

By pulling in as much as $300 a day in profit, Diva said he was able to buy a new sitting-room set and television, eat meat every day and take frequent trips to his rural home, where he bought food for poor relatives.

Some dealers "even managed to get two wives -- even three!" he said, smiling. But he acknowledged that he did not save.

"It just comes on a silver platter," Diva said with regret. "If you work hard for your money, you will use it wisely."

Webster Bhere ditched his job selling tires in 2004 to begin trading under the trees at the Roadport. Once, he said wistfully, he made $1,300 on a single transaction, when a religious charity needed to convert $8,000 in donor funds to Zimbabwean dollars.

Bhere bought a Nissan and built a house. He sold the Nissan and purchased two Toyota Corollas. He went to nightclubs and helped pay for relatives' funerals.

He knew his boom time was coming to an end last fall, when Zimbabwe's rival political factions signed a power-sharing deal and the government licensed some stores to charge in foreign currency.

"There's no way we can be making profit when there's a government that can run," said Bhere, 33, sipping a Coca-Cola at a Harare bar.

Dealers who "used to move around with big cash" now hawk vegetables and congratulate one another when they meet in the city, he said -- a sign they could afford the $1.50 bus fare from the townships.

Bhere took his earnings and converted a Corolla into a taxi. Trouble is, he makes $20 profit on good days, which is not bad in Zimbabwe but still barely pays for groceries.

But if the dealers reminisce for the glory days, they do not necessarily wish for their return. Even some teachers and nurses abandoned their jobs for dealing, Mugova said with frustration.

"It is no way to live. Parents should not hustle," he said. "We just need formal jobs. Not this informal, illegal economy."

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