Letter from Africa: Dollar dominion

An tobacco farmer shows off his cash after selling his tobacco, at Boka Tobacco auction floors, in Harare, Zimbabwe, Tuesday 14 May 2013

In our series of letters from African journalists, Zimbabwean film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers spending power and the ongoing battle for Africa's resources.

Barack Obama declared in Dakar, Senegal - on the occasion of his second coming to sub-Saharan Africa as US president - that he was "in Africa… because Africa is rising and it is in the United States interests… that the United States don't miss the opportunity to deepen and broaden the partnerships and potential here".

We have been told for a handful of years now of our potential as oil is found off the Ghanaian coast, as gas seeps out in Tanzania while minerals of every hue come bubbling forth from the bowels of the Earth, from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

Start Quote

The dollar bill has a longevity all of its own as it passes from hand to hand, shoe to shoe, bra to bra, back to the telephone airtime seller and onto the sugar cane seller and through a beer-soaked bar and back to your wallet as change”

End Quote

And like a recklessly wealthy bride, we look over our shoulders at the orderly queue of suitors seeking a partnership of one kind or another.

A quick glimpse of the expanding urban landscapes in Luanda or Lilongwe via Google Earth may tell the president that China, the other great power, has been deepening and broadening partnerships for a little longer and that he needs to hurry up and catch up.

For while Africa will always open her arms to him as a grandson, the Chinese have been putting money in roads, hospitals, universities, football stadiums, chicken farms and oil drilling for so long the only American thing we may have left is Coca-Cola and the movies on satellite television.

Still, try he must.

In my travels, though, I have marvelled at the reach of the American dollar as the currency of choice in Luanda, in Somaliland, in Harare.

In these places America's dollars are exchanged in the markets to for a bunch of tomatoes, in the shadier parts of the cities for drugs or diamonds or hostages.

'God of riches'

The dollar bill has a longevity all of its own as it passes from hand to hand, shoe to shoe, bra to bra, back to the telephone airtime seller and onto the sugar cane seller and through a beer-soaked bar and back to your wallet as change.

A money changer in DR Congo counting US dollars The busily traded US dollars often become filthy in Africa

The dark barely legible note disintegrates and dies a natural death in a thunderstorm or heatwave until the next notes emerge crisp and new from another traveller or a cash machine thanks to America's printing presses and mint thousands of miles away from Africa's hustle-bustle commerce.

In Harare with my teenage children the other week for a long over-due trip to their grandparents, Mr Obama's currency was everywhere, the city having abandoned its own kamikaze trillion dollar notes for the relative stability of the greenback.

I am not sure whether it is the US dollar or the Chinese shops that have lent the city an air of over-spilling wealth.

Harare is gridlocked with vehicles of every make, and dusty courtyards are packed with second-hand vehicles from as far afield as Beijing while old potholed roads compete with new smooth ones under construction and out to tender for thousands of $100 bills - so-called "Benjamins".

In the mushrooming churches the preachers ask for cash offerings and appeal to the congregations to help raise $10,000 for a special church project. For the faithful gather every Sunday and proclaim their God is a God of prosperity and riches and not of poverty.

And so the pastor asks the congregation to raise their dollars to the sky and ignore the devil and to pray that their dollars may become numerous like the proverbial loaves of bread.

Moral high ground

Everywhere you look, Mr Obama's money is wanted and being raised to the skies, but his business folk are thin on the ground.

A member of the brass band who welcomed US President Barack Obama to Tanzania - 1 July 2013 The US trails behind China when it comes to trade in Tanzania

In the mining outposts and the more affluent vegetable markets with names like Honeydew Farm, the Africans shop with the Chinese and the Iranians and the Russians for goods in exchange for US dollars.

Over in Nairobi - not on the president's itinerary - the ladies at duty free complain that my dollar bills (the few remaining in my wallet from Harare) are filthier than their Kenyan shillings and I realise the truth of America's search for African markets. It is regarded as clean currency, a bill of democratic health.

In Nairobi where the new President Uhuru Kenyatta would make an inconvenient photo op with Mr Obama, given the ICC indictment, the Chinese are shopping with their crisp US bills.

Over in Benghazi and Cairo, new governments established with America's assistance are in a tail spin of doubt confusion and violence while the Chinese turn a blind eye to the great issues of governance and democracy, say little of the ICC, do business with indicted leaders in Kenya and Sudan, have their premiers visit Africa every year for the last decade, host a China-Africa summit on a regular basis, and forever chase our resources.

The moral high ground has been Mr Obama's, but his dollars have long resided in Chinese wallets.

And so, it was fascinating to read between the president's lines as he spoke in Pretoria: "Somebody says they want to come build something here, are they hiring African workers?

"Somebody says … we want to help you develop your natural resources - how much of the money is staying in Africa?

"I do think it's important for Africans to make sure these interactions are good for Africa."

And then the big announcement - President Obama will host a summit of leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa in 2014.

The guest list alone should be more interesting than the dinner menu.

It is high noon on the African plains; will the gunfight for African trade between these two super powers result in a hail of bullion and yet more dollars for those caught in the cross fire?

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


More on This Story

Letter from Africa

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Re 35--sounds so good what you say(IN THEORY). But Beijing Thugs are NOT theoretical:they run a vicious Police State , no press freedom, deeply spiritual Tibetans slaughtered and relocated and killed for carrying pic of HH Dalai Lama who is loved and respected thru whole world.Torture, corruption,colonisation of Africa,cheating in trade with an artificial currency, etc etc.
    Evil is evil is evil !

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The expanding Chinese presence in Africa is because they are buying African exports- they run a trade deficit with the continent as a whole- and because payback is in the form of visible infrastructure. All the Americans have to do to compete is to buy African goods and invest in infrastructure. But of course, they don't want to do that. Sadly for President Obama, you can't eat hot air.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Wow @RememberTS which lectures have you been attending? Agreed, both China and the West are in it for their own benefit but having more competition for our resources is a good thing right? We need to play smarter and definitely need to stampout corruption in Africa, but I don't think it warrants your sweeping remarks - we are human afterall (and therefore capable of both good and bad)?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    China,with an evil ruling regime of Bully-Boys in Beijing, are the new colonial exploiters, using corrupt African "politicians" to cheat the actual African people who get no benefit--it all goes to Swiss Accounts for corrupt African leaders, who speak the same language as Chinese(who thrive on corruption at home as well).And of course the $ is the most used:it is a real currency:not the yuan joke!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    The West's approach has to change it still has the colonial master undertone - enough of lectures to Africa, its the resources they are after masked behind talk of Democracy (anlagous to the abuse of the Bible in the first scramble for Africa). As a native of a country demonised by the West, interesting seeing pictures of Cameron admiring a Kazakhstan goose-step guard of honour to get oil rights.


Comments 5 of 37


More Africa stories


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC


  • Former al-Qaeda double agent Aimen DeanHARDtalk Watch

    Islamic State is about revenge says former al-Qaeda member turned spy Aimen Dean

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.