Déjà Vu

By Brenton Chibuwe

Déjà vu is a concept that has always fascinated me. Does it have a spiritual element, linked to reincarnation of some sort? A feeling that one has lived through the present situation before. An illusion, to be sure, despite a strong sense of recollection of the time, place, and context of the “previous’’ situation. But is that the only form of déjà vu? Is it necessarily isolated to an illusory “feeling”? What about certain events that occur over and over again, following almost the same pattern: can these not be considered a form of déjà vu?

When I was a boy in primary school, my mom gave me money for the bus fare. It was more than usual – almost quadruple the usual amount! I was shocked. Surely that must not be right, I told myself, with the innocence of childhood. I gestured to her that she had made a mistake. But she told me that the fare would probably increase by the time I returned, and that I should not spend the money on anything else. This made zero sense to me: How can a price go up that much in a few hours? Luckily, I was an obedient child, and I fought off the temptation to buy all the goodies that were sold by the vendors just outside the school gate. When I eventually boarded the bus home, the fare, to my surprise, had increased threefold. I was young, and I understood little about the world and economics, but surely this could not be right, I thought.

The 2008 recession shook Zimbabwe to the core. By then, Zimbabwe was already in free fall and the Global Financial Crisis was a huge blow to its citizens. I remember the supermarkets were always empty. Most of the time, TM, one of the supermarkets close to our home, only had macadamia nuts and mineral water in stock. When by chance the basics—flour, cooking oil, mealie meal, sugar, and sometimes bread—were available, we would queue up outside. The number of items each customer was allowed to buy was limited. Most goods were now sold on the street, albeit in a foreign currency, and it was the first time I heard the term “the black market.” For the average citizen, access to the foreign exchange was restricted, and it was expensive as well. My parents resorted to going to Mozambique to get groceries, which introduced us to weird products like “jolly juice.”

The buzzword was always “inflation” whenever I listened in on the adults’ conversations during prime time. Not that I really understood what they were talking about. The central bank governor was printing new banknotes almost every two weeks. Again, even though I was young and knew little about economics, this did not seem right. And the denominations were bonkers: I watched on the news as our beloved governor unveiled a one trillion Zimbabwe dollar note. My small mind thought that numbers ended at one billion, but I was in for a shock. It became a topic of banter with my mates at school: we guessed when the next note would be announced and imagined how all of us would become instant trillionaires, just like that. Jokes aside, inflation took a massive toll on Zimbabwe and its citizens. The problem was compounded by a drought that ravaged the better part of the country, resulting in food shortages so severe that the United Nations had to provide food aid directly to schools.

What’s more, a messy election period followed, marred by violence that only worsened the situation in the country. Fast-forward to fifteen years later and the country is being rocked by another inflation crisis. With the US dollar in widespread use, the local currency is losing value each day. This has a dramatic effect on the price of basic goods, which keeps fluctuating, but at least the supermarket shelves are still stocked. Of course, this has given rise to street vendors in the Central Business District selling basic goods in a foreign currency. Sound familiar? Whilst the events are not really similar contextually, there is a feeling of déjà vu with regards to Zimbabwe’s current economic situation.

When the RTGS, or Real Time Gross Settlement dollar, was introduced in 2016, it was meant to ease the cash crisis facing the nation, not to serve as legal tender. Yet in 2018 it was made one of the official currencies, and while that initially seemed to be a sound decision, things slowly went off the rails. The problem is that most things were still priced in US dollars, and so people had to exchange currencies on the black market at competitive rates. The exchange rate continued to skyrocket and now, in 2023, it is more than 5,000 RTGS to one US dollar. To make matters worse, salaries are hinot increasing at the same rate, and so the working class has to constantly firefight.

Just as in 2008, there was a widely controversial election in 2023, albeit a more peaceful one, largely due to the apathy of the electorate and a general sense of hopelessness among citizens. Is this spiritual malaise the result of déjà vu? For those who had the misfortune to experience both 2008 and 2023, there is a sense of history repeating itself. Could this be a form of collective reincarnation of some sort? It might not be such a far-fetched notion. Or am I clutching at straws here?

15 September, 2023