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Hopewell Chin’ono: Financial illiteracy is our biggest enemy in Zimbabwe

By Hopewell Chin’ono

I found this attached very interesting letter in one of my old books that I last read in 2004. It is a letter that I received from Barclays Bank offering me a Z$1Million overdraft facility.

Hopewell Chin'ono
Hopewell Chin’ono

Three years back in 2001, I had bought a property in Colne Valley for Z$4,5 Million which was then equivalent to US$60,000.

Two years ago in 2016, the real estate agent who sold the house to me in 2001, June Mossdorf of Mossdorf Realty, valued the same property at US$550,000.

Yes you read right, from US$60k in 2001 to US$550k in 2016, that is a value jump of US$490,000.

I am not sure how much it is worth now so I am tempted to ask her to do yet another valuation of the property.

Just before 2013, June came to see me with a Lebanese businessman who offered to rent the property for US$4500 per month, which was an annual income of US$48000.

But here is the story now, in 2001, I could have chosen to buy a brand new Mercedes Benz E Class and it would have cost me $60,000, the same amount that it cost me to buy my home then.

The same car today will be sold here in Harare for a paltry $500 if one is lucky or even less if you are unfortunate.

So this is why white folks here in Harare don’t get our fascination with buying expensive cars that makes us end up in debt traps, like many have embarrassingly done so often and publicly ending up in newspapers.

I was talking to my old chap and Facebook friend, Roger Stringer and he told me that he is still driving a 1990 Honda Civic.

It takes him anywhere that any the expensive car can take their owner drivers to.

I always speak about political illiteracy in my blog articles. Our other major downfall as Zimbabweans is financial illiteracy, lack of restrain and failing to have a sensible hierarchy of needs.

We have a terrible relationship with money and when we don’t do well in life, we start justifying our financial failures and omissions by assuming that the ones who would have done well are doing some other illegal things on the side.

The legendary broadcaster John Matinde was a victim of such petty put downs and jealousies in the UK when I was at University in the 90s.

Compatriots would come up with comical and sad narratives of how he made his money with some bordering on delusional.

He took it in his stride, as he was a big man with a solid head on his shoulders.

The perpetrators of such pettiness were victims of financial illiteracy. As Tendai Biti is fond of saying so often, you can only eat what you have killed.

This brings me to the second item that came to my mind when I decided to pen this article.

Financial literacy is why I am excited about Mthuli Ncube’s appointment at the Finance ministry because he understands money.

A cowboy politician like Ignatius Chombo would have been excited with a $200Million loan facility from the Chinese Government to build a parliament that is in fact a liability and not a business.

Mthuli won’t be excited by such small amounts of money for vanity projects because he has been in charge of bigger amounts of funding at the African Development Bank and beyond.

He was also a victim of Gideon Gono’s frightening reign of voodoo economics when his Bank, Barbican, went down.

He is yet to tell the full story but many bankers were victims of a casino economy during that time because of Robert Mugabe’s terrible economic policies, which shut Zimbabwe out of the world financial lending system.

The same financial illiteracy is transferred into public life and institutions where you will see the ZBC CEO driving a US$200,000 car and yet the television station only has three cameras, which are meant to be part of their core business.

The minister of energy will force ZESA to pay a buccaneer wheeler-dealer like Wicknell Chivayo US$5 million where no work has been done and life carries on as if nothing has been done.

When I was 26 and still living in London, my mentor Dr Tendai Maboreke who is now one third of the trio that runs Lancet Laboratories in Harare, stopped me from buying an almost brand new Toyota Supra.

Dr Maboreke asked me if I had a house anywhere in the world, we had a heated argument whilst having drinks that resulted in me capitulating. He sort of forced me not to buy the car and I ended up using the money as deposit for a flat in London.

The flat was worth £38,000 at the time, today it is valued at £420,000. So we must teach our kids financial literacy in schools at an early age. I grew up in Glen Norah and Murewa and ended up in London and America through my postgraduate studies.

All I wanted was to drive nice, sexy and fast sports cars that I used to see in hip hop videos when I was in junior high school.

Tupac Shakur called it “…living the dream life on the fast lane whilst driving your 500 Benz.”

So had I been schooled in financial literacy much earlier, I wouldn’t have almost fallen into the same trap as many before and after me. Luckily I had older friends who cautioned me against following peer pressure and buying expensive boys toys early on.

Fast forward to 2004, I took the Z$1 Million overdraft offered by Barclays Bank and instead of buying a swanky car, I built a swimming pool which added value to my property.

It is still as brand new as it was in 2004 when I built it, the car would probably have been in a scrap yard by now or doddering somewhere in the townships.

I was lucky that I met wise older friends like Dr Maboreke who taught me how to have a good relationship with money.

I remember a conversation I had with my cousin (mwana watete) Nancy Chidawa after I had bought my first car in 1994.

My cousin had been living in the UK since the 70s and I had just moved there in 1994, I bought a Ford Sapphire for a thousand pounds.

I couldn’t understand why my cousin who had a very good job was driving an old VW Passat. 

I teased her about her car and she chuckled after taking a sip of her favourite Germany wine called Liebfraumilch.

“Mucha muka zvenyu sekuru handiti makauya nezuro, mucha svinura zvenyu.” (“You will wise up soon, you only came recently to England.”)

She was driving this old VW Passat whilst building a healthy property profile in Zimbabwe and in the UK.

Many of our people are not so lucky to have people who hand hold them in understanding money, they will make huge amounts of money and throw it all away on trinkets.

I have never understood why someone would rent an apartment in the Avenues with a wife and two kids and yet they will be driving a Range Rover, Jaguar or Mercedes worth maybe more than what the apartment is worth on the open market.

Folks want to leap frog and live in areas that they can’t afford and drive cars that they can’t afford yet.

All successful businessmen and women and company executives we see today started off living in townships. They built their stock with time until they got to where they are today.

In South Africa, I have seen Zimbabwean couples driving two brand spanking new cars that would have been acquired through credit lines.

These cars are invariably worth more than a home in a decent affluent suburb and yet they will be renting an apartment instead of getting a mortgage and buying less expensive cars.

The new education minister must figure out how he can incorporate financial literacy from Grade Zero. It will come in handy in life and can determine the difference between success and failure in our lives.

People are going to the same schools, getting the same opportunities but a different understanding of how to use their money. That is what sets people apart not any mystical powers or mudzumi wava sekuru or water from so called prophets.

White folks in Zimbabwe are taught this at an early age that is why they thrive and prosper even on small salaries. They don’t drink every night at Meikles Hotel as black folks do because they know that it is not sustainable.

They set up social clubs like The Harare Club that they maintain or they have a bar in the corner at home where they sit and have a tot of whisky or a beer.

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean international Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. He is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and a CNN African Journalist of the year.

He is also a Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Africa leadership Institute.  Hopewell has a new documentary film coming out which is looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe called State of Mind.

State of Mind has been nominated for a top award in Kenya. You can watch the documentary trailer below. Hopewell can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @daddyhope