So my dearest mummy’s body dared to cave in on her this past week and she got a stroke – a minor one, “thankfully.” As if that wasn’t a nightmare enough, this happened in our beloved sunshine city of Harare. With no medical insurance, the first thing was to put her in the car and rush her to the nearest hospital.

Upon arrival they are bombarded, in the politest of manner, with a host of cash payments required. She has money – but it’s loaded to an account whose bank is foreign. They are told part of the charges are in local currency and the other bit is in USDs. They ask to swipe, presenting this card that has worked before the famous SI142 of 2019 with no problems. Only now, the hospital advises they do not know whether they can swipe but will attempt to swipe on the machine they have. They try and it refuses to transact.

Being a former banker, I call a few colleagues to ask how foreign cards are transacting at present given the current changes. It had to be a few because even those within the sector where not too sure what exactly was going on to be able to give concrete answers. After a few calls I am told “some” organisations have Point-Of-Sale machines linked to their foreign currency accounts that we can swipe with an international card and a swap transaction is automatically initiated. I am relieved and I pass on the message to my sister who is on the ground. Armed with this information, and also assuming since they have a USD component to their charges they obviously have platforms to facilitate payments, she approaches the accounts office. She requests to swipe on their foreign currency account POS machine to which she gets the response – “the machine is down and we do not know when it will be working again.” At this point I am panicking but my only comfort was at least the hospital was treating my mum. Also, with a sick person you cannot argue flaws in a system especially when you are in need of assistance. What do we do? We make a plan.

I send a WhatsApp group chat to ask how others where transacting with foreign bank cards when visiting Zim and I literally got this text in bold “JUST DON’T DO IT!”. I call my former colleagues, again, to ask whether cash could be availed for withdrawal if an international transfer is made and I am told “yes, as long as there is cash in the bank.” At this point I am seething, I had to literally chant myself into calming down because after all what use is the anger if it’s misdirected. The hospital is a business and they have to survive in a system that has no care for its users – us the people. Fortunately, after calling a few friends we managed to get cash to make payments.

Now, because of the movements and the distance between the hospital and home, and add the car being a fuel guzzler, in comes need for more fuel than planned. My brother is in a queue for about two hours to get fuel. He calls to ask whether the card would work; I advise it has worked before and so it should and besides it’s fuel after all, they should make transacting in foreign currency the easiest – right? WRONG! As we were chatting I ask him to go to the pump and ask so they do not waste time waiting only to be told otherwise on getting to the pump. He does this and is told “it works”. They wait their turn to get to the pump and the machine is down and they are referred to head office to see whether it will work after having waited two hours. Do we have room to be angry? No, we are the ones in need. So they drive to head office after having borrowed ZWL 20 just to ensure they get there. They are told their system no longer accepts foreign banks cards. As typical Zimbos we made a plan and all in all; all expenses were met accordingly in the respective currencies.

One might say why is she not on medical aid or why did you not report them or go to this hospital or that. What I will say is this was and is my reality navigating a system I was born into. I have fallen ill in a foreign country, as a visitor without medical insurance, and I can attest we have never had such challenges even with using a Zimbabwean bank card. Only at home have I struggled time and time again. This had me thinking as I write – not sure whether its pain, fury, frustration or helplessness – but if a local Zimbabwean is struggling to understand or navigate the system like that, what happens to foreign businesses or our favored tourists.

Source: Tatenda, via email