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Story Publication logo July 21, 2010

Here's Your Three Million Leones. Yes, I Want Change.

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Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and the Central Africa Republic were the targets of a UN...

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The leone is a remarkable thing. It's the national currency in Sierra Leone, once renowned for being cumbersome and so dirty it had its own special smell. Recently, the leone got got a makeover: it's now smaller, tougher, and cleaner -- shinier, even -- than before.

But one thing remains the same: The bills are small, the price tags are big, and the woman in front of me at the bank today literally didn't have enough hands to carry her cash. She'd been handed something in the neighborhood of 20 million leones, or $5000, in bricks of cash shrink-wrapped in plastic. She stuffed these in her faux leather hand bag, which was big enough to carry twin Yippie Dogs from the Upper West Side, and she still didn't have enough room, so the man accompanying her pulled his thousand-leone plastic sandals out of a deli-style plastic bag, and she shoved another brick of cash in there. I hope she made it to her car.

I kept her in mind when I went to buy a plane ticket with my own fat stacks of bills. The roughly 2.9 million I needed fit nicely in my handbag, but it was quickly apparent that the travel agency and I had different ideas about cash. My ticket was $685, which is actually about 2,671,500 leones, at the rate you get for dollars in a proper foreign exchange bureau. You could do even better than this if you trade your dollars with the (too?) friendly men on the street, always willing to give "mah sistah" a good rate, but even in the bank you have to count your cash before you go, and you don't want to be caught saying, "Two million, three hundred thousand, six hundred and twenty...six hundred and thirty..." on a busy Freetown corner. It'll all disappear before you hit six-fifty.

I didn't have dollars to pay for my ticket. Anyone who's spent more than two weeks in a foreign country anywhere should see this coming: Sure, the business will change it for you. But at a slightly different rate.

My travel agency priced my ticket at 2,808,500 leones, cheating me out of about 200 leones for every dollar of the ticket price. I refused their usurious rate and took to the street, where I intended to buy dollars at a rate of only 100 leones each. Turns out, no one had dollars to sell, except the ubiquitous Friendly Men. So after a half-hour of wandering the streets, I returned sweaty and defeated.

The cashier literally laughed at me. "So did you save your $20?"

I was not amused. "No, I couldn't find dollars," I snapped, "and don't laugh. Twenty dollars is a lot of money for me."

I get how that doesn't seem true to him. I mean, I was about to spend nearly a grand just trying to get to Dakar. But you can think of that as $20, 500 times. And for a freelance journalist, $20 is a meal. Or two. In fact, $20 is one-third more than my daily Freetown food budget.

He apologized, and then he said, "So you'll give me 2,808,500 -- 2,809,000 leones."

This only irritated me more. Maybe I might decide I didn't want the 500 leones. I mean, they seem practically worthless. On the other hand, they're money -- minted, shiny, even made of metal, unlike the plastic pieces of change you get in Burundi. And 500 leones will buy you two pouches of cold water on the street and still send you home with change.

I paid with a stack of 282 bills, at 10,000 leones each, and I lingered a moment after I got my receipt. "I need my change," I said. He slid me a thousand note. "And the 500?" I asked.

Now he wasn't laughing, either.

"Well how are we going to do this?" he asked.

"You'll give me a 500 coin," I said.

"But we don't have any," he insisted.

"Then you'll give me another thousand note," I said.

"No, no, I can't do that. We will lose 500," he said.

"But right now, I'm losing 500, and you don't seem to think that's a problem. So maybe 500 is worth less to you than it is to me. Maybe if you had 500, you'd just have a coin. But if I had 500, I would have two pouches of cold water," I said.

He wanted to argue with me, until I mentioned the water. That evened the score. Inside the office where people make thousand-dollar plane reservations, it might be easy to be cavalier about cash. But in the pouch-of-water economy, shorting someone 500 leones isn't an inconvenience. It's theft.

We compromised. I gave him 400 leones, and he gave me a thousand note. And then he painstakingly adjusted the receipt, from 2,809,000 to 2,808,500, in numerals and words.

That took about four minutes, but I tried to be patient. Honesty is honesty, after all.


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