Phil Clisby tells tales of the trials and tribulations of changing money in Africa and a run-in with the police 20 years ago
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of rolling around on a table covered in bank notes. For a while I felt like a multi-millionaire – and I was, albeit a Zairian one. Maintaining my millionaire status was hard work, though. A beer cost 2.5 million zaires!
In 1992 Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was called back then, was suffering from crippling inflation: notes were becoming obsolete by the hour, let alone the day. Arriving in Epulu, I was in need of some local money, and quickly located a shop that doubled as the currency black market. I went in clutching a US$10 note and walked out staggering under the weight of a carrier bag containing Z25 million, made up of 400 Z50,000 notes.
Two-hour-long queues, endless form filling and trips to three different buildings to complete one transaction are all money-changing experiences I have, well, experienced. I was once even refused a cash advance on my credit card, when a very apologetic bank manager had to inform me that he did not have the machine that goes ‘click, click’.
Changing money in Africa is quite an adventure at times, to say the least. In Dar es Salaam, a few of us were in need of some shillings. We pooled our dollars and my friend Martin headed off in search of the black market. He returned a while later, having been duped by an unscrupulous moneychanger, who had scarpered with most of our hard earned cash.
Having witnessed the con, three locals offered to help find our assailant. So Martin and I hopped in their car. Driving out of town, our friendly aides treated us to a city tour. “This building on your right is where we train our doctors,” one of them, John, pointed out. Parking up, John indicated some houses. “This is where the black marketeers sell on their currency,” he said. “I’ll go and see if this man is there.”
He returned five minutes later with a policeman. “My friends, I am sorry,” he informed us. “I am an undercover security officer and I’m arresting you for changing money on the black market.”
It was only now I noticed we were parked outside a police station. Escorting us into an interview room, John clarified our predicament: “Exchanging money on the black market is illegal. First, we’ll fill in some forms, then lock you up overnight. Tomorrow you’ll go to court, be fined US$1000 and then deported.”
The policeman sat at a desk; his pen poised over official-looking documents. This was fast becoming my worst nightmare. “If we write on these forms,” continued John, “you’ll go to court, but we can avoid all this if you ask me how to help.” “How can you help us?” I asked.
Drawing an imaginary straight line on the desk, John explained: “You can follow this road to court, a fine and repatriation. Or you can take an alternative route.” He drew a line going off at a tangent to the first. “We favour the second road.” Martin and I exclaimed simultaneously.
Although scared, I wanted to laugh; they were obviously open to a bribe. The trouble was that they weren’t going to say so and nor were we, in case this were another trap.
For the next hour we talked around the subject and our captors became increasingly irritated. “As soon as we write on those forms, you will go to court,” John snapped. But still they wouldn’t tell us exactly how we could take that tangential road.
“Maybe,” I said, seizing the initiative, “if you can find the man that took our money, we could reward you.” A stroke of genius, I thought. But John retorted: “If we don’t find the man, you won’t give us any money.” He paused. “Although, you could give us something to avoid going to court.”
At last! Progress. “Why don’t you keep the remains of our currency dealings.” I pointed at the notes on the desk: about US$30 dollars worth. Exhibit A if the courts became involved. John took out his wallet to reveal a wad of notes. Scowling at our offering, he snarled: “I couldn’t live on that for a day.” I found this hard to believe, but it was apparent our freedom was not going to come cheap.
However, all our money was on our truck, and they would have to drive us back to get it. They didn’t seem to trust us, but eventually conceded they had no choice. Leaving Exhibit A with the policeman, as security, they drove us back to town. Back at the truck I grabbed some travellers’ cheques and John led me to an official bureau de change.
But how much should I change? Tentatively, I suggested: “Will another 20 dollars be enough?” A big smile lit up John’s face: “That will be fine.”
After I handed him his money, he declared: “See, this is a much better way to do things… I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Tanzania, and you are welcome back in our country anytime.”