The Value of Small Money

Who would have thought that a five-dollar bill would cause so much trouble?

The bill in question is actually a 2,000 West African franc note, and it’s the equivalent of about four U.S. dollars. A helpful sum, really, but as I clutch the weathered crinkle in my sweaty palm, its value feels as dirty as the grime that is undoubtedly being transferred to my fingers.

I’m hurtling down a road along the Atlantic Ocean and holding on with minimal concern for safety as the Senegalese taxi driver speeds up and jams down on the brakes with absent-minded abandon. If we both survive in reaching Plateau, or downtown, then I will attempt to pay him our agreed upon price for transport: 1500 francs. After living in Senegal for almost three years sans voiture, I am more than used to this drill.

This pay-and-drive-away transaction would appear simple enough, but on this day I am filled with trepidation as we close in on the roundabout where he will deposit me. I’m stressing because I have only this inconvenient 2000-franc note in my possession, and nothing else with which to bargain. Cash is critical in Senegal. I inhale deeply and try not to think about the impending interaction as we hook left away from the ocean and start to make our way into the busting beehive that is downtown Dakar.

Moving along past the parade of polio-crippled beggars and Orange phone card vendors, the rusting Toyota Carina finally lurches to a halt in a place that is just barely out of the busy traffic scheme. Innocently I thrust forward the pale blue bill so that it hangs just over his shoulder. My taxi man retrieves the note, takes one look at its color (the first indicator of its denomination) and turns his head to look at me. Here we go again.

T’as pas la monnaie? he asks with mild but assertive disdain. You don’t have any change?

I look at him and sigh. Déedéet. No.

We stare at each other in an expression of mutual disappointment.

Whenever a taximan poses this question, it actually sounds like this: Tah-pah-la-mon-nay? Almost like onomatopoeia, or better yet, a verbal tic that doesn’t mean anything at all. Kind of like how the Senegalese punctuate phrases with the staccato sound deh to emphasize what they are saying, or how they call attention to an issue by starting a sentence with, Manneh! All of these sounds have their place in the daily friction that is life in Senegal. Except for me, whenever someone asks if I have change, my reaction is never one of excitement. Everyone knows that a robust cache of low-value coinage is almost an impossible feat to accomplish.

If you’re among the thousands of people in this country who aren’t lucky enough to own a car, then you will spend an inordinate amount of time strategizing how you will amass your next handful of 50, 100, 200, 250 and 500-franc pieces.  Sure, the red-colored 1,000F note is a handy little ticket to have, but if you live your life buying goods on street corners, then things can start to get tricky once you jump upwards in folding money denominations.

The largest available bill in the West African franc denominatoin is the orchid-colored 10,000-franc note. It values about 20 U.S. dollars and is the most useless form of payment when it comes to transacting everyday obligations. The typical Senegalese person is never going to spend this much in a single day, and that’s because most people find 10,000 francs to be a sum that can stretched far beyond the span of a week. Navigating the dichotomy that is the Haves suspicious of the Have-Nots who might be trying to filch their excesses is just one of the bewildering dilemmas associated with being a toubab, or foreigner, in this country. I would never dream of presenting a 10,000F note when making a purchase of under 2,000 francs.

Back in the taxi, I’m sweating in the summer humidity as my driver and I still stand at a bit of an impasse. Typically, I step into cabs with a plan of action that is already wargamed out: in two separate pockets I have different denominations of money: one pocket will contain exact change (1,500 francs) while the other pocket has a 2,000F note. I will attempt to pay with the 2,000F bill in a lame attempt to score a coveted 500F coin, but on many occasions the driver will profess to have no change. Is he lying? Maybe. In all likelihood, he too is stockpiling coins for future toubabs who are stupid enough to get into his vehicle with only a 2,000, 5,000 and even—god forbid—a 10,000F note.

Could I have asked him if he had change before getting into his car? Sure, but these drivers always stop in the middle of traffic to pick people up, and there’s a line of cars forming behind him who are annoyed that another taxi has created a traffic jam by stopping to score a passenger. So I typically just get in after quickly negotiating an appropriate taxi fare.

On this day it would appear that neither of us really do have any change in our possession. If I were a newcomer to these parts, I would probably just eat the 500F difference and be on my way to complete more pressing tasks. After all, this is only a dollar’s worth of currency, and it’s not going to break my personal bank account. The problem is that I’ve got an ego, and consider myself a bit of a soldier in the field of taxi passengerdom. There is no way on earth that I’m going to allow my driver to rip me off.

I only allow a few seconds to pass before I take my bill back from the driver. Attends, I tell him in French before getting out of the car, je vais chercher la monnaie. Hang on, I’m going to go find some change. He sees this as an acceptable solution to our dilemma and slinks back in his seat to commence a waiting game.

To the wide-eyed newcomer, downtown Dakar is a bit like a midway amusement park. There are carnie-like vendors who engage potential clients as they pass, and the necessary sidestepping action subjects poeple to the busy street where dusty clouds of dilapidated vehicles go zipping by with little concern for pedestrian rights. Sidewalks are virtually non-existent, and any that are left over from the French colonial days have been subjugated by commerçants displaying their wares on plywood balanced atop cinder blocks. Plateau is not a relaxing place. The reason that I keep exact change on my person is to avoid the gauntlet that I am now attempting to navigate.

The noises and smells are many, but by now my brain is regulated to filter out these sensory assaults. I know how to almost completely bypass the heartbreaking voices of the begging boys known as talibé, and the exceedingly obnoxious and deadlocked guttersnipes known as Baye Fall. As I walk with confidence and purpose, from behind my sunglasses I scan the street vendors to see who will be most likely to break my 2,000F bill. I am also trying to quickly determine whether there is anything that I actually need to buy today. A phone card, perhaps?

I know that my taxi is still waiting for me back at the traffic circle, so I don’t allow myself much time to scan the wealth of Chinese knock-offs, bad African art and stacks of mangoes before finally deciding on a stand selling peanuts. I settle on the peanuts because, unlike most of the other goods for sale on the street, I am confident as to the price of the bag. Furthermore, the Guinean ladies who run these stands are usually pretty jovial. Since I need to spend less than 500 francs, I opt for one of the smallest offerings on the modest table, a skinny sleeve of grilled peanuts, typically costing 200 francs.

Like all the other vendors, the woman who is seated behind her rickety street table is dressed in a brightly colored boubou—a dress and matching headscarf that bears a distinctly West African pattern. In a long-practiced effort to curry favor with the locals, I greet her with a muted Assalam Alaakum before picking up the pinkie-sized packet. To show her that I know what I’m doing, I ask her in Wolof, the local language, how much she wants for her goods. Her stated price is correct and I nod my head before sheepishly pulling out the offending blue bill from my pocket. I extend the money to her, clutching my snack that will serve as a reward when I am done with this extended taxi ride into the city center. I am so close to being able to go on with my day.

The woman, at first fairly pleased to be making a sale in this afternoon heat, suddenly drops the expression of customer service from her face. She looks down at my offending hand, and makes no move to collect the payment. I can see that the upper hand in this transaction has once again shifted. She sucks her teeth with disapproval and returns her gaze to meet mine.

T’as pas de monnaie? she asks.

Déedéet, I respond. No.

And the game begins anew.

About the author

Megan Hallinan has been wandering since she was a teenager but is a New Englander at heart. She has lived in France, Ireland, and…

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Issue 23 · November 2015

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