Somalia Journal, Day Twelve: This Cash Is Broke

29.11.07

Categorie: Africa, Axe in Somalia |

“Mister, mister! It’s broken.” The purple-shawled woman chased after me waving the perfectly good 2006 series $20 bill I had just exchanged for goods at her Mogadishu trinket shop.

“What are you talking about?” I examined the bill. There it was — a tiny little tear on one corner, barely big enough to notice — certainly not big enough to render the bill invalid. At least not in the U.S.

But as I’ve quickly learned, Africans have a different idea about what makes money money. In Kenya I was told I couldn’t use 1990s series bills. I never got a good explanation, but it might have something to do with counterfeiting and the newer bills’ design elements, such as watermarks, intended to thwart coiners.

1_214895_1_2.jpgIn Somalia, however, it’s apparently not counterfeiting that renders old money useless, but appearance. Somalis only want bills that are crisp, untorn and colorful, my fixer explained. Which basically undermines the whole idea behind paper currency. Four hundred years ago, people swapped gold for goods and services — because, well, gold is pretty. Everyone likes it. Everyone wants it. Replacing the gold with paper money (ostensibly backed by gold stored somewhere) was a controversial process, especially as it became clear in coming centuries that there wasn’t enough gold to pay for all the bills out there. Over time, people got comfortable with the notion that the paper bill represents labor, not gold, and soon the gold standard didn’t matter so much.

Now in Mogadishu, we’ve come full circle. The bill is (to an extent) the pretty thing that everyone likes and everyone wants. Rather than representing gold, or labor, it represents itself. If it’s not pretty, it’s no good.

So here’s an idea. Let’s horde all the U.S. bills in Somalia and issue some other currency — let’s call them “Davids” – to represent it. That way our nice little bills, our monetary backing, don’t get dirty or torn. Somalia will be on the dollar standard.

But unless Somalis get comfortable with the idea of currency backed by labor, soon the Davids will assume intrinsic value and we’ll need a currency to represent them, too.

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5 Responses to “Somalia Journal, Day Twelve: This Cash Is Broke”

  1. For what it’s worth, I experienced the exact same problem changing a slightly-worn $20 in Mongolia.

  2. It’s mostly those non-credit-card- and otherwise handicapped countries that adore spotless dollar bills: Burma, Sudan, and Congo was not that easy either. And forget the “Davids” idea. Burma has some kind of Foreign Exchange Certificates, same value as the dollar, which must not even be folded if you want people to accept it.

  3. Justin says:

    They also dislike torn bills in Peru, even though there is a lot of tourism there. Wrinkles were not much of a problem, and they seemed much less picky about their own currency. I was told the US wouldn’t take em if they had a tear, but somehow I doubt the barely noticeable ones are rejected.

    An odd phenomenon, I wonder weather this is due to the cultural phenomenon resulting from the wealth disparity between the US and these countries, or if the US just really likes to reject USD from foreign countries for whatever reason it can come up with (which in theory perpetuates the wealth disparity a little bit). Its probably some of both.

  4. [...] I read this blog post on money in Mogadishu and thought 揧ou know, that could make for a cool scene in a RPG.? Think a remote disaster-struck world in Traveller, or banestorm-victims trading the bills in their wallets for meals and agents of the Conspiracy having to track each one down. [...]

  5. [...] Related: Day One: “You Come to Africa, But You May Never Leave.” Day Two: Barnstorming! Day Three: Enclaves Day Four: Everybody Parley Down! Day Five: “I Quit!” Day Six: ”We’re Here and We’re Surviving.” Day Seven: Wise Old Children Day Eight: Riot! Day Nine: Gunfire Is Boring Day Ten: Bombs Are Boring Day Eleven: Games Kids Play Day Twelve: This Cash Is Broke Day Thirteen: Warlording 101 Day Fourteen: Arresting All the Wrong People Day Fifteen: U.S. Playing Both Sides Day Sixteen: Back on the Air Day Seventeen: Moga ER Somalia pics Sounds of the Somali aid crisis Mogadishu’s wheeled battlecruisers Somalia’s mystery weapons A.U. Patrols Moga Sounds of African Peacekeeping 4 Comments so far Leave a comment [...]

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