“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.
In 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.