Friday, November 28, 2008

A Day in the Life of Money in Sierra Leone

As I was driving home tonight, I thought about how different things are here than in the US. Duh! But then I realized that my friends in the US have no idea about how the money works here in Sierra Leone, so I thought I would share some fun facts with you.

Lesson #1 - The exchange rate is about 3000 LE (Leones) to $1.00. Luckily, it's been going up since I got here. The largest bill they have is 10,000 LE (about $3.00). That means you carry around a LOT of paper money!! The wad of money does not fit in my wallet, so the money goes in a white business envelope and I carry it in my attractive...NOT! For example, the other day I got out $300 in cash in Leones which was 297,100 LE (the exchange rate was a little lower). That means I got (29) 10,000 LE bills!! Imagine if you had 29 $100 bills in your wallet!

Lesson #2 - The money is VERY dirty. The money is dirty and brown and wrinkled and torn and smelly. You really wonder where it's been, but you don't want to know! People don't really use banks here and there are no ATM machines that you can trust. So people carry the money around in their dirty pockets, probably bury it in the dirt in their floors, who knows. I know many people who have hired drivers and other staff and they only let the staff touch the money. I know other people who always be sure and wash their hands after they handle the money. We have a cashier at the Embassy so sometimes I get fresh, newly minted money and I really like that. People don't see that very often. The money is colorful, and slightly more square than our American money.

Lesson #3 - What do things cost? This morning I had an egg sandwich for breakfast at the Embassy. I only eat two or three things from the cafeteria and that is one of them. It's basically a fried egg on white toasted bread with the crusts cut off with tomato, and some kind of cheese spread. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's awful. It was good today. The cost? 3000 LE. (for those math people out there, you already know that's $1.00) On the way home, I bought some bread--we call it "Head Bread" because the people carry it in crates on their head. (people carry everything on their head here....I will tell you stories about that but that will be for another BLOG!) Anyway, I think they come from the nearest bakery factory and they carry it around until they sell it all. It's like a loaf of french bread and it's fresh and delicious. Some of my Embassy friends won't try it because it seems to 'local' and they don't know how it's made and they are afraid it will make them sick, but I love it. It does not last long--no preservatives--which I also love. I saw a guy walking around with the crate of bread on his head (probably carries about 50 loaves standing upright) and so I pulled my car to the side of the road, rolled down my window and asked for a loaf. No need to go to the store can buy almost anything from the side of the road. I asked him how much, (as the cars were honking for me to get out of the way--I ignored them) and he said 1000 LE per loaf, (33 cents). I knew that was a fair price so I took it. (Sometimes they see the blue diplomatic plates on my car and they try to charge me more. ) He wrapped the bread in one piece of newspaper--I guess that's for sanitary purposes? I don't care, I eat the bread in one day or give it to the guards so I'm not worried about such things. Living in Africa is sort of like camping--you know when you go camping that if the food gets a little dirty, you eat it anyway! After the bread, I needed some bananas, so on my street, I spotted a vender selling them. A vender means there is a small family sitting around a low, dirty table with all the kids and babies huddled together waiting for someone to drive up or walk up and buy the few meager things they are selling. The price for 5 bananas was 1000 LE--also a fair price. I went home and for dinner I ate a delicious SPAM sandwich (there is not much fresh meat here) on my fresh "head" bread, with a bowl of bananas and milk. Oh about the milk here----no fresh milk. It's all processed and they sell it warm in the aisle of the grocery store. The taste isn't bad.... I have gotten used to it, although I have to remember to put a box in the refrig because I like it cold. After dinner, I wanted to get my car washed, so I asked one of the guards if he would do it. (I am becoming vain here and I like my car to look nice for the weekend. The ex-Pat community has servants to wash their cars so they are washed every day and look gorgeous.) The price for an inside wash and interior cleaning is 10,000 LE. I know I pay too much for it (the going rate is probably half that) but I feel it's worth it to pay $3.00 to have my car looking good. And the guard who washes it always gives me this big smile when I pay him. It's probably a whole day salary.

Lesson #4 - Gasoline and Banking. We get our gas from the Embassy fuel tank. I think the price is $4.50 per liter. To fill up my little Toyota 4-Runner, it's about $85.00. As you can see, the Embassy provides nearly everything we need--sort of like one-stop shopping. There are a few rules, though. The fuel station is only open three days a week for 3 hours a day. That means if you forget to get gas before a long weekend, you have to get it at a station in town. We don't usually trust these places, but in an emergency, you can go there. The cashier (bank) is also only open 4 days a week--three hours a day. If you forget to get cash on a Friday before the weekend, you are really in bad shape. There is NO place to get money here!!!! Many a time a fellow Embassy employee has asked around to see if anyone has extra money over the weekend, because they forgot to get included. Also, you have to write a check to take money out of your account (you use the same account you had in the US), so if you forget your checkbook or run out of checks on a Friday, you are screwed. Both things have happened to me. Forget all about debit cards and credit cards. We only use them for online purchases. That fact alone saves a lot of money. No impulse purchases here!

So, that is a quick lesson in currency and spending and money management in Sierra Leone. It's an all cash economy, you can buy things right from the side of the road without getting out of your car, but you have to plan ahead or you will go without. It's a little different than life in your world, huh? "All part of the adventure."


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!!

I have a pumpkin pie in the oven. It smells like Thanksgiving even though it doesn't' feel like it. The weather here is hot and sunny--tropical. I miss the weather in Minnesota. You can take the girl out of Minnesota, but you can't take the Minnesota out of the girl. On tv, when I see people wearing winter coats, I can hardly remember people out there actually have coats!

Today we are invited to dinner at the Ambassador's house. A cozy dinner for 25; but honestly I would rather be cooking the entire dinner by myself for my closest friends. I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner in 1990, when we moved to Texas. Before that, I always had Thanksgiving at my grandmothers and later at my parents house. The first time I had to cook the turkey it was quite amusing. I think I called my Mom 10 times to get advise about the giblets, the gravy, the timing, everything. After a few years of practice, I got pretty good at it. Here are a few of my favorite Thanksgiving memories. Enjoy and have a wonderful day! I miss you all.


First Texas Thanksgiving 1990: Made all the food with lots of telephone advice from Mom in Minnesota. Was thrilled to have a fireplace for the first time, so we made a nice fire. Unfortunately, it was about 90 degrees that day in Austin, so we put on shorts and turned the a/c on and enjoyed the fire that way!!

First Thanksgiving in Germany 1997: Invited neighbors, friends, and strangers who wanted to experience a traditional American Thanksgiving. Cooked dinner for about 15 people. Had to use my every-day Corelle dishes, because that's the only thing I had with 15 matching plates! Had to borrow tables and chairs from everyone. The most challenging part was trying to coordinate the food. I had a very small oven, so I had to use the ovens of everyone nearby so I had to figure out what side dish was at which house and when it would be finished and how to get everything on the table! The German guests thought it was quite strange that I served fruit salad with the meal. I had to convince them to try it, as they felt it was only for dessert. I assured them that we had pumpkin pie for dessert! Everyone had a great time. It was especially meaningful to explain to them that on Thanksgiving, all Americans are pretty much doing the same thing and eating the same foods. They don't have such a holiday in Germany.

First Thanksgiving back from Germany 1999: Dave (my ex) had left for California by then. Ryan was in college in Philadelphia, Angela was in college in College Station. It was just Laura and I. We were shell-shocked from moving back from Germany and without any family. I decided to make the whole dinner anyway; just for the two of us. Honestly, it was the saddest Thanksgiving ever. We had all this food, but no family or friends to share it with. I felt like I went to all the work but the joy was just not there. We had leftovers for weeks and I really wish we would have invited some homeless people to the table. That Thanksgiving reminded me that the holiday is all about Family and close friends.

This year I'll be at the Ambassador's house with my colleagues. I'll let you know how it goes.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

'Been a long time...

I know, I know. It's been a very long time since I've written. Several of you have asked if I ever recovered from my illness---thankfully yes. They were never sure if it was definitely typhoid, but whatever it was brought me new appreciation for good health and also a new humble attitude about sickness in Africa. My sterile American immune system is no match for generations of unfamiliar African germs. Now, at the first sign of queasiness, I immediately stop eating and switch to plain white rice and Gatorade. I avoid any type of salad or fresh vegetables at restaurants and I am careful about eating out in general. You just never know. Some of the people I know even avoid ice cubes when they are out for fear they were made with unclean water. Welcome to Africa.

Here is an update on a couple of things:

I am still running. In fact, I am managing to run the Hash Run every Monday, which is about 5k and filled with lots of hills. We have to walk some, as the run follows through all areas of town, including running through the slums, people's kitchens, the beach when high tide hits, you name it. These days, I dream of running on pavement like a starving man dreams of steak or ice cream. We did have a Halloween run, where we ran on the beach road--which is all tar. The bad part was that we finished the run at dark, so we were running on the road right next to cars, couldn't see the road, no lights on the cars or the get the idea. Welcome to Africa.

Driving to work is a challenge. Driving at ALL is a challenge. On Thursday, I decided to try an alternate route and it took me 1 hour and 20 minutes to get to the Embassy! The drive is usually 35 dead stopped traffic. The total mileage is 12 miles. But by the time I got there, my car was almost overheating. I can't run the a/c for fear of going in the red zone, so I'm sitting in my work clothes, getting hot, and praying I make it to work before steam starts coming from the hood. Very bad way to start the day. When I got there, my lazy co-worker decided not to come to work at all, due to an ankle sprain a week earlier. That left all the work to me. We were having a presentation for 100 people at 10:00 so I had my work cut out for me. The presentation was a Health Program outlining the problems and possible solutions for HIV/AIDS, Maternal Child Mortality rates (1 mother in 8 dies in childbirth here), and general deplorable heath facilities (when you go to the hospital have to provide all your own bandages, medication, blood, supplies). The First Lady of Sierra Leone attended and also spoke on her topics of interest. When someone asked her about Female Genital Mutilation (a common practice 90% of the girls in SL are forced to comply with this disgusting tradition), she said the government does not tell it's people what to do and will not go against the practice. I couldn't believe it! If you have any questions, google FGM and see what you find. There is no reason for it, except it's an African tradition to dominate the women. Our Ambassador spoke right up and said that it's the policy of the American government to speak out against such inhumane practices and that they believe it's a violation of human rights to continue such practices. Luckily the program was almost over, or we might have had more of a political clash. Maybe the serving of soda and cookies helped smooth the mood. Africans are always happy for free food.

I am off to the beach just now. I've been home all morning doing house chores...catching up after being busy for the past couple of weeks. Hope all is well with you and I promise to write more frequently.

Oh, and everyone in Sierra Leone is VERY HAPPY that Obama was elected US President. They feel like they have a "brother" in the White House and are very anxious to see what policy changes might be coming. As a practical American, I'm just hoping the economy improves with the new administration. And yes, I voted!! I voted absentee. I have never missed an election in all my adult years of voting.

Think globally,