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 purse...so 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 here...you 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 money...me 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."