The majority of West African countries are forced to use the most useless currency ever created: the Franc CFA. It was imposed to countries by their former colonizers, as part of gaining their freedom. The Franc CFA is not competitive on financial markets, and is not even printed here in Africa: we buy it from a French company. It has all the disadvantages and none the benefits. But we used it pretty much everywhere in Sub Saharan Africa, and we are stuck with it. The governing central bank in the region, releases, distributes it and it is doing an awful job controlling the flux of bills and coins.

For the past two weeks, I have been involved in couple of small arguments with vendors, and bank tellers. It started at the grocery store when I just wanted to buy a baguette, on a bright Sunday. I picked up my baguette, headed to the register to pay for it which proved to be impossible to do. There was no change. The cashier just could not give me any change back because she “didn’t have any”. Now you might think that I gave her, for example a $100 bill to buy something that costs 50 cents. Wrong.I gave her what would be the equivalent of $1,for a good costing less than 50 cents. Sometimes, cashiers will refuse to give you your change back because they really have none or, they are trying to keep the little change for themselves. So your remedy to this problem is to buy items by the register, which surprisingly, always cost the amount you can’t get back, or leave your change which goes right into their pockets. This phenomenon happens at all grocery stores, pharmacies, and pretty much any cash driven businesses, which are how most business transactions are done here.

You may think that it’s just businesses trying to scam their customers, until you go to the bank. Not only are the tellers impolite,slow, poorly trained and highly inefficient, they also cannot give you any change back as well, even if you are a customer. Last week, was the last straw for me, when it came to dealing with poor customer service. I went to a well-known bank here, to deal with some work transactions. People love cash here, so I had to use cash to pay a bill. Because I am used to carrying coins all the time , I had 20 050 FCFA to pay for some fees, costing 18 550 FCFA. I like round numbers so I was ready to get my perfect change, handed back to me. A simple transaction that any high school graduate could perform, turned into a sass contest. But little did that teller know, I had all the time in the world to deal with rudeness. After not greeting me, the bank teller proudly tells me that she cannot process my transaction because I don’t have the exact amount, 18 550 FCFA. I looked at her straight in the eyes, and asked her, why not, to which she answered, full of attitude, that the bank’s machines don’t allow them to give change back. To say that I was flabbergasted by her answer, is an understatement. I  directly asked her if we weren’t in a bank, and if a bank can’t give me change, then where else should I get it then. Needless to say she wasn’t enthused by my sass, and told me I had to wait until she can give me any change back. I obviously did not wait and went straight to the reception and ask them the same question, and was told again that the bank can’t give out any change. As I was about to storm into the branch manager’s office, the security guard pulls me to the side and explains nicely to me, that you have to fill out a bank slip to get smaller bills. I was puzzled not by the fact that I had to fill out the form, but by the fact that the security guard is the only person, not even paid as much as the tellers, who had the smarts to come up with a solution to my issue. So I did what he told me to, went to a different teller who, after finishing my transaction, try to give me some advice about bringing correct change next time, all in a very patronizing tone. If I wasn’t polite, I would have said things to him, that will make him and his equally unprofessional tellers/colleagues, regret crossing me, or anyone again at their job.

Two separate events with the same underlying problem: where has all the change gone??!!!!!!!!!!( let’s not talk about the atrocious customer service, just yet) It’s inconceivable to have so many bank branches, and have to struggle finding coins and small bills when you need them. If banks can’t give provide you this basic service, then who will then? Well, since my countrymen are ingenious and wonderful at creating solutions out of thin air, they have devise a system to help all of us out.

When the banks won’t accommodate you, there is an illicit market of buying change that arose out of necessity. The brokers of this market are found next to businesses,markets, the international airport and sometimes right in front of some bank headquarters.They will sell you as much change as you need, in any currency you want, even: your wish is their command, for a small 10% fee, of course. If you can’t find the brokers, your next best options are beggars. Yes, beggars who stay at the corners of big avenues and streets, will act as change brokers as well, for they always have coins.

Anything is a business, an opportunity to make money here, whether legally or not. The question is, then why are we being forced to use a currency we can’t control the flow of, the laughable exchange rates on international trade markets that make our economies even less competitive than they are. I hate ending another post on yet a sour note, but this is just how I feel. I am sure some with wiser and smarter ideas, will tell me how the central bank can set right this glaring problem, but in the meantime, I shall have frustrated looks on my face, ready to argue my rights as customer to ge change, every time I go to a bank.

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