When I left in 1988, Congo was called Zaire, as was the river and the unit of currency. The zaires were practically worthless in ’88, but it got even worse in the 1990s.
Now, what the Congolese want is the American dollar. Well, mostly. I’m told that as a foreigner I’ll be expected to pay with VERY crisp bills. In Kinshasa, when you’re buying something that costs $5 or more, people want the good old buck. But nobody’s interested in one-dollar bills. That’s what the Congolese franc is for. I suspect that this is one way they protect their own currency from inflation. I doubt it’s policy — unless you call street value “policy”. And it is! In fact, we Americans forget so easily that a dollar does have street value, even here. We judge that street value every day when we wake up, as long as we work, sell products or services (if you work for an employer, you sell your service) and buy stuff we are judging the street value of a dollar.
I suspect that this is how people have adjusted to keep their currency from running away and hiding. Congo, one of the poorest countries, ranking all the way up at #4 on the Fragile States Index from the Fund for Peace, one of the five countries listed as “Very High Alert.” The Congolese, it appears, not only want American dollars they can trust, but they want crisp ones.
I’m told from a credible source (he was there earlier this year) that a $10 bill with a tear may only be worth $7-8. A very beat up one perhaps less. In a strange way, it makes sense. The dollar isn’t printed there, and it’s pretty hard to come up with new bills. Every time they get handled, they lose a little value. Think of it like paying for something with a car. You drive it for a few days, maybe it’s worth the same. But if you dent the fender, it might not be. The dollar used to be a piece of paper that could stand in for gold; now, a dollar stands in for a piece of paper. And newly minted paper is best. Another way to look at it is like a baseball card or any other collector’s item that’s preferred in mint condition.
Strange as it may be, I’ll be carrying the crispest bills my credit union can find. No ones, only fives, tens and twenties. I’ll be able to exchange a ten or twenty for Congolese francs on the street. They trade at about 920:1.
Weird stories involving currency: in April, a drunk Australian offered me 50 Euros for $50 cash (the Euros would get me probably $90 at my bank). Nobody wanted him to drink any more, so he wasn’t able to swing the deal. Bank value of 50 Euros, $90 (or so) and Street Value, when we don’t want an even drunker drunk on our flight makes $50 US Cash … wait for it … priceless.
Weird story 2: hearsay only! Can’t find an article online to support it! I heard about 10 years ago that the currency in Bangladesh had devalued so much that the beggars went on strike. What? That’s right. Muslims and some Hindus as well have a daily requirement to give Alms as a religious duty. They support an entire class of people: the beggars. In Bangladesh there was a standard amount (for example, $1). But that standard amount (based on percentages, if you ask enough people in the course of the day, you will earn a certain amount begging, just like selling credit card processing in the USA) was no longer enough to feed the beggars’ families, so the entire caste went on strike. People could no longer do their religious duty! It resulted in a national crisis and the president had to tell the entire nation that the standard amount was changing. You know your currency is being judged on Street value when the beggars strike!