Who’s got change?

“That’s 3000.” the shopkeeper in the market gave me the price in CFA (the West African regional currency).

“But I just need the base for the light,” I told him, “not the light bulb. I already have one of those at home.”

“Okay,” he said, “then it’s just 2700.”

I handed him a bill for 5,000, and he gave me 2,000 back, then fished around looking for the rest of the change. But he didn’t have 300 CFA. So he said, “You have 300 francs credit. What else do you need?”

I hesitated for a moment: 300 CFA equals about 50 cents in U.S. currency, so maybe I should just tell him to keep it. Then I remembered that I had actually wanted a small light fixture and bulb for the shadowy corner near our front door. He showed me the options, and I chose the two items. Then he calculated the new total: 3300. Uh-oh. Once again, there was no change. This time, I just told him to keep the change and went on my way.

In this case, it was not too surprising: it’s one young guy in a market stall, not a large, well-funded store. Of course he won’t always have exact change. But often in the market, the vendor can run next door to get change from his friend. This week, though, it seemed that nobody had change. Just two days before, at a grocery store in town frequented by expatriates, my bag of ground coffee was priced at 2250. But when I checked out, there was no change for the 2500 I gave him. The owner didn’t make any offer to round the price down; if I wanted the coffee, I needed to figure something out. So I bought a pack of gum with my coffee.

My losses in these two cases were reduced a couple of days later when I came up short of the amount needed for a kilo of bananas, but the produce guy gave me a kilo anyway. His friend’s nephew was with me, so he cut me some slack.

I’ve gone into my bank to ask for coins several times to help relieve the endless shortage of change. Sometimes they’ve had it, other times not. One day they advised me to go the the central branch of the bank in town to get change. When I was in the neighborhood for another errand, I found a spot in the crowded lot and went into the lobby. I pulled a ticket from the take-a-number machine, and checked which number was currently being served. There were only 87 people ahead of me, with 4 tellers serving them and not an empty chair in sight in the waiting room. Even being in the minority privileged enough to have a bank account doesn’t make it easy to resolve the change crisis.

It all makes me wonder who exactly does have change around here? The taxi drivers and the ladies who sell fried food by the side of the road are constantly being paid in coins. Are they hoarding it all in their piggy banks? (or whatever the halal equivalent of a piggy bank is?) Have all the better-off people in town neglected to clean out their couch cushions and car seats?

Until the mystery is solved, I’ll just keep watching for the right size purchases to break a 10,000 (the largest bill I ever deal with), and hold on to the small bills and coins until they’re absolutely necessary.

The good news is, loyalty does pay off in this situation. When I needed change to pay my guard the other night, I walked to a shop just down the street where I’ve been a regular customer. The owner asked a couple different people for change, before chasing down a friend passing in the street. He handed me the small bills accompanied with a favorite West African phrase: “On est ensemble” (We are together). His shop doesn’t take Visa, and there’s no card to scan for the customer rewards program. But loyalty is still good currency.