Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Travel Logistics – Money

We had been told that we would not need – indeed, could not even use – money after landing in Nairobi. So none of us thought to take time, upon landing in Nairobi, to hit the currency exchange counter and convert our American dollars into local currency. This turned out to be a mistake.

Here are some notes for future travelers:

    • At least today, American money is only readily negotiable if the bills are new and uncreased/fresh. Take a look at your bills. Just to the left or right of the portrait is printed a “Series 2003” or “Series 2001” or “Series 1996” notation. Merchants in Nairobi and in the Sudan have decided these suggest expiration dates, and they will not accept “older” bills. If you don’t have the newest, most current bills, you either will not be able to spend them or will get a very much lower exchange rate. Also, in Lui they do not accept bills under $50 – and bills of $100 are much preferred. I had a new, series 2003 $50 bill that I wanted to exchange, and they would not accept it because there was a crease across the portrait! Try to get your bank to give you large ($100), crisp, new, uncirculated bills.
    • Get your currency exchanged in Nairobi. If your itinerary is like ours, you may have no opportunity to visit a bank in town before catching the charter flight into Sudan. So pause in the Nairobi airport and use the currency-exchange service there. If you’re going to attend church services in Lui, you will want to contribute money to the offering, and currency is much appreciated. At this time, there is no
      functioning Sudanese currency in Lui. Ugandan dollars are the preferred currency there. We tend to think (imperially??) that American money is “good as gold.” But that’s not the case in Lui; they think our money has expiration dates. Get Ugandan dollars at the Nairobi airport for spending in Lui. If you will have time to visit in Nairobi (and eat, shop, etc.), also get some Kenyan currency.

Knowing that we were coming from the U.S., the women of Lui (led by the Mothers Union) had worked – with strong support from Deborah – to make some crafts: clothing they sewed, a few pieces of pottery they had crafted, and several baskets/weavings they had made. Throughout our days there, we kept hearing that they were going to offer us a “craft fair,” and we were hoping to support their economy by our shopping.

I was very surprised to see that there was a “market” operating in Lui (not affiliated with the Diocese of Lui). Merchants had some foodstuffs, fabrics, and other basic goods for sale. Several of us really wanted to support that local economy! But we were stymied by the fact that our U.S. dollars were no good down in the local market. Without Ugandan or brand-new American currency to spend, we had nothing. Several of us found it very frustrating that they would not take U.S. currency, which we (confident Americans!) knew to be “good." In the end, it worked to the good of Lui’s Mothers Union, since they were willing to take our “suspect” American dollars, and we made our investment with them instead of with the “secular” merchants in the small Lui marketplace.

Bob Towner had an interesting “take” on this whole issue when we discussed it later. He observed that surely we Americans have some “serious mojo” invested in the validity/reliability of our U.S. currency. We had seen the evidence of it in Lui. And we had experienced the difficulty of having lots of dollars in our pockets, but not being able to spend it to support an economy we wished to support. I’m not sure what kind of lesson I can draw from that.

Bob, if you’re reading this and would relate your “lesson” of burning the $5 bill and how that relates to our idolatry about our U.S. currency, I sure would appreciate your doing so. It rang true for me. But I don’t feel I have the right to “appropriate” that story/lesson here.

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