The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Money in Village

Although I am a volunteer, I am given a monthly living allowance by the Peace Corps.  The amount of my mandat is supposed to be enough money to live comfortably at the same level of the villagers around me.  Each month, I receive 150,000 CFA.  This is the equivalent of about 300 US dollars.  In village, however, the CFA to USD conversion is not the same at all.

In village, I found it’s more useful to imagine prices in Village Currency (which I’ll call VC, because acronyms are useful, and my first choice, Village Dollars, has an acronym already in use for something far less fun).  In my VC system, every CFA is worth a penny.  My daily bean sandwich is 300 CFA, which I imagine to be about three dollars (it would only be 200 CFA, but I spring for extra mayonnaise.  YOLO!).  A new pair of flip flops is 500 CFA – one dollar using the traditional CFA to USD conversion, but actually five dollars in VC.

After converting prices into VC, I pretend that I’m once again the poorest I’ve been in my life, which was my last semester of grad school, which I refer to as my “broke-ass bitch” days.  I was poor enough that I walked over a mile through blizzards to and from school each day because I couldn’t afford gas.  Poor enough that my debit card was declined on a $2.80 purchase.  Poor enough that my grocery shopping for the week was a bag of store brand white rice – and before buying it, I’d check out the price per ounce of every rice on the shelf to make sure that it was really the cheapest option.  I would go to thesis defenses of topics I wasn’t even interested in, just for the concessions, and sneak crackers into my jacket pockets for later.  (Note: Even at my poorest, I was nowhere near the poverty that the villagers here in Senegal are at.  I’m not claiming that I was.  Stick with me here.)

The VC system helps me keep money in perspective.  Yes, a pair of flip flops at a Teyel boutique is only 500 CFA, but when you’re as poor as I was, as poor as almost everyone here is, that $5 could go a lot of other places, and spending it is painful.

While I was in Thies for training, I paid my 12-year-old sister, Medo, to take care of my garden.  I told her I’d give her 100 CFA a day, and I’d be gone 23 days.  Her eyes grew wide.  She had probably never been in possession of that much money.  I gave her half before I left, as an advance, and gave her the other half after I got home.  Five minutes after I gave her the second installment, she returned to my hut, tears streaming down her face.  “I must give you back your money,” she said, holding out the coins.  “No,” I insisted. “That’s yours.  You worked very much.”  (In actuality, she had been overzealous in weeding and pulled up all the cabbages and peas, but it’s the thought that counts).   “It is too much,” she said. “You forget, you gave me money before you left.”  I insisted twice more, and she finally accepted my words, smiled, and left, thanking me profusely.  I had given Medo $4.60, less than minimum wage in America, for a month of labor, for dozens of buckets of water hauled up from the well, for hours of work keeping the tenacious jungle weeds at bay using only a hand hoe.  And it was still too much.  In VC, I had given her $23 – too much money for a mere child.  That could have bought enough rice to feed the whole family for at least a few days. (Sidenote: Medo used the money to buy flour, sugar, oil, and yeast to make beignets [donuts] to sell at a football game the next day to further her income.)
This girl is going places, and I love her dearly.
My teen nephew, Bubacar, works in the family's fields with all the other men, but he also has a cotton field that's his and his alone.  He spent hours planting it, and will spend hours more weeding and harvesting it.  He confided in me, whispering, that he can earn up to 40,000 CFA when he sells the cotton.  No teen boy in America would work all summer for eighty US dollars, but that's four hundred village dollars, and that is worth all the work.

It’s when prices increase that the VC system is the most useful.  For example, at the western goods store in Thies, I seriously considered buying a baggie of dog treats for the miserably scrawny family dog who needs all the love he can get.  The dog treats were 2000 CFA – four dollars.  A pittance.  Then I applied VC.  The dog treats were twenty dollars.  No broke-ass bitch would spend twenty dollars on dog treats. If I would have bought them, my family would have been disgusted by me.  It would have been like the way normal people react when celebrities buy diamond collars for their cats.  There were many products at the western goods store that used to be familiar to me.  A tube of pringles was 1500 CFA ($3).  A snickers bar was 1000 CFA ($2).  A chocolate and caramel swirl waffle cone was 2500 CFA ($5).  All of these costs sound reasonable, considering they’re imported, until you convert them into VC.  It’s madness to spend $25 on an ice cream cone. (At least it is now.  Maybe after a few more months in the Sehel it’ll seem sensible.)

The VC system helped me humanize the annoying demands for money, clothes, etc. I’ve been bothered by since I got here.  When I was a broke-ass bitch, I had truly amazing friends and roommates that helped me out when I needed it most.  When I needed a dress for a wedding, my roommate let me borrow one of hers.  When I couldn’t pay for my share of gas on a carpool home for thanksgiving, my companion paid it all and told me not to worry.  Not to mention the dozens of beers that I owe everyone who wouldn’t accept “I don’t have any money” as an excuse to skip the bar.  When I needed money, and my friends had money, they helped me out, and I was grateful.  That was that.  Why should it be any different with my new Senegalese friends?  Their requests for stuff are more forceful than what I’m used to, but that might be because of my terrible Pulaar comprehension skills, or it might just be the culture.  I do have money here, and they don’t, and they know it.  Why shouldn’t I help them out with little favors from time to time? Nothing big, just a token of appreciation and friendship.  It’s still really irritating to be assaulted with the gimme gimmes every time I leave the door, but this frame of mind helps me deal with it, at least from people that are otherwise nice to me.

As I think of possible projects I might start here, money must always be considered.  Broke-ass bitches are not going to adopt a new behavior if it’s expensive or risky, and a large part of development work is contingent on getting people to change their behaviors.  Having so little money is like walking on a tightrope, always aware of your actions, always trepidatious, avoiding the fall, cautious to the extreme.  Any project I start needs to be very cheap and easy to maintain, or no one will maintain it.


  1. Barbara, Just a note to say that Janet Ghattas and I sent a donation for the school fees of 3 of Michelle Sylvester students for this year. We sent the money according to the instructions on the PC website but we want to be sure that the funds reach the students. Please let us know when that happens. Meanwhile, we want to reiterate how much we are enjoying your blog, and this entry in particular is fascinating. We have a friend who is very involved with world financial inequalities - he will be interested in the insight you have. Best John and Janet john hand@gmail.com and janetghattas@gmail.com

    1. Thank you so much, John and Janet! Your donation is much appreciated, and I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. I haven't gotten the final donation numbers for the Michelle Sylvester Scholarship yet, but once I do, I will let you know! Thanks again!

  2. Sorry, I miswrote my email address: it is johnhand@gmail.com