Congo is, with very (very) few exceptions a cash society. You do occasionally see a sign for Visa or Mastercard, but I have, quite literally, not seen a single person actually use a credit card to purchase anything in a store since we got here over six months ago. For me it has been a bizarre adjustment since, in the U.S., I used a credit card for everything and almost never had any cash on hand.
B has been playing the points “game” for a couple of years now, figuring out which cards have the best bonuses, which airlines have the best programs and how we can parlay that into free flights, hotels and trips. The result is that we paid for everything in the U.S., from a cup of tea to my taxes using a credit card. Which card to use, when to use it and how much to use it was dictated primarily by the point bonuses and calculations of the various cards.
Now here we are, in a cash society, with a pile of credit cards going unused in our safe. When we pay for things (read: Amazon) over the internet in the U.S. using a credit card we only use one (and for the record that is our Chase Sapphire – no foreign transaction fees and best availability for point use of any other card we’ve found). Although I haven’t really counted precisely, I think we estimated that we have well over $250,000 in credit between us – all available if we decided to go on a crazy spending spree.
A lot of people were aghast at our “collection” of cards and warned me that it would affect my credit score – and it has. Before we started our points crusade I had a good credit score, but now, with dozens of credit cards to my name and thousands of dollars available to me, my credit score is…perfect. What? Yes. Perfect. 850.
Keep in mind here that I no longer have a job. No money is regularly coming into my bank account. I’ve been watching my score climb steadily over the last year and it has left me both amused and flabbergasted. As a society, Americans are incredibly reliant on these scores. They determine the rate at which we can get credit through the bank – for mortgages, cars, business loans etc. They also determine what additional credit you can get in the way of credit cards. So, how does it make sense that I have no job and dozens of credit cards and my score has gone from the mid-700s to 850?!
Meanwhile, when I go grocery shopping in Kinshasa I have to make sure I bring cash with me. We have to remember to cash checks at the Embassy so that we have enough money to go out to dinner, buy gas, buy groceries, and pay our staff. When we went to Zongo in September we paid for our room in cash. I paid for C’s school fees in cash. Last month I bought a TV with cash – handed over the bills and, in return, received a television.
It’s not just any cash either – it’s American dollars, with a few Congolese francs thrown in as change. I have no idea why the Congo is “dollarized.” As a former Belgian colony you would expect them to use Euros, but, luckily for us, they use the U.S. dollar and that is what we regularly hand over in stores. Except, oddly, they will not literally accept a dollar. The Congolese stores (for the most part) don’t accept dollar bills. I, again, have no idea why, but there it is. No dollar bills. The smallest bill they will accept is a $5.
When you hand over your American money to cashiers, they will examine it carefully and, if it has a tear (even a tiny one) or a mark any bigger than about a 1/4 inch, they will hand it back to you and refuse to accept it. Meanwhile, the Congolese francs are filthy, ragged pieces of paper that, occasionally, are so difficult to read you don’t know if you have a 500 CF bill or a 100 CF bill (which are both blue), but they will accept them no matter what condition they are in.
There are no coins here, probably because the CF is worth so little ($1 = approx. 928 CF) that the smallest bill, 50 CF, is equivalent to $0.05, so why bother with coins for amounts smaller than that. I don’t know if that is a correct assumption, but the fact is that our wallets are filled with bills – lots and lots of CF equaling a lot less US – but they remain light. This is in contrast the the UK, EU and Canada where they’ve gone the opposite direction and switched their smaller bills into coins providing everyone with a free weight workout whether they like it or not.
Money is also treated with more respect here. When I pay my staff they always take their wages with two hands and press their hands to their hearts in thanks to me as they accept it. In the store I never see Congolese shoppers just shove their change back into their purse (the way I often do), and when C leaves money from her piggy bank on her bed or dresser (because she likes to play with it…go figure), Romani, our housekeeper, always folds up the bills and puts the coins in a pile. It’s a respect and appreciation for even the smallest amounts that we can’t seem to muster for anything less than a $50 bill (and sometimes not even that).
Maybe its about the visible and the invisible in the two societies.
In the U.S., for the most part (and certainly for most people I know), money is invisible. It flows electronically – between banks, through credit card machines, on checks. We rarely, if ever, use cash in the U.S. anymore. With services like Uber and Urbansitter (basically Uber for babysitting) not only do you not pay in cash anymore, the money just automatically comes out of your linked credit card without you ever really seeing it.
Maybe that is where the respect comes from too. Cash for most Congolese is the key to acceptable food, shelter, medicine, education and work. Change is never “spare.” It is vital and necessary every day for every part of their lives. For us cash is what we get out of the ATM for “extras” – to have just in case we need it. If there is an emergency we have bank accounts, credit cards, and multiple ways and means to access funds. That is mostly unheard of and unknown here – very few people have any savings beyond a few hundred dollars, so without cash here you have nothing.
It breeds a different feeling for the money we use by making it more visible to us. We are aware what we are spending and how much things cost because we see it and feel it physically – not just as numbers on a machine which appear and disappear magically with the swipe of a card. I am much more conscious of what I’m spending because I am actually spending it – handing it over to someone else in exchange for a good or service.
My hope is that the reality of having to hand over cash at every turn will make me more conscious of what I’m buying, and what I’m spending. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect it to cure me of being a “shopper” down to my very core (yes, I can even happily spend hours browsing at the grocery store – going in and grabbing what I need and leaving seems almost criminal to me). What I hope is that, like many things in the Congo, it makes me more aware and thankful for what I have, and what others do not have.
There are so many ways in which the reality of money is brought home to us that it is hard to find just one.
The Congolese street child who asks for 500 CF – about $0.50, saying “je suis faim”(I am hungry) just before we go out to dinner and pay $150 US dollars for our food – about 140,000 CF.
The time I was helping Papy, who has three children and a wife who doesn’t work outside the home, fill out a job application and had to write down that his yearly salary is $4,200 – and he is relatively well paid here.
The guilt I feel when our staff asks for loans or advances on salary and I feel annoyed that they seem to see us as a bank.
The reality of what money means here is daily lesson and it can be devastating in ways that are hard to accept. But, in true “money can’t buy happiness” fashion, most Congolese people smile easily, they laugh and enjoy what they do have in ways I’m sure some of the people I knew in my former life cannot ever appreciate their newest car, house or other material possession.
If nothing else, I hope that C will learn to respect and appreciate every dollar that flows through her hands and to understand that she is lucky beyond any monetary measurment simply by virtue of when, where and to whom she was born.