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Back Alleys, Bathrooms, and Back seats of taxis

August 9, 2011

Man carrying eggs, Bujumbura

Informal Sector 1:

When I have thought about the informal sector, generally I have been in a university classroom, listening to a professor hold forth or students argue about measurement or what the sector’s size means to an economy. The informal sector (depending on if you include agriculturalists or not) can make up to eighty percent or so of the money, or employment depending on how you look at it, of an economy. This is particularly true of Africa. In 2000, 78% of African non-agricultural employment was estimated to take place in the informal economy. Because God likes irony, the countries that probably have the biggest informal sectors sometimes do not have the capacity to measure it and, if they are both poor and not often in the news, the odds that the international community will put much money into research is also low. This seems to be the case for Burundi; I can’t seem to find a confident number on the size of the informal sector.

While in the country, those, people I interviewed did tell me on a number of occasions that there “really isn’t much of a private sector – everybody who works for the government.” This not, in a strict sense, true. Enterprise is happening everywhere, spilling out of the streets and into the alleys and out of the backs of vans. Every young kid with a carton of eggs or middle aged woman riding a bicycle with a crate of Amstels hanging off the back is engaging in market activity, and this activity is decidedly private sector. But there is no quality control – those eggs on the kid’s head may be spoiled, and the tires that the woman bought for her bicycle were not road tested – if they blow out, she will spill her beer all over the street. And, although consumers and producers may prefer it, the fact that the government cannot collect revenue from informal transactions exacerbates problems of infrastructure, health, education – any provision of government services. That is the informal sector.

When a government’s rules are onerous, when businesses are taxed usuriously, when permits are difficult to come by, it makes the formal sector look unattractive (or this is what I’ve read). I can only say that the rules and systems regulating cross country currency trade between Tanzania and Burundi seem, to the uninitiated, to be a provocation to break the law (and to pull your hair out, incidentally).

All this nonsense is just to say that when I got to Burundi I was carrying over 2.5 million Tanzanian Shillings. Why I was carrying around $1600 in Tanzanian currency isn’t all that interesting (an important point for understanding any of this story: there are no ATMs in Burundi, and businesses do not take credit cards), but I was, and thought that it probably wouldn’t be all that difficult to change Shillings into Burundian Francs at the Bujumbura airport. When I landed (on a nearly empty plane, after a circuitous flight from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to Bujumbura) the moneychanger in the airport was closed. The taxi driver, Eric, took me to a changer in the city. I hopped out of the cab and walked into the exchange bureau, a dark room in a drab building in central Bujumbura, where a woman behind steel bars greeted me in French.  I said, after a mumbled French greeting, “Hi there. I have quite a bit of money I need to change from Tanzanian Shillings into francs.” The teller gave me a funny look, as did the guard next to the window with a pump shotgun, and the woman in the office getting a Western Union transfer. “Do you have the new bills?” the teller asked. He held up 10,000 Shilling bills of a sort I’d never seen in Tanzania.

“No,” I said, “I’ve never seen those before.”

“Well it’s all we can take.”

“Seriously, you can’t take this?” and I held up a massive stack of bills, indicating that I had a lot more. I don’t know if somehow I thought the sight of huge amounts of cash would entice the changer to take the money (if I understand how money exchange works, they generally keep a large amounts of just about every currency on hand, so I was about half out of my mind to try to impress a money changer with, well, money). The teller indicated that my stack of money was not enough to change his business’s policy on Tanzanian currency.

I had a little US cash with me, but as I walked back to the cab I mentally counted how far it would go. It would not be enough to pay for the hotel, food, a translator, and transportation. I would need to change money somehow or another, or ask for the very expensive assistance of a Western Union transfer from the US. As we drove to the hotel, the huge and ungracefully aging Source Du Nil, I told Eric, the taxi driver, that it hadn’t worked, I hadn’t been able to exchange money.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I didn’t realize you had Tanzanian money. I think we can find a place – there are lots of exchange bureaus. And, of course, there’s the black market.”

I don’t think I had ever heard anyone explicitly refer to the black market like that before – I thought there would be euphemisms – “I know a guy who might be able to help,” or “well, it’s not completely legal, but I think we can help you.” In any case, it did not really matter that much, I thought, because he’s probably kidding.

Two days later I asked Eric to drive to an exchange bureau that he thought was most likely to exchange shillings. That day I brought a few hundred dollars in shillings with me, not entirely sure it would be exchanged and not wanting to carry around a couple pounds of cash. We drove to a fairly new, clean office in central Bujumbura. I walked in and told the cashier I had Tanzanian and needed Burundian. She gave me a sad look and said, “We cannot do this. No Tanzanian.” Before I protested, she leaned forward and whispered, “Do you know about the petrol station?” I had no idea what she was talking about, and could barely understand her. She called an associate from a back room, a little man who, without speaking, led me out of the building. We walked across the dusty boulevard and half a block down the road to a large, out-of-business gas station. As the man led me into a series of alleys on the edge of the station, I noticed that a few of the smiling, dodgy-looking men milling around the entrance to the alley held folded fifty dollar bills in their palms, flashing them at me as I walked by.

Self-Conscious Interlude:

I should stop here to note that what was happening to me probably doesn’t happen to a lot of international development professionals. This is not because they are too good for making informal exchanges; it is because they know enough to go to the black market in the first place. That is where you get the best rate. In talking to old (and a lot less old) pros, I’ve heard “I never exchanged anywhere else – the exchange rate was so much better,” and “the important thing is that you pick up enough words in the local language to keep from getting screwed.” Those involved in international development or business, or for that matter Burundians, Ugandans, Tanzanians – individuals who do not have access to stable exchange rates or, for that matter, international ATMs – may understandably feel some sort of tender condescension for the sort of innocent who wanders into Burundi with $1,600 in Tanzanian Shillings and who stands in wide-eyed wonder that some people don’t have access to ATMs. This is all true. One of the unfortunate but necessary realities in writing about foreign places and things unknown, is that most writers do not spend a huge amount of time on the area where there writing focuses. Many, admittedly, do spend a lot longer than a week. But a lot of what we write about travels in the developing world, or travel generally comes down to “something strange happened to me that I like to think you may find amusing.” And what I experienced, in the space of a few minutes in Bujumbura, may be amusing to people unaccustomed to making whispered exchanges in back alleys. Or at least not back alleys in Burundi.

The man leading me through the crowd of dirty-clothed men with fifty-dollar bills in their hands took me to the edge of the group, to an alley within an alley. A teller sat at a small window surrounded by steel bars. The man who had been leading me said “He can help you,” and left me. I approached the window and pulled out my overstuffed envelope.

“You can do shillings?” I asked.

The man looked at the bulging envelope, gave me an exasperated look, and waved his hands. “Yes, yes, get in the booth now!” he said, louder than I expected.

That I needed to be in the booth with him, and that he immediately slammed a three-foot long, steel deadbolt closed, locking me in from his side of the booth, made me nervous. I looked around the dingy booth. It was designed oddly like a confessional, with a wall of bars between the teller and me, and steel-bar walls between me and the outside. There were shades under the steel bars that made up the booth, keeping people outside from looking in. On the one hand, I was glad that people would not see me exchanging money. On the other, the need to be locked into a steel cage, the fact that the teller could do whatever he wanted to me, and that all those men with the fifty dollar bills had seen me go inside the booth and had a damn good idea what I was doing – these thoughts all occurred to me. But before I could reflect for too long, I was giving the man money, and he was giving me an exchange in Burundian.

“Eighty percent,” he said, a very good rate. I took the money.

“No, count it,” he said. I counted it, and saw that he had given me an accurate exchange. He smiled, an odd, gentle smile. “Come back any time you like.”

I got up to leave and thought about the deadbolt, the crowd of grinning men with fifty dollar bills, and the need for a steel cage (good God, would they have pulled me out if it wasn’t locked?), and I realized that as soon as I was outside I would be the only white man for perhaps miles, in a new suit, knowing negligible French and no Kirundi, and that everyone would have known exactly what I had been doing in there. The teller paused, waiting for me to leave, and I thought, “I’m wearing boxer briefs today.” I stuffed the stacks of wrinkled Burundian francs (two stacks, each about an inch tall) into my underwear (I do not feel the need to be more descriptive than this). The teller watched me tiredly, as if to say “I see weirder things than this most days before breakfast.” I opened the door, and sprinted through the alley toward sunlight. The crowd had largely disbursed. I jogged to the taxi, a few blocks away, and fell into the front seat laughing. Eric looked at me like I was an idiot, and when I told him what happened, was neither surprised nor concerned.



We drove directly to a meeting across town. I imagined an hour and a half with an education specialist in an un-airconditioned, eighty degree office with a stack of bills down my shorts, and begged off to the bathroom to retrieve my, ahem, booty.

Informal Sector Two:

Two days before I left Burundi for the United States I discovered one reason why the Burundian exchange bureaus may not have liked my Tanzanian shillings: it is illegal to take Tanzanian currency in or out of the country. I have not extensively researched why this is the case, but I read enough on the porch of my hotel in Bujumbura to convince me that I would not be able to exchange the remainder of roughly $1000 worth of shillings back to US dollars in the states. It was back to the black market.

This time when Eric picked me up at my hotel, instead of messing around with exchange bureaus, I said “let’s go to the black market. I need money.”

“Ok,” he said, “but let’s do this my way.”


His way was considerably more civilized. As we drove through the center of Bujumbura, I looked for the petrol station, but realized that, although we were slowing down, we were still a few blocks away. No matter, I thought, we’ll probably park nearby and I can walk there. As I thought this, or something like it, a man in a raggedy Chicago Bulls jersey came slamming into the back seat of the car – he’d jumped in while we were still moving and as soon as he was in the car Eric hit the gas. I was jolted and yelled “What the hell?!”

“No problem,” Eric said, “I know this guy.”

The money changer pulled out a wad of Burundian francs and, before he could give me a pitch, Eric insisted on knowing exchange rates. I cannot accurately relay what they said, but it consisted mostly of the man telling Eric a rate, Eric telling him to go to hell and get out of his car, the man adjusting the rate, Eric telling him that he liked to get kissed before he got screwed, etc. Eventually they settled at a very good exchange rate, we all grinned at each other, and the man hopped out of the car to get more money. We drove around the block a few times, and the man hopped back into  the back seat. Eric drove us to a driveway on the edge of a market area, and said, “You can count your money here.”

I took my money out of its envelope – around 1.5 million Tanzanian Shillings – and began counting just below my lap, out of site of passersby and police officers.

“No, no,” Eric said, “please, take your rest. No one will bother you here.”

And no one did.  The man in the Bulls jersey and I made the exchange, we all shook hands, and Eric drove me back to my hotel.

Since I’ve gotten back from Africa I like to think about where my Tanzanian shillings went, and why anyone wanted them in the first place. Maybe they headed to the Tanzanian border, where Burundian tea or coffee crossed untaxed, and Tanzanian importers were paid in their own currency, giving them the perk of not having to deal with the fluctuating Burundian franc.  How it got the border, if indeed it did, and how many other Tanzanian shillings went with it, I don’t know – maybe it traveled by pickup truck through the mountains, maybe by boat across Lake Tanganyika. I just hope, for the sake of whichever unit of the informal labor force was tasked with carrying it, that nobody had to stick anything down their pants.

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