I have to pay for fall trimester at the kids’ school this week, and it’s a hefty chunk of cash. I’m not speaking metaphorically here—I really do pay in cash.

Dealing with money here always makes me feel like an underworld drug-lord, or possibly Ebenezer Scrooge counting his hoard. That’s because every transaction here takes place in cash. We get a small case of money from the bank for our monthly salary, and all bills have to be paid in person and with a fistful of bills. Since the highest bill is worth about $8, you can imagine how it can get interesting.

I remember when we bought our car, which is a 1999 Mitsubishi Pajero—a 4 wheel drive, necessary if you want to leave the capital and go to villages or even to the beach. (Actually, I’ve needed to use the 4WD in town, too, where the vast majority of streets aren’t paved) Yes, we paid cash. Our dining room table was covered with stacks of bills. We counted it all by hand, just to make sure it was all there. I felt like a Victorian moneylender, and felt an incomprehensible desire to smoke a cigar and wear a top hat, like some stereotypical character out of Dickens.

This is a nation where modern banking is only just beginning to arrive. Last spring we got our first automated-teller; it’s not a typical ATM machine because you have to have an account at that bank to get cash out. The only place in the country that takes credit cards is Air France. Checks aren’t widely used either, although they do exist.

Of course the bigger shops have cash registers, but there are still many where the shopkeeper uses a calculator, or simply adds it up in his head. One place where I often shop just tosses their money casually into a drawer, fumbles around to find crumpled 100 or 200 bills for change.

The attitude towards money is, in some ways, more relaxed. For example, if your purchases come to 580 ougiyas and you hand the merchant 600, he might not have a 20 ougiya piece to give you. So he’ll tuck in a small packet of kleenex or a box of matches in lieu of change, or possibly just give you a blank stare and expect you to take the loss. If the total is 540, and you give him 1000 ougiya bill, he will probably just give you a 500 in change, so you’re ahead 40 ougiya. (Note: 1000 ougiyas is worth approximately $4). Conversely, if you can get your cash to within 100 ougiyas of your total, and don’t have the rest, the shopkeeper will wave his hand and tell you not to worry about it. If it’s more than that, they’ll just say, “Next time!” even if it’s your first time in their shop. I love this casual attitude towards small change, and I really missed it in America this summer, where if I was even a dime short, it was a problem.

Their ease with numbers can be humbling to me, as I contrast myself with, for example, the young woman selling vegetables. I’ve got a college education but I struggle (always have) with doing math in my head; she probably didn’t even go to high school but she adds with alacrity and ease, usually managing to even add in a little extra as her faster wits circle mine. I’ve taken to bringing my own tiny calculator though; her “mistakes” are never in my favor.

Mauritanian money tells a story. Bills are crumpled beyond belief, held together with scotch tape, duct tape, staples, once even an Asterix sticker from a packet of bubble gum. They might be held together by the tiniest strip, or missing a corner. Sometimes you have to compare the numbers in each corner to make sure someone hasn’t put two halves together that weren’t meant to go together. Sometimes they have holes in them—caused when someone has stapled their money into stacks of 10,000. Crisp new bills are rare. I’ve watched women fold bills into eensy-weensy squares and tie them into a corner of their muluffas. No wonder they don’t last.

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