African Anecdotes #2: Show Me The Money – Ivory Coast, South Africa

Show Me The Money

Change and money in general is a big hassle in Ivory Coast. Notes exist in (FCFA) 500, 1000, 2500, 5000 and 10,000 denominations (there may be larger denominations, but we never came across them). As for coins, it’s 250, 100, 50, 25, 10, and 5. When you get money at the currency exchange, or bank, you will typically get only 10,000 notes, and possibly a few 5000.

The main problem is that whenever you want to buy something, the exact change (or as near as close to it as possible) is required. This occurs not only with taxis, people selling stuff on the street, and small shops (which I suppose you’d expect), but even in big hotels and restaurants. For example, if you want to buy a bunch of bananas for 100 FCFA, and you only have 500 FCFA, they won’t be able to give you change (unless you buy say 3 or 4 bunches). Sometimes in taxis, the driver will let you off with 30 or 40 FCFA, because he doesn’t have any change.

More annoyingly it can go the other way – for example in the hotel we stayed in, in Abidjan, we bought two cokes at the bar for 800 FCFA each, and they couldn’t give us the 400 FCFA change from 2000 FCFA, only grudgingly giving us an IOU which we could come back and use later. The worst thing though, is not being able to buy stuff on the street, or when people come up to the baca selling food, etc. because you don’t have any coins. Basically it’s an unavoidable and exasperating part of the money problems which are ‘monnaie courante‘ in Ivory Coast.

The worst money problem though, which did really screw up our trip quite a bit, was the fact that Visa cards (or Carte Bleue as they are called in France) are accepted practically nowhere, apart from the big hotels in Abidjan. Also, there are no cash distributors where you can use them, even in Abidjan. Contrary to what the guidebooks, banks, etc may tell you, you cannot use them to get cash over the counter in any bank – only 2 or 3 large central banks in Abidjan allow you to get cash with a Visa card, and it takes from 1 to 3 hours!

We had only brought a limited amount of cash (which lasted about a week), and then were relying on the Visa card to get cash or pay if we were ever staying in a hotel. To highlight what a nightmare it was, I’m going to go through our Visa card escapades, point by point:

1. We’d planned to stay in Abidjan for 3 or 4 nights before heading to Rocheline’s village. Despite knowing people in Abidjan, none of them had space to put us up, so we ended up staying in a hotel, which didn’t accept Visa cards (so immediately we spent about 120,000 FCFA cash).

2. Our friends in Abidjan informed us that Soubr�, the biggest town near the village we were going to, probably wouldn’t have banks where we could use the Visa card. We’d planned to leave for the village early on Monday morning, so we went to the big 5 star Hotel Ivoire on Sunday evening to see if we could get cash with the Visa card – no deal, but they said we’d be able to do so on Monday morning.

3. We changed our coach tickets to leave on Tuesday morning. We also changed hotels to a cheaper place. We went back to the Hotel Ivoire on Monday morning to get cash, but they informed us that we had to go to a bank in the centre of Abidjan (thanks guys, for lying to us the previous evening!)

4. We went to the SGBCI bank – the main headquarters in the centre of Abidjan, and eventually got our cash after a two hour wait. My french Visa card is unfortunately limited to withdrawals of 2000 FF (or 200,000 FCFA) per week. So that was all we got – but it was enough to last us a week or so.

5. On Tuesday, we set off for the village – on a coach due to leave at 9:30 a.m. and which left at 11 a.m. (Ok – this point is a travel company winge, and nothing to do with Visa cards). We arrived in Soubr� about 5 p.m., had to wait an hour or so, and then got the baca to Rocheline’s village of Gu�d�yo, arriving around 8 p.m.

6. Things were fairly cool in the village. We stayed for about 10 days, during that time going back by baca to Soubr� to check out the market, buy some food and other stuff, and to try the banks to see if any of them took Visa. None of them did, but they assured us that the banks in San Pedro (where we planned to go next) would accept it, and that we would be able to get cash there, no problem.

7. We arrived in San Pedro on a Friday afternoon. Banks are typically open on week days from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. We tried to go to a bank at around 3 p.m., but the security guards outside informed us that since Saturday was the Ivorian national holiday, all the banks had shut at 11:30 a.m., and wouldn’t open again until Monday morning.

8. This left us with the problem of not having enough money to pay for the hotel, or buy food to eat, etc. We paid for one night at the hotel, then managed to persuade them to give us the next two nights on credit (plus some meals). They were very cool about this – “Il n’y a m�me pas de probl�me” (that’s not even a problem). So we had enough cash to scrape by for the weekend – food, and taxis (the hotel we stayed in “La Marina” was excellent – near beach, cheap, good food, friendly staff, but it was a bit of a trek from the town centre). We also managed to find a hotel/restaurant (Hotel Sophia) which accepted Visa card – so we were able to eat there twice, and pay with the card.

9. Come Monday morning, we went into San Pedro centre, and went around the banks, to find one that would allow us to get cash with the card. Eventually (after asking in about three other banks), we found that the BICICI bank supposedly accepted Visa cards. The guy behind the counter (and thick glass, luckily for him!) was probably the most stroppy, arrogant, and smug bastard we came across in Ivory Coast. A kind of short, fat, git with ginger hair, and pale brown skin, verging on the albino, with deplorable manners, and an attitude that he would only serve you if he felt like it, and when he felt like it (and otherwise completely ignore you).

First he takes my Visa card, messes around for about 15 minutes, then tells us the line is busy and to come back later. We went away to look around the shops, came back in an hour, and when he tried the card again told us that it was refused, and refused to retry it. I tried kicking up a fuss, asked to see his manager, but to no avail. Luckily some Arab customer at another counter, overhearing my ranting and raving, told me that I could go to either the Hotel Sophia or the Hotel Balmer, and that they would be able to give me cash.

10. Feeling rather disgusted, we took a taxi to the Hotel Sophia, who told us they could give us cash, but that they didn’t have any right then, and to come back later. We also tried the Hotel Balmer (another taxi ride) who told us no go.

11. San Pedro is perhaps the nicest place we visited in Ivory Coast with it’s beautiful deserted beaches, but by this time we were getting very pissed off. Eventually we got 50,000 FCFA from the Hotel Sophia in the afternoon. Which basically meant that we could pay our hotel, and then head back to Abidjan (which we’d planned to avoid until returning to France) – where we could go to a bank which would actually give us some money i.e. the maximum 200,000 FCFA allowed. We’d planned to stay in San Pedro until Tuesday, then get the bus from there directly to Gagnoa where we’d arranged to meet Rocheline’s mother, but we ended up leaving for Abidjan, staying one night there, getting money on the Tuesday morning, then heading to Gagnoa in the afternoon.

12. The final Visa card fiasco came on the last day of our holiday. We’d stayed in the Grand Hotel, in the centre of Abidjan, for three nights. They supposedly accepted Visa cards. In fact, we’d paid by Visa card there when we stayed one night after returning from San Pedro. However, this time they told us that our card was refused (even after several retries). We said that we didn’t have enough cash to pay, so they called on the stern-faced hotel director, who came and sat down with us at a coffee table in the reception, to work out a solution.

I offered to send a mandate when I arrived in France (no way, Jos�!). What he proposed was to contact a relative or friend in Europe, who would send us cash via Western Union. We tried a friend in France, then my dad (nobody home), then finally got hold of my sister who agreed to send us �250 (approximately 250,000 CFA). Using the hotel phone to call my sister in the UK cost about 19,000 CFA (or �19)! Ouch! The cash transfer had a fee of �27. So this final Visa card problem cost us dear. I suppose though that we were very relieved when we’d paid off the hotel bill, and were finally on the plane with no more Visa card, cash flow nightmares. We vowed that next time we’d bring a lot more cash and traveller’s cheques.

I think that the ‘money experience’ taught us a lot though – such as not to trust the guide books or heresay, how to discuss our problems as a couple and solve them, how to be resourceful, always to hold back a little cash in case of emergencies.

I was never down to my last franc, always trying to keep at least 10,000 FCFA for the all too common money surprises (like having to pay extra for baggage when you get the bus). In fact, I still had 6000 FCFA (a 5000 note and a 1000 note) plus a few coins, when we left the country, which I’ve kept as a souvenir. The notes I have are nice, crisp, clean ones. I rather wish I’d kept a hold of one of the typical notes you get given over there – the really dirty, brown ones, which have been passed from hand to hand so often that they look like ancient pieces of paper, as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the print so faint and grime-covered that you can hardly make it out.