An hour into my first visit in January, I got a taste of the new normal in Gambia though I didn’t realize it at the time. One of my sisters’ in-law had arranged for an informal Currency Exchanger to convert some dollars for me into Dalasi. She believes the fellow is honest and reliable. I had no reason to doubt her. Just as I was about to go take a shower to cool off (having flown through Dakar,) in walked a young Guinean name Ebrima Jallow with a backpack literally full of cash! I asked what his exchange rate is, and he said some exchange the dollar for D46.50 or D47.00, but because of my sister in-law, he can give it to me for D47.70. That’s the first bullcrap right there, but I didn’t sweat it. For the record, the Official and Western Union rates were around D50.00 and above.
Anyhow, after punching in the numbers, he announced that my Dalasi total is D28,620. He opened the backpack, pulled out what looks like a bank-wrapped bundle of 100 D200 Dalasi notes (the 100- and 200-Dalasi notes look similar), placed it on the table and said ‘this is 20 thousand. He pulled out another 100 bank-wrapped bundle of D50.00 notes and said, ‘this is 5 thousand’. Then he pulled out some unbundled D100 notes, quickly dropped several on the pile topped with 4 D5.00 notes. He claimed the entire amount was there. He zipped up, walked out, got on his motorbike, and left. I didn’t see any need to count all that cash before he left.
Why? Because in my Native Stranger mind, nothing was amiss. This is unheard of in America. It NEVER crossed my mind that the guy would cheat given my in-law’s relationship with and confidence in him. Besides, in any sane place on earth, bank-wrapped currency notes stamped with the amount bundled match the contents of the bundle. So when I KNEW I was cheated many days later, I was shocked, but still thought it might just be a genuine mistake. I told myself, the young fellow probably didn’t even finish high school in Guinea, so he could have just miscounted. I decided to proof what happened – cheating or genuine mistake.
Wonder how I KNEW I was cheated? Here is an old habit: I track my expenditures to the last cent or Butut! So, though I DID NOT count the money Ebrima Jallow claimed he gave me at the time of the transaction, I kept track of EVERY Dalasi I spent – gift, or purchase. And sure enough, in a little over a week, I realized I’ve been had. When I tallied my expenditures against what Ebrima claimed he gave me, I was coming up D600.00 short! My sister in law was incredulous and thought I might have forgotten an expenditure. I assured her that isn’t the case and resolved to ascertain what happened.
Well, when I needed some Dalasi for a trip up country in my final week, I insisted on going to Ebrima Jallow in particular. So, I, a friend, and an uncle got in his car, and went looking for Ebrima Jallow. I told my folks about what happened on my day of arrival, and not being sure of the cause. They both laughed and told me it WAS NOT a mistake. They were sure I was cheated and that’s the way things are in Gambia nowadays. Even the banks ‘operate in Nigerian Style’ I was told. My friend’s nephew then living in the UK had sent him D156,000 Dalasi a couple of years ago to purchase a taxi cab for his little brother at one of the Nigerian banks. When he went to pick it up, a Nigerian Manager or Sup brought out 15 bank-wrapped D10,000 bundles in D100 notes and put all in a bag with the unbundled D6,000. My friend had no idea he was cheated until he got to the car dealership where the entire amount was unloaded on a table and counted piece meal. Turns out, each D10,000 bundle was missing D400 – a total rip off of D6,000! When he went back to confront the Nigerian scammer, the crook not only loudly proclaimed his innocence, he threatened to call the cops never mind the poor fellow had gone DIRECTLY from the bank to the dealership and back to the bank in less than 90 minutes.
The one thing that has not changed in Gambia is every cash transaction is final the moment the customer walks away. One day in the mid-80s, I remember watching a man buy a used shirt from a Senegalese mobile vendor around the S/K market after some haggling, only for him to come back furious shortly thereafter to try to return it. From his loud outburst, he revealed that the Senegalese vendor had ironed and nicely nylon-wrapped what was in fact a used shirt with holes under the arm pit and conned him into believing he was buying a decent shirt. But the ‘Grande’ swore loudly that he’s never seen the man! And while still waiting for a taxi directly across the street from them, I saw everything! That behavior is now normal apparently.
Anyway, on the SerreKunda market to Westfield stretch, right where the BICI bank used to be, there is now a mosque around which dozens of Guinean youth allegedly working for the same group of Foreign Currency Dealers hang waiting for customers or victims depending on how you look at it. (The Guineans effectively have a CARTEL in both the Retail trade and Foreign Currency Dealing.) We stopped our car.
Several rushed to us offering D47 to the dollar. Two days earlier, the CBG had announced the appreciation of the USD to 53:1. I asked for Ebrima Jallow and his colleagues called out to him from across the street where he was. He had apparently gone to pray or something. Same D47.70 :1 rate he said. I gave him the dollars to exchange and Uncle Drammeh took over.
He asked Ebrima to get in the car and sit. Ebrima went through his normal routine dipping into the backpack to whip out bundles of cash. He handed over what he claimed was D23,850 and tried to exit. But the door was locked on purpose! Uncle Drammeh forced him to sit as he counted every note and it soon became evident how I was duped the first time. In the D20K bundle which should be 100 D200 notes, they placed several D100 notes among the bundle!
I had turned around in the front passenger seat to observe Ebrima’s face and body language. There are things we have no control over as human beings. The mouth lies easier than the body. After Uncle Drammeh pulled out the third D100 note among the D200 pack, I couldn’t help but crack up. The boy started sweating profusely! Talk about being caught pants down. All told, I would have been cheated of D600 again! And what did Ebrima Jallow have to say?: “Kamka Khalis bi, Qudi la Konteh”. I said ‘yep, and I’m Barack Obama’s son.’ So it’s the darkness that cheated me twice!
Some days later, when I told my travel mate about the experience, she wasn’t surprise. She had her own story: she had to come back with two US$100 notes. Why? Because when she tried to exchange the notes, she was told that the notes are older than ten years (by print date) and therefore less valuable! They can give her D45 a dollar, but no more. It’s the BIGGEST BULLCRAP I’ve heard in my life! Thank god, she wasn’t desperate enough to cave in. So she came back with her 200 dollars. See what happens when you let foreign carpet baggers control a segment of your economy?
Some say you should always count the amount you’re given in a transaction, however large. My response? Isn’t Gambian life stressful enough without the additional burden of having to worry about not being scammed in every business transaction? The mind games and mental stress is exhausting. My question is why should Gambians allow themselves to be subjected to such a live?
And for anyone who doubts these stories, please feel free to inbox me, and I’ll put you in touch with the witnesses I cited who are all online.
Watch this space for Take 3 on our ‘Anything goes’ country…