Zaire banknoteIt was mid 1993, and we had just spent a few relaxing days in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Tomorrow we would be crossing the border, into the basket case that was Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Central Africa, was beginning to simmer around this time, and it wouldn’t be long until the heat was turned up, and begin to boil. During our brief stay in Burundi, the vibe on the street was a little tense, but still relatively stable. It would only be a few more months, before the country would brake out into full blown civil war, destabilising the region, shortly after which one of the worlds worst atrocities would begin, in neighbouring Rwanda.

There were five of us traveling together, all of whom had recently met at the infamous overland travellers hang out, Nairobi’s ‘New Kenya Lodge’. Our mission in Zaire was to get to the Kahuzi-Beiga National Park, to see the eastern lowland gorilla’s that the park is famous for. After crossing the border, and many hours of waiting, we managed to hitch a ride to Bukavu on a small pickup truck. The truck was loaded with half a tonne of dried fish, from nearby Lake Tanganyika and stuffed tightly into hessian sacks. Although comfortable to sit on, it had quite a stench. Although Bukavu was only a mere 100km away, the journey took us around 8 hours, so you can imagine the condition of the roads. We arrived late, and checked into one of the dodgiest guest house’s I have ever stayed in. This place was a dump, nothing more than a few pieces of timber and plywood quickly thrown together. There was no doubt it doubled as a brothel, as well as a gambling den, but what do you expect for $1.50 a night. We were all ultra tired from the journey, so it was lights out, as an early rise was in order to try and change some cash, before venturing further north towards Kahuzi-Beiga.

We hitched a ride on this truck to Bukavu

We awoke to a beautiful day, and after a quick bite to eat, we ventured into the streets to check out the town. Bukavu is the capital of the province, and at the time had a population somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000. Hard currency is king in this part of the world, and we each had a small amount of US cash, but we still needed a small supply of local currency to eat, and for day to day items. Paul made mention to me that, a town of this size must have a couple of banks, so we should investigate the possibility of changing a travellers check, as we were all low on cash. After a little searching we came upon what may have been the towns only bank. With much of Bukavu’s architecture being dilapidated, this building was remnants of the previous colonial era. Still in quite good condition, a little run down, but was standing the test of time, where many of the surrounding buildings were not. Normally when you enter a bank in this part of the world, there would be armed guards on the doors, but not in Bukavu. Upon entering the bank there was an eerie silence. The stone floor, and high ceilings creating an echo of our every move, you could literally hear a pin drop. We approached the tellers window, and from our vantage point, the only inhabitant of the bank, shuffled to his till.

We walked over to the teller and he greeted us with a smile, “Hello, how can I help you?” Ah, he speaks English we thought, this should be easy.

“Yes, I would like to change a travellers cheque,” asked Paul.

“You cannot change money here,” replied the teller, in a somewhat abrupt tone.

“Why not?” Paul replied.

“The bank has no money!”, replied the teller, again quite abruptly.

“What do you mean, the bank has no money?”, I said.

“The bank has no money,” replied the teller, this time with a slight smile.

“When will the bank have money, tomorrow maybe?”, I asked.

“No not tomorrow,” sighed the teller.

“Well, when will the bank have money?”, said Paul, as he turned to me with a smirk on his face.

“On Tuesdays, the bank has money on Tuesdays”, replied the teller, this time a little more upbeat.

Now those that travel for long period’s, know that the longer your on the road, the harder it becomes to remember what day it actually is. At this stage, I had been on the road for close to 18 months, so for me it was hard to even put my finger on what month it was. After the teller replied, I looked at the wall behind him, and noticed a large calendar displaying the date, and the day.

“But today is Tuesday!”, I uttered, pointing to the calendar on the wall, and laughing.

“Yes, but the bank has no Money,” said the teller, beginning to laugh himself, by this stage.

“Well, where is all the money?”, I asked.

“On the street, the black market has all the money. If you like, I can change some of your American dollars with my own money.” replied the teller, anxiously looking around the empty room. Thinking he was in for some good commission, from the exchange.

At this stage, Paul and I were rolling around laughing, said goodbye to the teller and left. A short while after, we caught up with the others and had a chuckle, explaining our predicament with the teller, and suggested we head towards the market and try and hunt down some money changers. Ask any hardened traveller, and they will tell you that changing money on the black market is a tricky thing to do. Not getting ripped off is you number one priority, although making sure you get a good rate, is also a close second in your mind. From speaking with a small trickle of people that had been in Zaire recently, we knew the rate was somewhere in the vicinity of 5,600,000 to the dollar (yes that’s million). It was also apparent that the national tender of Zaire, was in hyperinflation mode, and was becoming more and more worthless every tick of the clock. They also told us that we should not accept any 5 million notes (the largest note available) as nobody would accept them. It seems that they would be accepted in the nations capital Kinshasa, but were not accepted in the east of the country. One of the reasons for this, was that there was a small grammatical error on the note, that people were suspicious of.

Once in the market area, we were asked several times if we wanted to change money. We spoke with a few people discussing rates, and managed to find someone that could arrange for us an exchange at our preferred rate of 5.6million, and could also accommodate an amount of $200. As always, the person we spoke with was not the one with the money, it was his uncle’s, brothers, best friend (or something along those lines). There was no way we were going to do a deal like this, in a crowded market place. We suggested the lobby of the hotel across the street. He told us to go the hotel and wait, and he would be back with the money man in a few minutes.

Even though there were five of us, we still waited in the lobby in anticipation. Was it a set up? Two hundred dollars is a lifetime of money to most people of this nation. A few minutes later, in walked our new found friend, with the money man. Dressed in freshly ironed clothes, a rarity in these parts, wearing dark glasses and gold jewellery. He sat at the table and signaled to the hotel owner, to bring us some drinks. He asked to see our money, and we handed over four fresh 50 dollar notes. He checked them to make sure they were not counterfeit, and after a short pause seemed happy. He opened his bag and placed several piles of 1 million Zaire notes on the table, each pile contained 100 million Zaire’s. After he finished placing the money on the table, he asked if we wished to count it. We obliged, and proceeded to count the 1,120,000,000 (yes that’s billion) Zaire’s that were on the table in front of us. The counting took some time, and as soon as everyone was happy, we stuffed the cash into my day pack, filling it so tight we could hardly get the zip closed. We shook the man’s hand and all walked out, we were now multi millionaires, but with a pineapple costing 1,400,000, it wouldn’t be long until we would be broke again.