All newcomers here love to bring up the subject of money. There are a lot of double standards and funny rules when it comes to cash here. And cash is king – very few stores accept credit or debit cards, though that is slowly changing.
US dollars are used frequently in Congo, except in remote areas. There’s historical basis for this, mainly as a hedge against hyperinflation which occurred in the not-so-distant past. But today, it’s simply practical. The largest Congolese bill in circulation at this time is the 500-franc note, worth about 50 cents. When shopping for groceries where one can easily spend $100 or more, you’d need a briefcase (or at least a paper bag) full of francs. It’s much easier to pay in dollars, so that’s what everyone does. Most items are priced in francs (a can of tuna is marked 4000FC or so), but the store will quickly translate the bill to dollars for you according to their daily exchange rate, some of which are better than others. Then they’ll make change using a combination of dollars and francs. Needless to say, the cashiers are pretty quick with a calculator. The smallest bill I’ve seen in 11 months here is a 50-franc note, worth about $0.05. No need to carry any coins.
But there are strict rules as to which dollars can be used. First of all, $1 bills are not accepted unless it’s a vendor you know well. For example, both of the camp grocery stores will trade them, but none of the stores in Lubumbashi will. Second, only bills dated 2004, 2006, or 2009 will be accepted. I’ve had a 2005 bill rejected before. (But according to this, that may have been legit. I don’t know, I’ve never paid attention to series dates before.) Finally, the dollars must be absolutely pristine. Many times my dollars have been refused because of a slight tear or stain. One reject was neither – it was just a bit used, folded a few times too many.
To be fair, new francs can be found here; I just don’t happen to have any on me at the moment. Dirty money is much more common. And I must be honest – it’s a little stinky. I keep my francs in a separate wallet, but before long the smell of that wallet permeates my bag, drawer, safe… wherever it’s stored.
Oh, one last thing. Seb & I like to joke that apparently the banks here have some kind of direct link to the U.S. Treasury. Whenever we get cash here, they are brand spanking new $100 bills (the 2009 series), even in sequential serial number order. I bet we’ll see the new redesigned $100 bill before you do. Back home while packing up for Congo, we visited two branches of our local bank to try to get our hands on some pristine cash. They had nothing good. We asked when or how we could get newer bills, but they shrugged and said, “Maybe at Christmas?”