Rediscovering My Economic Raison d’Etre

When I lived in Mexico City in 1995-96, I used to say that foreigners in developing countries have one primary reason-for-being: making change.

Whenever I got paid or got money from a bank, it was inevitably in large local denomination bills, like Mexican NP$100 or NP$50.  (Sometimes you’d even get the dreaded NP$200 denomination bills – those things were almost useless except in very limited circumstances.  The bank might as well have given me Mickey Mouse dollars instead for all the good those did you.)

You could use a NP$100 or $50 for big-ticket items like rent or the week’s groceries. But whenever I wanted to buy something small, like a soda or tacos or a taxi ride, the vendor could almost never break anything over a NP$20.  Inevitably I would end up waiting 10 or 15 minutes while he would run around the local area looking for someone with change.  Sometimes this would happen even if the bill was relatively close to the amount I needed to pay, like using a NP$20 bill to pay for a NP$12 cab ride.

As a result, it became second nature to make change whenever I could.  These were the decision rules I used when paying for something:

·      Never pay with a small bill when a big bill will do.

·      Never pay an exact amount even if you have it (except for coins).

·      Always offer a bigger bill first and only go to a smaller bill if the seller asks for it.

·      Always used the biggest bill you have on you when buying something in a big store that probably could make change.

I continued this habit for some time even after I returned to the States.  A couple of months after I came back, for example, I was flying to California. A stewardess was serving drinks and asked if anyone had change for a $20.  I did: in 20 one-dollar bills.

Now that we’ve moved to Tanzany, I have rediscovered my emerging-market raison d’etre.  At first I thought Tanzania would be different because the largest denomination bill they have is a 10,000 Tanzanian Schillings (TSH), which is about US$7.  Not true.  My first week here I waited 15 minutes for a taxi driver to find change for a TSH10,000 note.  The fare was TSH7,000.  I’ve tried to buy a TSH3,000 beer with a TSH5,000 note and had to wait 20 minutes.  And I’ve noticed that everyone is after my small denomination currency: TSH2,000 and 1,000 notes are worth more than their face value.

(I’ll have more to say about how difficult it is to physically pay for things here in a separate post.)

In Mexico, I thought that the change-making habit was just a quirk.  Having gone to business school since, I now know however, that I am helping to give Tanzanian money it’s value.  Economists say that divisibility is one of the four essential characteristics of money, along with durability, transportability and resistance to counterfeiting.  I can’t do much in the other three areas, but clearly these currencies have big problems with divisibility. 

 So I feel better about my economic role this time around.  I’m not just some unimportant mizungo foreigner trying to by a Coke with a big Tanzinian Schilling note – I’m essential.  I’m what McKinsey consultants would call a “change agent.”

So bring on the big bills!  I can make change all day long.  I’m following David Bowie’s advice:


(Try and ask a stranger.)


Don’t want to be a richer man


(Try and ask a stranger.)


Just gonna have to find a different man.

Time may change me

But I can’t change time…

TZ Arms Depot Explosion Update: Arms for Fish?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve heard an interesting local conspiracy theory about the February armory explosion that I mentioned in my earlier post.

According to a couple of friends who have lived here for several years, the depot was due for an inventory audit later this year.  It might be kind of embarrassing to someone if it turned out that not all the ordinance was present and accounted for.  Sure would be convenient if the inventory was — how should we put this delicately – not auditable.

I figured that any weapons gone missing would have made their way into conflicts elsewhere in Africa.  But apparently there’s a local use for it as well: dynamite fishing.  Dynamite fishing is incredibly wasteful and destructive, but doesn’t require much skill or capital so it is fairly common here.

Thus far there’s no evidence that someone at the depot was trading arms for fish, but if they were you can bet it wasn’t to fund the contra freedom fighters in Libya or anywhere else.  It would be good, old-fashioned graft.  Which is reassuring in a way.  I mean can you imagine what Oliver North could have gotten away with in this country?

Our new friend AJ provided one final bonus tip over dinner the other night that I’ll pass along in case you ever wonder if your fish has been dynamited.  She told us that if the fish feels “turgid” it was probably blown up.   Now if you’re like me, you’re probably not used to hearing the word “turgid” used outside of a letter to Penthouse.  But it’s good advice for Tanzania: if it’s turgid and if it’s fish, let it go.


You people are very nice to animals. An African would have sped up.

Susanne Wanja, our Kenyan babysitter, after I hit the breaks to avoid running over a cat that had run across the road right in front of us.


I wanted to write and say hello. My son, Jaden, is in Emerson’s class and evidently won a fan in Jaden this week when he drew a picture of himself farting during Kiswahili class.

Hally Mahler, in an email on the new kid in town.  Emerson’s response when I asked him about it: “It was supposed to be a picture of me putting on my clothes, but people didn’t get it.”

Let School Bells Ring

Emerson started school today after one long month of spring break.  We didn’t intend for such a long hiatus, but the International School of Tanganyika (IST) has a firm “we-don’t-prorate” policy.  So we chose not to pay around $4,000 for the 10 days remaining in the last term.  Then of course they had their spring break, and when you add it all up, a month has gone by.

Emerson enjoyed the first couple weeks until Sawyer started school.  But by the second week of being at home without his younger brother, he was bored and done with running errands with Dad. 

I am excited for him to start as well.  In fact, I was reminded of a speech by Martin Luther King. 

Martin Luther King

My memories from my undergrad American history courses are a bit hazy, but I believe that MLK gave it to a PTA conference shortly after his wife came back from a week-long trip while his kids were on spring break and he didn’t have a baby sitter.  I think it went something like this: 

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in a parent’s dream.

 I have a dream that one day schools will rise up and live out the true meaning of the creed: “Kids should be in the classroom, learning something on most weekdays.”

 I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together and have a coffee while their kids study math and reading.

 I have a dream that my four little children will one day all be in school at the same time, for a full day.  With no snow days, teacher training days, days off for parent-teacher conferences or other random holidays that parent’s don’t get.

This is our hope.  And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let school bells ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let school bells ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let school bells ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let school bells ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let school bells ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

And when this happens, when we finally get all the kids into school, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s parents will get a frickin’ break. 

And black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, moms and dads will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “The kids are out of our hair for a few hours.  Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

“It’s in the Air Shipment”

One of the nice things about moving overseas on an expat package is that the contract takes care of a lot of the logistics around moving your stuff.  When the movers came in, we split up our things in four groups: stuff to store, stuff to ship by sea, stuff to carry on the plane, and stuff to air ship.

The idea behind the air shipment is that you set aside a smallish portion of your stuff that will be sent by plane (about 700 pounds in our case).  It takes about a week or so for the air shipment to arrive after you schedule it.  In contrast, the stuff going by sea takes three months or longer.  So you put the things you need immediately in your airplane luggage and you air ship the stuff that you don’t need for a two week trip but do need for a two month trip.  Especially that stuff you need to keep the kids busy until they start school.

The problem comes when you assume, as I did, that getting the necessary entry visas and papers should be fairly quick.  I mean, the US Agency for International Development wants to give the people of Tanzania $5 million to help improve the lives of people in the health care system.  Should be a no brainer, right?

Not in Tanzany, my friend.  Even though Colleen has been here for two-and-a-half months now, her paperwork has only made it through two of the four ministries that need to sign off on it: US AID, and the Tanzanian ministry health & social welfare.  There’s no guarantee of how much longer it will take to get through the Tanzany ministries of public sector management and immigration. 

I know what you’re thinking.  Just send it and deal with any expedite fees later.  But if we have the stuff sent before the paperwork is complete we will either have to pay an import tax on it or storage fees for the amount of time it spends in customs until they complete the paper work.

So, something I’ve been saying a lot these days is: “It’s in the air shipment.”  Kids toys, games, and books that you can’t fit in your airplane bag?  In the air shipment.  Dog toys, leash, bowls, etc. for the new puppy?  In the air shipment.  Kids toothpaste, deodorant, sunscreen, and other toiletries that you can’t find here?  Fun stuff like tennis racquets, life preservers for boating, mask and fins for snorkeling?  Kitchen utensils, towels, sheets, and household stuff?  All in the air shipment. 

It’s not all bad, though.  By this point I can’t even remember everything that is in the air shipment.  So if someone is riding me about something I didn’t pack or should have brought, I just say “I’m sorry, Honey.  I put that in the air shipment.”

Right now, with the rate the paperwork is progressing, it’s an even money bet as to whether the air shipment will get her before or after our ocean shipment.