Craig's Travels
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Getting Cash

In Africa, simple tasks sometimes become daunting chores. This happens for many reasons: lack of infrastructure, too much bureaucracy, the slow pace of life . . . all of these contribute. However, I have found that in Africa everything has a way of working out in the end.

All of this became blatantly clear to me as I tried to get some Kwachas, the local currency of Malawi. In every other country I have visited, I walk up to the ATM machine, stick my card in the slot and the little man inside reads the card and hands me some cash. I never know exactly how this process works, but it does, and I rarely question it. In Malawi, however, the little man in the machine did not like my card and therefore wouldn't give me any cash.

The reality of the situation is the ATM's here are not connected to the Sirus or Star network that most other banks around the world are connected to. The solution was to actually enter the bank (a task I have done only twice before, once to set up the account and once to ask directions to a bar), and give them my card. However, this was not a simple transaction involving the handing of the card and then the handing of some cash. Oh no. Instead, the bank in Malawi had to contact a bank in South Africa, who then contacted my bank, who supposedly told the South African bank to tell the Malawi bank, "Yes, go ahead and give this chap some of his money." This process took a half-hour and cost me 500 Kwacha, a seemingly exorbitant amount until you do the conversion and realize it's only $5. I realized why they needed to charge $5 when I came to collect the cash. The teller consulted her manager, who in turn called another employee in to approve the matter. With all the man-hours I was using up to withdraw the money, I though $5 was actually quite a bargain!

Ronit faired far worse in the affair. Apparently, my "Bank of America" card was an acceptable means to pull cash. Her bank, Golden One, is less known here in Malawi, and the teller told her it would not work at the bank. Now Golden One is on the same Star and Sirus systems that BofA is a member of, but this point was lost on the Malawian bank employees.

Frank, our gracious host and savior, provided a possible solution. His wife, Jillian, was coming from the United States at the end of the week. She could bring some US dollars, easily exchanged at any bank. Now all we needed to do was contact the US via phone and inform everyone of the plan.

Frank's cell phone doesn't reach the US, so we drove to his office to use the phone there. However, despite having set up the phone for international calls, this service was unavailable. We drove to a friend's office, where I was able to make the call, but not able to get through, as my father was in the middle of his commute to work. Later, we tried calling from a local phone bureau, a shack on the side of the rode that allows people to make phone calls for a nominal fee. That too proved unsuccessful; he couldn't connect internationally either.

We figured email would have to suffice the following day, which was unfortunate, because Jillian was supposed to visit my father that afternoon. However, that night as we sat down to watch TV, Frank's friend from California called to say hello. Frank then asked him to call my father and have my father call us in Malawi.

Thus everything worked out perfectly in the end. I had a pocket full of Kwacha and Ronit had some dollars on the way. It took all day to arrange, but by the time we went to bed, all was taken care of. Things around here have a way of working themselves out in the end, if you are patient enough to wait that long.

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