Near Kabul’s Pul-e-Kheshti mosque, a man sits down by the Maiwand bank. Not to withdraw money, but to sell it. On top of a cardboard box, he lays out bricks 13 of US dollars, euros, Afghan afghanis and Indian rupees. Business has been good since 2010, when a financial scandal triggered a run on Kabul Bank. Now he and 300 other traders provide Afghans, only seven percent of whom have bank accounts, with favorable rates, fast service, and the reassuring feel of cash in hand.
Appearing through the crowd, a woman asks a trader how many afghanis he’ll sell for US$100. He checks the day’s rate on his mobile phone and offers 5,000. Another trader begins to offer more and the woman hesitates before proposing 5,120. The first trader tosses it over and she hands him the dollars. Quickly, he checks the color of the notes, then holds them up to his ear to hear how they sound. They’re genuine. So were the afghanis he sold, though he had to check every note individually. Counterfeits have become so sophisticated that even machines can’t spot them. And fakes are dangerous. In an economy ravaged by corruption and fraud, reputation is a trader’s most valuable asset.
In 2005, Cameroon’s breweries ran rival promotions offering free bottles of beer in exchange for prize-winning bottle caps. With beer at US$1 a bottle, people began using winning caps to pay for taxi rides, and taxi drivers used the caps to bribe traffic police.
In 15th-century Aztec society one cocoa bean is believed to have bought a large tomato, while three got you a turkey egg and 30 a rabbit. Bean counterfeiters were said to fill empty shells with sand and pass them off as the real thing.
Convicts in US jails can’t use dollars, and since 2004, cigarettes, the usual alternative currency, have been widely prohibited too. Packets of mackerel have filled the gap at prisons such as Lompoc, California, where prisoners are known to trade in “macks” for services like haircuts and shoeshines.
By 2008, 500 billion percent inflation had made Zimbabwean banknotes worthless. In response, Chidamoyo Christian Hospital, Chidamoyo, listed objects that could be exchanged for healthcare. Unshelled peanuts were the most popular; a quarter of a bucket of them could secure a doctor’s appointment.
From the pages of COLORS #85 - Going to Market.