Note to my readers: All the stories in the Chronicles of Africa come from data I collected when completing my dissertation in the late 1980s. Sadly, little has changed for the women and girls in the nearly twenty years since I first wrote these stories. This resistance to change is a testimony to the powerful societal and cultural norms that limit the options and contributions they can make. It is my hope that by sharing these stories I can raise awareness and maybe leverage some change.
I consider moneychangers to be a particularly untrustworthy class of people. I made it a habit to avoid them and generally encouraged visitors to the area to beware of the money changers sleight of hand when trading money. It was difficult to ignore them totally however, They around the marketplace in droves and you had to pass through them whenever you went to buy fruit and vegetables or other things spread out in the numerous tables that filled the market square.
One morning as I was leaving to go to a secondary school where I was collecting data I was asked to do a “little” favor for a student. He had received $400 in brand new bills in currency from a sponsor in the United States. The director of the university where I was working asked if I would be willing to trade the money for him since I was going right past the market where the money changers hung out. I told him I wasn’t used to dealing with the money changers and preferred not to do this. He ignored my pleas and with the parting words of “….make sure you get 120 to 1…” waved me out of the door of his office.
Later that afternoon as I pulled up to the market the money changers pressed in around my car eager to negotiate a trade with me. I reluctantly began to negotiate for a 120 to 1 trade. Most of the money changers lost interest when I refused to lower my demands. Only two men continued to discuss the transaction with me. Finally, worn down by my insistence that “I know the going rate…” they agreed and handed me the local currency. After I handed them the bills, 20 new twenty dollar bills, they angrily told me I couldn’t get the 120 to 1 rate for anything lower than a 50 dollar bill.
All the time we were arguing back and forth about the rate I kept my eye on the money clutched in their hands. At no point did I see them move their hands—or the money—out of view. I had counted the money several times when I was first given it. I knew exactly how much money I was being asked to exchange. That represented a great deal of money to a poorly paid missionary so I was very careful to make sure I had exactly the amount I was being asked to exchange.
So, when we couldn’t come to an agreement on the rate and I agreed to take the dollars back, I need something had transpired when I recounted the money they returned and there was $80 less than I had given them. When I asked them where the rest o the money was they screamed at me I was trying to cheat them and angrily stalked to stand under the awning of a nearby store. Just as they did this, the summer rains began pouring down. Immediately the market place cleared as people ran or cover from the pounding rain.
I considered my options. There was no way I was going to let these two men take advantage of me. After months of collecting data about the situation of women and girls I was completely fed up with the patriarchal system. More than anything I wanted to show them and any man who might be told about me being short changed women could take care of themselves. I had to show them all (and particularly myself) women didn’t have to be victims.
I quickly swung the car around to head in the opposite direction, pulled up to the store where the two men were seeking refuge from the storm, jumped out of the car and grabbed the taller one by the lapels of his jacket. I began shaking him demanding in French he give me back my money. Everyone stopped talking and watched—eyes wide with wonder—as I forcefully shook him and then grabbed his counterpart by his coat tails as he tried to slip past me into the crowd growing ever larger watching the scene before them.
I screamed at them both—“Get into my car—we’re going to the police.” More shocked than scared they obediently climbed into my car. Despite their compliance I had a problem. I couldn’t go to the police. Even though there was a tacit arrangement over these money changing transactions technically it was illegal. I had to decide what to do. I wanted my money back. Indeed I was determined to get my money back. Without really thinking about the consequences of my decision I decided to make the drive up the mountain roads back to the university and let the students there get me back my money.
My two passengers knew I had a dilemma too. Quite frankly I could tell they were enjoying all the attention and seemed to be amused at my decision to head to the gendarme to resolve our little dilemma. I’m sure they assumed it would end in their favor and until I sped past the police station there wasn’t the slightest indication of any doubt about the outcome. However, once I whizzed past my passengers became much more subdued and hesitantly asked where I was going where I was taking them. When I told them and the other passenger a student from the university who was helping me with my data collection where I was going the two men began whispering in Kinyarwanda.
“We can’t go there. It’s all white people up there. What will they do to us?” The taller of the two men began shouting at me I was kidnapping them and had to let them go. When his threats didn’t work he began hitting me on my back and arm and yanking at the steering wheel trying to force the car off the road. My anger mounted the more aggressive he became and I began swinging back at him with my right arm eventually landing a hard blow on his face and chest as he leaned forward to jerk on the steering wheel.
He tightly grabbed my wrist and I screamed at him in English, “Let go of me NOW. Touch me again and believe me I swear to you you’ll be very sorry.” Although I couldn’t see his face I could hear the rage in his voice as he once again demanded I stop and let him and his partner go. He threw my arm loose but continued to swing at me—not quite touching me but threatening to all the same. While all this was going on my assistant and my attacker’s partner sat bolt upright in their seats amazement mixed with terror as the man and I struggled with each other. No doubt their fear increased as they watched me in horror struggle to keep the car on the twisting road that perilously clung to the mountain side.
When I was nearly halfway back to the university the money was flung at me. “Here, here’s the $80—you got your money back now let us go.” My answer surprised even me. “No. I won’t let you go until you admit YOU stole the money and apologize to me.” An angry and clearly reluctant apology was mumbled hardly what I wanted but clearly all I was going to get. I unlocked their doors locked with a child proof lock and stopped just long enough for them to quickly jump out of the car. I could hear them shouting I needed to pay for their taxi ride back to town as I quickly drove off.
I drove a short distance away then pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I laid my head on my arms that rested across the steering wheel. My passenger who’d been silently watching me until this point slowly turned to look at me. He shook his head in amazement and carefully enunciating each word told me, “Madame you were crazy to do that. They could have had knives.” He paused continued shaking his head for another moment and then whispered, “No one is going to believe this one.”
I was warned by a delegation of local teachers (all men) who came to my house later that evening not to visit the market for several weeks because the men I’d confronted might try to damage the car while I shopped. Even more than thwarting their effort to cheat me I had publically humiliated them and they would be bent on revenge for the way in which I had challenged their manhood.
Three weeks later, when I hesitantly stopped to buy food, it was my turn to be amazed. Silence slowly spread across the market as everyone stopped bartering and looked at me. I fearfully recalled my friends’ warnings that even men who didn’t like money changers and their dishonesty would sympathize with them because of the way I had treated them so badly.
Suddenly, an old mama standing near me who sold potatoes and carrots jumped to her feet and began dancing and shouting, intermittently clapping her hands and pointing to the two money changers I had taken on standing on the edge of the crowd of onlookers. “Voleurs, voleurs” (thieves, thieves) she shouted. Soon others joined in her chant dancing and clapping in rhythm to her song. It was my turn to be amazed when she finished her song and the crowd cheered on what I had done. It was the moment of my triumph.