wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Michela Wrong

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo

Inflation, which had reached double-digit figures sufficient in themselves to bring down an accountable Western government suddenly rocketed in 1991 to a mind-boggling 4,130 per cent. The next year it fell slightly to 2,990 per cent. But the next year it was back up to 4,650 per cent and in 1994 came the worst of the worst: inflation ballooned to 9,800 per cent.

For Zaireans paid in local currency, the effect of what was effectively an unofficial tax on every financial transaction was disastrous. In the time it took to drink a coffee, the rate could have changed a couple of times. Dither too long over the bill and it might have to be altered. Return from a long trip and the store of zaires that had bought a family a meal before you left now scarcely afforded a bar of soap.

In supermarkets, no one bothered ticketing goods individually any more, so quickly did the prices change. Instead they were classed in categories with a single index, easily updated, giving that day's price for each category of goods. Each individual note was now worth so little, the banking industry effectively ground to a halt, unable to muster the liquidity needed for major transactions. Sometimes, behind the tellers, you would see hillocks constructed of soiled, strangely aromatic zaire notes, stacked against the wall in brick-like blocks: destined for some small business struggling to pull together the salary for its workforce, perhaps, or to buy a photocopier. There was rarely enough cash for anything more ambitious. Checking the amount could take hours, despite the fact that to simplify counting, notes were split into convenient 'paquets' of twenty-five. You trusted your black market moneychanger, in fact you trusted every Zairean you dealt with, not to subvert the entire system by sneaking a couple of notes out of each paquet. Ironically, a crisis created by such top-level dishonesty bred its own moral norms amongst its victims, adhered to with a greater degree of conscientiousness than the rules of a conventional financial system.

Indeed, it gave birth to an imaginative mutual aid system amongst those still tenacious enough to want to operate in a society where the banks had become irrelevant. Coffee exporters and arms traders, aid organisations and diamond smugglers found themselves strange bedfellows as they established an informal money-trading network. A single phone call would enable a factory boss to locate the zaires needed to pay his work-force, or a Lebanese dealer to find the dollars he needed to buy his diamonds. It was do-it-yourself banking and it worked. 'I find it quite inspirational,' a British businessman once confessed. 'Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of currency will be traded over the phone, the transaction takes seconds to go through, rather than the weeks involved if it were being conducted through banks, everything is done verbally and no one ever welshes on a deal, because they know if they did the whole apparatus would collapse around their ears and everyone would lose out.'

But even if the process was taking place in graceful slow motion, the system was indeed imploding under the weight of its own eccentricities. Each time a new denomination was issued in a forlorn attempt to keep up with inflation, politicians would wait with bated breath to see if the population would accept it as legal tender or refuse it as inflationary. That was the step that helped push the soldiers to riot in 1993, when they found their wages being refused in shops. One of the last bills issued under Mobutu—the 500,000-zaire note cheekily dubbed the 'prostate' in honour of his afflicted organ—was rejected en masse in Kinshasa, providing a few mouvanciers with a wonderful opportunity to exploit. Appropriating notes rendered worthless in Kinshasa, they chartered planes and flew stacks of prostates down south to Lubumbashi, where they dumped them wholesale onto a more amenable black market.

In Kasai, of course, the new zaires had never been accepted at all, presenting a lucrative opening for officials who hoarded 'ancien zaires' instead of burning them as directed, then off-loaded them in the Kasaian trading centres of Mbuji Mayi and Kananga. In the far east, new zaires were accepted but traded at a different rate against the dollar from Kinshasa, another opportunity for those lucky enough to travel to make a profit on the spread. One country, at least four separate currency zones: Zaire was beginning to crack at the seams.