Muctaru's Blog

I am Muctaru Wurie from Freetown, Sierra Leone. I blog on a variety of subject from my homeland and most of my post feature well researched stories I do.

My Insight on Freetown Forex Dealers

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It’s a very typical spectacle along the streets of the central business district of Freetown to see mostly young men standing in pavements and boulevards haunting almost everyone that passes by and seeking for dollar or any other foreign currency. At times they even chase cars and lobby for business with commuters in moving vehicles. The number of people involved in the street foreign market mostly known as ‘Dollar Boys’ runs into the hundreds and for many it is becoming a way of life now. Morlai Kargbo was having a dream far from plying the streets of Freetown and chasing pedestrians and commuters for dollar exchange, his dream when he enrolled at the Milton Margai College of Education to study Business Management eight years ago was to work in an air-conditioned office and not to run about in the sunny and heated streets of Freetown. But upon graduation he said he wrote over forty applications to various establishments: “None of them even replied me, so I had to join my elder brother in the streets and today we are making more money than most of my colleagues who are working in offices,” he said. Many of the forex dealers out there had a similar story like Morlai, one man even claimed he is a graduate from Fourah Bay College and told me that he turned down a recent job offer because the salary was too small compare to what he will be earning as a currency dealer in the street. The impression you get talking to street dealers is that there is indeed business here on the ground, a Fullah currency dealer who described himself only as Kottoh to me said that they are playing a crucial role in aiding the local economy; “Most people no longer go to the Banks when they want to buy and sell their foreign currency. They come to us directly and we are always sure of delivering without protocols and we don’t close our doors at 3 pm or so. We are here even at night.” He also claimed that they do big businesses with the commercial Banks most of whom he claimed call them for dollars when they have shortage. “They also come to us so we can sell for them when they have surplus because when we sell for them they make more profit than when they sell at the Banks on normal rates stipulated by the central Bank,” he said. Although the commercial Banks I contacted denied this link, a former staff at the Rokel Commercial Bank who now works at one of the new Banks in town on ground of anonymity told me that Kottoh is right, but he noted this is not an official bank policy and that quite often Managers or accountants in the various foreign exchange departments undertake these deals secretly with the use of trusted associate who runs these deals in an anonymous manner. One thing clear is that the street trade on foreign exchange is on the rise and now the so called ‘Dollar Boys’ are now aggressively targeting tourists locations, hotels and airports. At Lumley Beach some stay up there up until midnight to do business especially with the number of foreigners hanging around. Sheriff Koroma, one such dealer said it is now a routine for him to stay up until midnight around the beach area in search of customers. “I feed my whole family including some of my elder cousins and even pay school fees for extended family members,” he said. However, Foday Suma a forex dealer who roves around town said things are not that rosy in the forex trade; “Most of us don’t have a single capital or money to purchase even a single dollar, we mostly depends on people we call here ‘investors’, they are mostly Fullah traders and people from some foreign exchange bureaus. They deal with our main men on the ground that they trust and we in turn go out there aggressively and get the customers in return for commission. There are times I will be here for days without having anything simply because I couldn’t bring in customers for my investors and the sad thing is that I pay transport to come to town everyday and buy cookery. And you have to get money to buy cold water because standing under the hot burning sun throughout the day means you drink a lot of water, it’s really not easy for some us and please don’t be deceived by some of our men who wear big jeans and gold chains, it is really tough for the majority of us,” said an anguished Foday. Whilst Foday is feeling the heat of the sun in search for his daily livelihood as a ‘Dollar Boy’, some pedestrians and commuters who are always hounded by ‘Dollar Boys’ are also feeling the heat and many have complained in the past that their presence in the street are a menace to society and they should be taken of the streets of Freetown. “Although I have never set my hands on a dollar before I always get confronted in very impolite manners by these guys claiming to buy dollars. Even if you pass by their routes ten times they will harass you ten times, even though you would have told them you don’t like their manners and approach. This is painful for many of us and the authorities seem to be doing nothing about it,” said Mary Bangura, a Freetown resident. Others have also complained and made reports to police in the past about bogus ‘Dollar Boys’ in the street who duped people who go to them for business. Mariatu Tholley, one such victim told me  that in December 2008 she was the victim of such fraudsters. “Our uncle from the United States gave us US$ 500 to change so we can purchase dome building materials for the rehab of our home at Kissy, so we went to town and met some guys around Sackville Street. They offered us a very attractive sum for the US $500, but after looking at the dollars they came back to us and told us that their boss isn’t around. So we left them and headed to another dealer only for us to be told that 300 of the 500 notes are fake bills. That was when we realised those men had changed some of the notes and gave us fake ones during the time they were taking a look at them. We returned back but couldn’t find them there again,” said Mariatu who recalled that was one of her most bitter experience, she admonished people not to do business with anybody changing currency on the street. On their part, ‘Dollar Boys’ claim that majority of them are honest and hardworking young men trying to make a genuine living. “We want to have a clean image and we acknowledge that there are some fake money dealers trying to destroy our reputation and believe me if we catch any of them we will be the one that take them to the police,” said Big Med, who does business around the PZ end. Unlicensed foreign currency dealers plying their trade in the streets are outlawed by government and official government warnings by the Sierra Leone Tourism Ministry to foreign visitors and tourists reads; “Foreign currencies can be exchanged at any of the Commercial Banks, Foreign Exchange Bureaus and Hotels. Credit cards (American Express, Master Card and Visa) can be used to settle bills in some Hotels and Restaurants. It is illegal to exchange money in the street with unlicensed money dealers. Exchange money only at the Bank or at licensed Foreign Exchange Bureau (bureau de change).” There were recent efforts about four years ago to removed ‘Dollar Boys’ from the streets of Freetown, it had a very short term effect as many of them returned back to the streets when efforts by the government reduced. Despite the risks and warnings many still flock to street dealers, I was present just opposite the former Mercury International building at Siaka Stevens Street, Freetown when a group of IMATT personnel came down their Land Rover vehicle and exchanged currencies in the open. A Canadian national who was I also met as he transact business along Charlotte Street – Siaka Steven Street junction said he does business with the ‘Dollar Boys’ they offer him a good price always. “You can be rest assured you get the best bargains anytime you come to these guys, and to ensure safety I don’t go about changing money like that, I always come to these guys stationed here,” he said. Some citizens have also complained that Banks and foreign exchange bureaus have outlived their usefulness, Rahim Savage, a student who does a three years foreign correspondence course said he whenever he goes to the Banks or Bureaus to buy UK pound to pay his fees, they always say they don’t have the money to sell and will say check back tomorrow. “These official institutions are forcing us to do business with the ‘Dollar Boys’, because the Banks and Bureaus don’t sell to you foreign currency. They will always write it in their notice boards that they sell dollar and pounds for so and so, but when you enter there they will tell you please go and come later. As far as I am concern many of these bureaus are just money transfer centres where people go and collect monies from abroad.” For now it looks like the ‘Dollar Boys’ are witnessing a favourable growth and they seem to be enjoying every moment of it as they spread out to new areas in the city.

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Written by Muctaru Wurie

May 27, 2010 at 3:56 pm

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