Jun 22, 2016

Currency Exchange and Chats Above the Clouds.

I sat in my seat on Ethiopian Air and checked the seat back pocket in front of me. Same Selampta magazine as the last international flight I took a few weeks ago. I’ve spent so much time on Ethiopian Airlines flights this year that I know that they always serve the same meal - chicken with rice, and that they don’t routinely change out the magazine in the seat back pockets. 

These past months have been insane. It seems I don’t stay in the same city long enough to let the dirt settle under my feet. It all happened strangely, the plans to hold conferences in 3 countries in May and early June. It’s been exhilarating yet also exhausting. 

With a few weeks left of the fellowship I was flying to Addis Ababa to relax and close a chapter of my life that has spanned over 4 years. I love Ethiopia. I love a few people in Ethiopia. And I knew that this was the place I wanted to spend the remainder of my time in Africa. Addis Ababa is the closest place to “home” I have on this continent. 

Addis Ababa is a hub for Ethiopian Airways, the largest carrier in Africa. The clientele are always diverse and unique. There’s the Chinese business people, usually middle aged men, greasy, yelling across the plane at each other and jumping up once the plane wheels touch down to grab their bags from the overhead bin while we are still zooming down the runway. There are the white business people in their smartly dressed attire, expensive “comfortable” shoes, and grass woven baskets purchased at an NGO bazaar for 300% up charge of the local markets. There are the church groups, in their matching shirts, overzealous/eager/wide-eyed smiles with at least 1 guitar as a carry-on. Then there are well-traveled Africans ordering beer from the flight attendants and resting peacefully alongside the Africans who have never flown before and have no idea how to make a connection or where to get their luggage. It’s a fascinating crowd and I have had some of the most fun conversations amongst these groups on flights across Africa. 

Last Saturday was no exception. 

After my initial disappointment in inflight entertainment, I ended up having one of the most entertaining flights of my African career. 

The elderly man in the middle seat pulled out his phone as soon as we took off and turned it on. I have stopped worrying when practically everyone on the plane ignores the “phones off” rule. It seems air culture is the same as on-the-ground culture in Africa - anything goes. He checked the time and showed me, 3 minutes until 6pm. Our flight had taken off late and he was concerned with breaking fast on time. He explained to me that dates are best for breaking fast and as soon as the seat belt sign was off, he hopped out of his chair and grabbed a bag of dates from the overhead compartment. After about 30 minutes, the flight attendants finally stopped at our seat to serve us drinks and the man had his first taste of liquids of the day. 

Ramadan Iftar. At 30,000 feet in the sky. 

It turns out me seat mate, turned friend, is Mohamoud from Khartoum. He was flying home from a conference in Kigali, via Addis, on the same flight I took to Khartoum just a few weeks earlier. When he told me where he was flying, I was so excited. I sensed a business deal in the making and set to work making it happen. 

As it happened, there was some confusion when we were preparing to depart Sudan in mid-May. We had heard from a friend and also read online that there would be a “departure tax” and that it would be stressful and time consuming to obtain. Knowing that this tax was looming, each of us Fellows saved about 60$ worth of Sudanese pounds. When we were going through the airport to leave, no one mentioned the tax. We were stamped through immigration and still were asking, “Don’t we need to pay a tax?” Nope. Leaving Sudan was easy and cost us no money. This was great, but also meant that we were left with an excess of money that is impossible to exchange outside of Sudan thanks to sanctions. 

I tried to find someone in Rwanda to exchange the money but was fruitless. Then, I was given the tip that there are many Sudanese who do business in Addis, so at the last minute I threw the Sudanese pounds in my passport pouch, hoping to find someone to exchange with, but not exactly sure how that would work. 

When Mohamoud explained he was heading home to Sudan, I asked him if he would like to exchange some Pounds with me since I had just spent some time in Sudan and needed to get rid of extra cash I had saved and ended up not needing. Outside Sudan, the pound is basically worthless, so my new friend understood my predicament. He seemed possibly interested in a possible exchange, but was much more interested in telling me stories of his 3 years in America in the 1980's, "Well before my time." (he misjudged my age, in my favor). It turns out, Mohamoud was the proud owner of a Ford Mustang purchased for 600$ in 1985 and re-sold in 1988 for $750. He spoke fondly of the American family who hosted him while he was a student in Missouri on an American government charity scholarship. He studied agriculture, and has made an impact on his home Sudan in the area of crop rotation. His 4 sons have turned away from the agriculture path, however, and though they have university degrees, they cannot find work in Sudan unless they are affiliated with the "corrupt government." Mohamoud expressed that he hopes his sons will one day become winners in the American green card lottery that is held the world-over, as he hopes that they can live a better life free from living under a war-lord controlled state. He said he would love to end his life in the country that was so monumental in his education - America. 

Then...he asked the question I have become tired of answering, but knew was coming. "Do you think Trump will become president?"

"I hope not," is always my answer, "He is embarrassing and I am sorry for what he says." 

"That's good. Because if he is president, I will not trust you Americans anymore. And I love you Americans. But what are they thinking?" he said, pointing a finger at me - which while seated in neighboring airplane seats, feels very close.

"I honestly don't know." I hoped for a change of topic. Apologizing for Trump's awfulness while a Sudanese man breaks his Ramadan fast for the day at 30,000 feet was not how I wanted to spend the next 2 hours flying to Ethiopia. 

Thankfully, the conversation turned back to the wad of money in my purse. "I only have 20 dollars," he said. 

"That's fine! 20 bucks is more than 0 bucks." And then we traded cash. 60$ worth of Sudanese pounds, worthless outside of Sudan, for two folded up American 10 dollar bills. 

"But I still owe you money," he said sheepishly, while trying to wave down the flight attendant for more coffee and sustenance. 

"We are both coming out on top, because 20$ is more than I would have if I never found anyone to trade money with me, and also to remember the kindness of Americans no matter what happens with our government." 

"Yes, people are not their government. This is the truth of Sudan," he said. 

"And America, too." 

This is how I spent the 2 hour direct flight to Addis last weekend. Sharing with a new friend, exchanging money on the black market for less than half of its worth, and finding understanding that corrupt governments do not mean corrupt citizens. This is how we counteract the bigoted news coming from America. Person to person. One reminiscent conversation of a Mustang in 1985 at a time. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

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