In the UK, as must be the case in much of the developed world, there is a decided move away from a cash economy towards money being managed online and the use of contactless payment. Although Ethiopia shows hints of a move in this direction, at least so far as the moneyed middle class is concerned, for the most part money is king. And since inflation has hit the country hard, and with the highest denomination note in common use a 200 birre note, that means carrying a thick wad. There is only one coin, incidentally, one birre, an attractive two-toned item, but virtually no-one uses them – their major use is as a gift to beggars.
I am obliged to obtain a huge number of birre over the next few days. In some ways it is easy enough. The UK has something of a small crisis with obtaining cash, with the closure of so many branches, and the removal of cash machines, but Ethiopia has gone to the other extreme. In some places, just about every other building is a bank, and there are masses of ATMs – my daily walk takes me past about thirty. Not that withdrawing money is always so straightforward. On a recent foray, the first four or five were knocked out because of a power cut, so I walked on to where the power remained. The next machine was out of service, the one after out of funds.
And I am now making my selection of which one to use with great care. My huge fear is that the machine will swallow my card – on one occasion I became suspicious of the messages I was receiving, and snatched the card back just as it attempted to suck it back into the machine, with the message on the screen saying, “Your card has been retained. Contact your bank.” Nightmare. And I am not sure that a phone call to the Nationwide Building Society in Thame would have done much good.
So now I choose my ATM carefully, only using those attached to banks which are open, so that if there is a problem, I can march inside. There is also the occasional fancy machine which allows you to tap it on a sensor before putting in your pin. Safer, but far less reliable. The whole business is hugely stressful, especially for those of a nervous disposition (ie me.)
At the opposite end of the economic spectrum are the beggars, raging in age from the ancient to babes in arms – I find it distressing that so many have learnt, or have been taught, to extend a chubby fist. There are many people asking for money, my least favourite (if that’s the right word) being the young boys, of ten or so, who approach one direct. “Money money,” they call.
But I have to say I ignore them all. There are so many, for one thing, perhaps forty on my short journey to rehearsal. I could not give to them all, clearly. And how would I choose which to favour. The old man sitting reading a religious text? The woman lying on the floor, shaking and screaming? The young mothers with babies, the disabled, the young children, the pilgrims? How can I judge the most deserving of my pittance? And even that word makes me shudder, with its echo of the vile Victorian distinction, used by some politicians even now, between the deserving and undeserving poor. All of them are poor, undeniably. So am I just selfish? Uncaring? Mean?