Poor in Guinea, but Making a Living From Crisp New Banknotes
Poor in Guinea, but Making a Living From Crisp New Banknotes

The employment situation has worsened as Guinea has struggled to rid itself of Ebola and its economy has plummeted.

The lucky young men find jobs driving taxis or pushing wheelbarrows at construction sites. Others adopt more unsavory professions, on evidence at the local pickpockets’ market, where the day’s catch of mobile phones, leather wallets and stolen items is on display.

And then there are these men, most in their 20s but some as young as 15, gathered under the bridge.

“Our life is in this,” said Ishmael Isho Kamera, 23, one of the money-changers and no relation to Ibrahim Kamera, as he patted his stacks of brand new francs. “We don’t have anything else to do.”

Across the globe, the legal market for money is huge. Numismatists collect old coins and trade them for hundreds or thousands of times their original face value. The foreign exchange market, where currencies are traded for a profit, is estimated to be a $5.3 trillion-a-day operation.

And in some parts of the world, the illegal market for money also is thriving.

“In many countries there’s a black market for currencies that is very lucrative for some people,” said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman & Company in New York.

Here in Conakry, Ibrahim Kamera, who like his friends wears a soccer jersey and flip-flops, considers it a good day if he earns 200,000 francs a day, the equivalent of about $26. Typically, a day may bring in half that much. That is still considerably more than the average daily income in Guinea, which in 2014 was less than a dollar and a half.

Americans fixated over new state-themed quarters when they were released into circulation in the United States. Guineans are keen on the new 20,000 franc bill, with its indigo and green tones and backside portrait of the nation’s new Chinese-financed hydroelectric dam in Kaleta, about 60 miles north of the capital, and several electric transmission towers.

The dam increased energy generation to a nation plagued by blackouts and has been one of President Alpha Condé’s crowning achievements. The denomination was issued in July, curiously timed to Mr. Condé’s campaign for re-election in the fall.

The money-changers under the bridge have learned to be good businessmen. Years ago, they found an original investor, a friend who gave them some starting capital. Now, they earn about 50,000 francs in profits — about $6.50 — on every 1,000,000 francs they sell.

Potential customers are easy to pick out, especially the women, who usually are on their way to a wedding, carrying umbrellas and large bags for toting the paper money.

Most clients buy large stacks of bills; they have to if they want their cash gifts to be meaningful. In Guinea, where inflation has taken a toll in past years, a typical lunch of fish, rice and plantains at a restaurant costs about 114,000 francs. One loyal customer buys 15 million francs at a time.

The young men have also honed their sales skills. Mr. Kamera gives discounts to repeat customers. Sometimes he sings to clients, to entertain them so maybe they will buy just a little more money than intended. When Mr. Kamera learns that a customer shares his last name, a common one in parts of West Africa, he makes a scene, pretending to be related for the sake of improving customer relations.

Mr. Kamera and his crew compete with one another, jostling to be first to get to an approaching customer. But it is just part of the job, and all is generally forgiven in a matter of minutes. The men possess a charm and cheerful spirit that belies the danger of their trade and the seeming hopelessness of their lot in life.

Mr. Kamera and his friends are refugees who fled violence in Sierra Leone in the late 2000s. They take turns delivering part of their proceeds to their families, who are scraping by in an abandoned refugee camp in Boreah in the north of Guinea, some 15 hours away by car.

The police occasionally swarm the area by the pedestrian bridge, beating the men, confiscating their stacks of money and jailing them, sometimes for days. After all, their work is illegal.

“This job,” said Desmond Conte, 27, in slow, deliberate words, “is not safe.”

When it comes to sales of new francs, the competition is real. A group of young Guinean-born men plies the same trade on the other side of the bridge no more than 30 feet from the turf Mr. Kamera and his friends have staked out. The groups mostly ignore each other, except for exchanging dirty looks.

For both groups of men, business has been slow because fears of violence around the October presidential election made people wary of scheduling weddings and other events in the city.

One day shortly after the election, it was probably the presence of two American journalists that kept customers away from Mr. Kamera and his friends.

Business was better for the competition on the other side of the bridge, where a woman in a red and gold head scarf and yellow gown dug into her large bag as she approached to conduct business. The woman was buying new francs to hand out to children as gifts, she said before scurrying away without offering her name.

Mr. Kamera and his friends often think about another way of life. Most said they wanted one day to become soccer superstars. If that did not pan out, some said they would like to own a business. Others wanted to become soldiers.

“Our future belongs to God,” Mr. Kamera said, “but for now there are no new opportunities.”

Mr. Kamera was forced to end his education when he was 12 years old to flee Sierra Leone. He would like to finish school then try for his dream job.

“I want to be an American Marine,” he said.

over 2 years indicative positive

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