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Riyals, euros or dollars: women money changers at the heart of the street economy in Djibouti

DJIBOUTI: It’s a familiar sight in the busy streets of Djibouti: women holding purses inflated with dollars, euros, riyals and rupees, money changers running the informal economy.
Perched on plastic chairs with their feet resting on wooden steps, these “sarifleys” as they are known locally are vital to the global distribution of migrants, traders and soldiers passing through this small nation at the crossroads of Africa and of Arabia.
Trading in money offers a safe and reliable way, especially for women, to feed their families, in a conservative country where they lag behind men in education and literacy.
“I have everything. Euros, English pounds, Turkish pounds, dollars, Indian rupees, whatever, ”said Medina, who offered only her first name, pointing to a purse she estimated to have the equivalent of a million. Djiboutian francs ($ 5,600 / € 4,700) in several currencies.
Customers and traders alike say economic life would suffer much more friction without money changers.
Camped on Rimbaud Square, dominated by a large mosque in the heart of the city of Djibouti, Medina and three other sarifleys scrutinize the lively crowds in search of customers.
Before long, a young man from Yemen, the war-torn country across Djibouti’s Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, approaches in a flowing white tunic and turban, wanting to change Saudi riyals.
Medina exchanged a few words with the stranger, typed some calculations into her phone, then counted a wad of crumpled Djiboutian francs from the bottom of her bag.
“We bring Saudi Riyals with us (to Djibouti) because our currency, with the war, keeps fluctuating,” said the Yemeni, slipping into the crowd as a police car passed.
Refugees from Yemen, migrants en route to the Gulf, foreign troops stationed in naval bases, Ethiopian truck drivers – Djibouti is a melting pot of cultures and currencies in the Horn of Africa.
“We are also dealing with Djiboutian businessmen who travel abroad for their work, as well as foreigners and tourists,” said Noura Hassan, another sarifley from the capital.
When her husband died ten years ago, the mother of three started with just her savings in francs, before acquiring more foreign currency.
Each day, Hassan refers to a local bank impression to assess exchange rates and determine what to offer customers for major currencies.
“It’s a good job, and I’m proud of it,” said the bureau de change, wearing a blue veil and black abaya, the traditional long tunic on the ground worn by Muslim women.
At PK12, a bustling neighborhood where many Ethiopians live, Ahmed jumped out of his tuk-tuk to change Ethiopian birr by the side of the road.
“The difference could be 10 or 20 francs, that’s not much,” said the rickshaw driver of street fares compared to those officially offered.
But those money changers are far away – with sarifleys on every corner and in every market.
“Without them, I would say the trade in PK12 would not be possible,” said Faiza, who sells khat, the popular narcotic plant that is a daily staple in Djibouti and other parts of the Horn.
“They make sure to feed their families … We help each other like that,” said the 25-year-old trader.
The informal sector is the engine of about two-thirds of economic activity in Djibouti, said researcher Abdoulkader Houssein Mohamed from the Center d’études et de recherche de Djibouti (CERD).
Of those engaged in the sector, three-quarters are women, he added.
Safety can be an issue, but in a country of just under a million people, even the capital looks like a village, said the sarifley – insurance when your job requires carrying wads of cash in the streets.
Zahra, a sarifley from the city, said of the thieves: “They don’t come near us. They are afraid.
She also wasn’t too worried about being scammed by a forger or unscrupulous salesperson trying to withdraw counterfeit money.
“Even if I was asleep and you gave me a counterfeit, I would know … Counterfeit money, I will know.” The real thing, I know. It’s my job, isn’t it?


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