When I arrived in November, the price of an American dollar was 7600 leones (Le for short). I get paid in dollars, so the price of the dollar is a question I ask once a week at least. It fluctuated a bit throughout my first few months but was pretty stable. Then it started going up slowly. When it hit 7900 Le, I said to my driver, “That is not good news.” I didn’t know it was a sign of things to come.
Last week I exchanged money for 9000 Le per dollar. In 100 days, the leone has lost more than 20% of it’s value. I’ll confess that every time it goes up, something in me gets excited. It’s good news for me. More money for my money.
But then I remember quickly that the people here don’t have the privilege of getting paid in a strong currency.
I remember that minimum wage here is 500,000 Le per month. In December, that was just under $66. This month, it is just under $56. In January 2015 when the current minimum wage was set, that 500,000 Le was worth $119.
So just to be clear, in just over three years a person making minimum wage went from earning $119 to $56 without their take home salary changing a cent.
During the election, I heard over and over again that in 2012 a bag of rice cost 50,000 Le and in 2017 it cost 250,000 Le. I don’t know what it costs now, but I do know that everywhere I shop the prices continue to go up.
Early on, I was talking with a missionary friend who has been in Salone now for almost six years. We were talking about all the great things about Sierra Leone and our respective work. And she said, “Yeah but the hard part is that the longer you’re here you actually often have to watch things get worse instead of better.”
I remember that being a hard pill to swallow and hoping that that wouldn’t be the case for my time here. I’m married to my optimism.
And here I am nine months in, seeing in a tangible way the people that I know and love get poorer. Significantly. In the course of six weeks.
Every time I come home from changing money I drive through one of the most bustling parts of Freetown. I see people on the street selling, cleaners cleaning, police officers directing traffic, people watching after goats and other livestock. I wonder how they’re getting by. And I worry. I just worry.
I’ve never paid much attention to the global market. But now I’m beginning to understand how devastating it is to be on the losing end of it all.
It really is too much suffering.