A little change’ll do you good…

Posted: April 1, 2008 in Blog


I realized, while my weighed-down pockets had me swaggering down the street like John Wayne on his way to a western dust-up, that my Uganda approach to collecting small change is not as effective here in the UK.

In Uganda, small change is worth its weight in gold. It means you can pay a boda-boda or matatu taxi exact change, you can pay for your lunch without feeling bad about the server having to canvas the area for change and you can pay for phone air time without any hassles. The two largest denominations, the 20,000 shilling (about $11) and 50,000 shilling (just under $30) notes, are generally major hassles to break, since they are so much more than most day-to-day expenses. So when a group is out for dinner and all chipping in on the bill, any change and small bills tossed in are highly coveted by all others who want to break their bills.

There was a local food joint near my house that I went to often. I’d order the same thing every time– matooke, posho and rice, with stewed beef served in a soup that would be poured onto the matooke (steamed bananas), posho (a corn flour and water mixture with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and rice. With a drink, the total would come to 2,600 shillings (about $1.50). Once, I paid with a 5,000 shilling note (about $3) and they gave me my change but for several times after that they always checked with me when I ordered to see if I had exact change. “If you only have a big bill (meaning anything 5,000 shillings and above), please give it to me now so I can find change in the market while you eat,” the kind woman said. I always made a point to bring exact change from then on.

That having been my approach to small change for quite some time, it became my default approach here in London as well. I would break bills whenever buying newspapers, drinks or other small items, with the thought that I needed to make sure I had lots of small change.

The problem is, the British are fans of small coins. Their one pence, two pence and other small pence coins fill your pocket in no time. And so it was that I was walking down the street yesterday with, perhaps, 10 pounds ($22-ish) in my pocket, but much of it in coins that were so heavy I was walking with an unintentional swagger.

The abundance of coins is mixed with a different economy, where things are of course more expensive so more money is coming and going from your pocket. In one coffee shop I didn’t have the right change for a 1.25 pound cup of tea and apologized profusely as I gave him a 10 pound note, apologizing for him having to break such a big note.

He laughed. I was reminded, yet again, that I was not in Uganda any more.


On a side note, all is going well on the trip. I’ve been traveling around the UK seeing friends and sites new and old. I am getting ready to move on elsewhere in Europe this weekend. It was freezing cold when I landed in Europe from Uganda, and I showed up at my friends’ London apartment wearing a rain jacket and sandals feeling like I’d just swum through a lake of ice cubes. I immediately bought a sweater that has rarely left my sight, but things are now warming up and it’s been quite nice traveling around in the crisp spring air.

  1. Frank says:

    You guy you are unbelievably amazing! I just landed onto your blog randomly and I’ve not been able to leave since 3 pm. its now 9 pm.
    And its even sad that you’re gone b’se I was going to give you a call on whatever ugandan mobile number you were using… and from what u say u did with the change i guess u were on mtn…

    Tell you what? am one of those people who were by the roadside on the queen’s visit. I was there in the crowd and I saw your friend hanging out the bus window…

    Just know am amazed by your interesting journals and superb writings. I will be checking back to join you on the UK tour. Enjoy.

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