Mali is a cash economy. That means that there are no debit machines, no VISA/MC option, so signs needed – everything is cash only. Cash economies mean you pay for everything from the one avocado you need for supper to your international flight home with wads of cash.It means always looking for “small bills” and never having them. Cash economies mean constant crazy looks as you feebly attempt to pay for things with “big bills” of 10,000 CFA (approx. $20 CAD) and disgruntled displeasure of trying to make change for those same bills.
Cash economies mean you are always mindful of how much cash you have and when you will be able to get to an ATM. It also means that as the machine doles out its big bills you know you can’t really use until you go to a chain store/expat restaurant or somewhere that business is constant so you can break your big bills. Taxis will roll their eyes at you if you try to pay your 1,500 CFA taxi bill with a 10,000 CFA bill and some won’t agree to take you at all.
It is liberating to be less dependent on my small pockets of plastic to pay for my goods but it is difficult to know where you spent your money or where that week’s withdraw really went. The system isn’t scale-able for Bamako to grow into a stable and prosperous economy and I hope that slowly but surely we will see a movement away from big and small bills and into an inclusive economic system that leverages technology and supports a growing middle class.