Just when you thought you’d read the last update about Uganda… But this has become such a comedy of errors that I couldn’t resist sharing.
Uganda’s currency is the Ugandan Shilling (UGX). When I visited, the conversion rate was approximately 3,500 UGX to 1 USD. I traded in a couple hundred bucks to have plenty of spending and giving money, and returned home with 232,000 UGX (approximately $65). I assumed that would be easy to exchange back into dollars, but…
The first full day we were in the country, we stopped at a local hotel in Kampala and exchanged our money there. I think our team leader had a relationship with the people who owned that particular currency exchange. She is originally from Uganda and has brought teams over several times. In any event, I had no trouble exchanging cash into shillings, and I even got a pretty reasonable rate.
We then traveled all over and were in country for 15 days (read more), but at no point was there an opportunity to convert this money back into dollars. For the duration of the trip, I had assumed that we would go back to the currency exchange before leaving and buy back dollars on our way back to the States. That, or we’d exchange at O’Hare when we arrived. But we did neither. There was no time scheduled into the trip for either activity. But as I sat on the shuttle back to TIU from O’Hare (after returning home), No big deal, though. After all, O’Hare will charge you the highest possible fees on what is likely an already-bad exchange rate, so I figured I’d find a bank (mine or otherwise), and get’er’done. In any event, I wasn’t worried.
A month or so after getting back, I set aside an hour to visit a local Chase bank (my bank, but a different branch; I was running errands in another suburb). I figured I’d get this simple task knocked off my todo list. I walked in, asked to exchange money, and was asked to wait for a personal banker. So far, so good.
While still in line, the “concierge” — what else do you call the guy standing around in the lobby asking you how you are and directing you to the right place to do whatever it is you came to do? — struck up what I’m sure he thought would be small talk.
Well-educated, professional banker guy: What currency do you want to purchase? (I guess he assumed I was going to somewhere, not returning from somewhere.)
Jeff: I’m recently returned from Uganda, so I need to exchange Ugandan Shillings for dollars.
Jeff: Uganda. In E. Africa.
Banker guy: Oh yeah! What’s their currency?
Jeff: Ugandan Shillings.
Banker guy: I’ll check to see if we exchange that.
Jeff (getting nervous): Okaaaaay.
Banker guy (returning a few minutes later after conferring with the powers that be): I’m sorry, we don’t exchange that currency. Uganda is on some crazy list of countries which aren’t economically stable enough for any bank in the US to trade their currency.
Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the list. Some acronym. Not IMF Article 14 countries, but sounded like something similar. At any rate, he insisted that Uganda’s currency was restricted, which sounded funny to me, because UGX is probably one of the most stable currencies in the whole of Africa. So if they are restricted, everyone in that whole region would be restricted. And I bought them, so why can’t I sell them?
At any rate, Chase was a bust.
Not on the Bank of America list, anyway
I jumped back in the car, and proceeded with more errands. But the longer I thought about it, the more I thought that was ridiculous. So, the next Chase Bank I saw (still not the one by my house, but…), I pulled in there too. This person at least knew that the problem wasn’t some restrictions list. Rather, he said, Chase uses Bank of America’s service, and BoA does not trade UGX.
Jeff: Why not?
Second Chase banker guy: That’s a great question, but I have no idea. In fact, we even looked up the Bank of America Foreign Currency FAQ, but that was of no help. Amazingly, BoA evidently supports 138 currencies (there are a total of 180 world currencies), but not Ugandan shillings.
Jeff: Any suggestions?
Banker guy: Try 5/3 Bank. They do weird things.
I know! A competing bank!
Third banker guy: We don’t do it, and I have no idea why.
Jeff: What service do you use? BoA’s?
Banker guy: Remind me what a bank is again.
Jeff: Sighs explosively on his way out the door
Maybe a Currency Exchange?
Now I’m sitting in my car thinking, “It’s probably not worth it, and I’ve already spent too much time on this. But I can’t give up now!”
So, I start searching the web. First really obvious search: exchange uganda shillings for dollars. I’m brilliant, right? Here are the results:
These look good at first glance, but if you dig in, what you’ll find is that every site listed tells you what the exchange rate would be, but no site listed will actually do the exchange. I guess, in the eyes of the Western world, converting UGX to USD is a purely theoretical exercise. Well, I’m sure if Warren Buffet wanted to, he’d be good. But not me.
Finally, I looked up the nearest Currency Exchange. I had resisted doing so until this point, because I figured these would have the worst possible exchange rate. But if nobody else will even do it…
Jeff: Works through the phone tree at site #1
Grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!
Jeff: Do you exchange Ugandan shillings for dollars?
Grumpy currency exchange lady: We don’t. Call our headquarters branch downtown. They’re the only ones that even remotely might be able to help you.
No problem. I called the mother ship in Chicago, and worked through an even bigger phone tree…
Jeff: Finally, a human being.
Expertly-grumpy currency exchange lady: What do you want?!
Jeff: Please tell me you exchange Ugandan shillings!
Currency exchange lady: Get out a here, kid. You’ve got no future!
Jeff (sobbing): You don’t have to be so grumpy about it.
Currency exchange lady: You want friendly, talk to my cousin at the DMV.
Net-net… No luck at the currency exchange.
Help me O’Hare Int’l Airport, you’re my only hope
Okay, what I should have done in the first place… Knock it out at O’Hare and take the hit on the exchange rate.
As it turns out, I had to pick up my wife at the airport as she returned home from an international trip a couple weeks later. Surely, this will get the job done, even if it’s at a terrible exchange rate. So, the day finally came… I’m on my way to pick her up at the international terminal, and she called saying she’s ready to go.
Jeff: Can you walk over to the currency exchange and ask if they exchange shillings? I’ve got them right here, and I’ll run in to exchange them when I pick you up.
My amazing wife: Of course, my dear! (walking over to the nearest currency exchange lady) Do you exchange Ugandan shillings? It would make my husband SO happy if you do.
Grumpy airport currency exchange lady: Ug-a-what’s-that?
Jeff (listening over the phone while driving): double face palm
Guy next to me in traffic: honks angrily
My amazing wife (to me): Let’s never speak of Ugandan shillings again.
Yeah. Totally on board with that.
The moral of the story
Moral? There ain’t no… Wait. I guess there is a moral… DO NOT leave a third world country with their currency still in your pocket. Convert it back there or give it away. But don’t come home with it.
There is, in fact, a happy ending to this story. I thought I was just going to have to eat the $65. But as it turns out, our team lead from my trip to Uganda — who is a native Ugandan and returns home at least once a year — was willing to buy back my shillings. So, the plan is to make the exchange when I get back to school in a few weeks. Woohoo! God bless you, Amanda!
That was easy.