Peace Corps’ Third Goal is “to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.” This regular feature will help me meet this goal in service by highlighting the lives, culture, and traditions of the people of Botswana.
Like any other sovereign government, Botswana has a system of currency and institutions of banking, and they matter.
Botswana’s currency is called the pula (pronounced poo-la) (a word that also means “rain” or “blessing”) and its fractional currency (perhaps a term that I made up, but like we have cents as fractions of a dollar) is the thebe (pronounced “teb-ay”). The pula has a very stable exchange rate, and it roughly hovers around 10 pula per US dollar (P10 = $1). It comes in bill form (P200, P100, P50, P20, and P10) and coinage (P5, P2, P1, 50 thebe, 25 thebe, 10 thebe, and 5 thebe). Thankfully, and unlike our system, Botswana does not have a 1 thebe coin.
Botswana is largely a cash-based society, though credit and debit cards are accepted at larger stores. To this point, I have only seen acceptance for Visa and Mastercard, with nothing indicating that anyone has ever heard of Discover or American Express.
While Americans use Venmo and PayPal, Batswana are used to using electronic cash payments via mobile networks and bank transfers. Mascom and Orange Mobile both have money services that allow users to deposit money at local stores for electronic transfer to make utility payments or P2P cash transfers.
Banks work in much the same way as in the States, but unfortunately, they are a little less transparent. And like in the States, they have all sorts of creative ways to charge customers fees. Peace Corps requires Volunteers to use Barclays Botswana, so I’ll use it as my example though the fees and practices at other banks seem fairly similar. Once, a fellow PCV once said that Barclays likely “charges a fee for breathing near your card,” and she wasn’t far off. You are charged a monthly maintenance fee, for using a non-Barclays point-of-sale at a shop or restaurant (they may have a Barclays machine or perhaps not, you never know), for transferring funds between accounts, and for receiving text message confirmations of deposits.
Online banking is a thing here too! With Barclays, customers can check their banking activity via the bank’s website, mobile app, or through a text-based system on non-smart phones. It may seem surprising, but because of the cost of data here, I actually use the latter most. I simply dial *161*234# on my dumb phone and navigate through a series of text menus to check my balance and account activity, add airtime to my mobile phone (mobile telephony in a future post TBD), and send money to other people if I ever need to. Other PCVs have even used the system to pay their electricity. It’s pretty convenient.
While bank cards are a fairly common sight at large stores, especially in Gaborone, credit cards do not seem to be as important to consumers as they are elsewhere. Banks have credit cards available, but they do not seem to be a critical financial tool, keeping consumer debt from constraining the population as much as it does in developed countries.
Special thanks to travel blogger Jonny Blair for letting me use his Pula photo! I would have taken my own, but I’m too damn poor to have such a diverse array of cash on me at any one time. You can find his traveling exploits—including his 2012 to Botswana!—at http://dontstopliving.net/.