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Small Money

Since the largest banknotes (90 cents)
are hard to find, the available denominations
(18, 9, and 4 1/2 cents)
are worn so thin they stick to each other
in the humidity and tear when moist
like Kleenex. The pictures --
lions, chimpanzees, and the current dictator --

are effaced and smudged, visible
as blotches of darker grime. Wadded together,
the money smells like the fruit and vegetable market,

like sweat, spoilage, and waste.
Its scent is between earthy and nauseating --
an open sewer with a trickle
of brown fluid -- or a shanty's
tiny front yard, with toddlers in torn clothes.
The banknotes are not the red of the soil,
dirt roads, and village footpaths, but the dark gray

of cooking fires, the black of decades-old
engine parts, and the grime on the skin
of egg-sized potatoes, blackened by dirt
from the floors of buses and packed bush taxis.
In the quantity needed to buy a day's food
for a woman and several children, the small money,

wrapped in plastic bags,
smells like the effluence from goats' intestines
as they are weighed, bagged, and paid for.
If you want to visit, keep in mind
immigration will not accept its own currency
for the $30 visa you get at the border.

In the half-kilometer no-man's land
between the country you've left
and the one you're going to,
small boys grab at your clothes
and press to carry your luggage
for small money. Victims of polio, leprosy,

landmines, rape victims evicted by their husbands
because they were raped, and children orphaned,
abandoned, or pretending to be,
congregate at the gate you pass through, which is held open

by a cord tied to a rusting
eight-cylinder truck engine,

hoping for even the smallest
amounts of small money. If sullen, broken, or paralyzed
had a color and texture, it would be that of these bills.
They are the shade of the plight
of a twenty-year-old mother of four,
taken and kept as a sex slave by the Interahamwe
because there was no money, not even small money,
the night they came to her village. But mostly the day-to-day

barely visible smudges from a zillion sets of fingers
through which the money passes
turn it dark as the night market in Bukavu,
where a few thousand francs passed through my hands
and vanished under the blouse
of an old lady who had sold me some beans,
and a few thousand more slid into the small palm
of a young girl selling yams
spread on a cloth on the dirt
at what seemed to me
the going price.

--Andrew Kaufman


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