You can find them on every major street corner in Freetown, young men and teenage boys thumbing through thick wads of money and urging you to part with your foreign currency. Some call them the Dollar Boys, others know them as Swazi. They're Sierra Leone's mobile bureaux de change and the guardians of a thriving black market currency trade.
Sierra Leone, like many developing countries, has two exchange rates, one official and the other the street price. A black market can result from several factors: overvaluation of the currency, foreign exchange control, capital control, and trade restrictions. Here, it is also a response to burgeoning unemployment. The stats paint a bleak picture: in Sierra Leone 60 per cent of youth are without jobs. What started as a small group of enterprising youngsters making an extra buck has swelled into an underground industry that employs over a thousand people in Freetown alone.
Moserey Sankoh is 35 years old and mans a spot on the city's busy Sackville Street, the birthplace of the dollar trade. He's surrounded by younger apprentices weighed down by millions of Leones. They tail him while Sankoh chats up potential customers. He still remembers his younger days when he wanted to be an engineer. He'd finished high school but there were no jobs. 'I know this is illegal but it's better than becoming an armed robber or breaking into someone's house,' he says. At a time when urban youth crime is on the rise, the business is tacitly endorsed by the police because it keeps them out of trouble.
Also, the service they provide is quite unparalleled. Unlike the foreign exchange bureaux, the Dollar Boys never run out of money. Everyone from the big banks to corporate houses buy and sell with them. A kerbside transaction takes less than 10 minutes and allows customers to avoid long lines and paperwork. 'Give me five minutes and I can bring you up to $15,000,' boasts Hassan Kamara, 33, another money changer, who also makes house calls for regular buyers. He'll change anything but the dollar is the currency of choice.
From 8am to 11pm, they roam the streets, smiling, waving and hissing to attract customers, many of whom are foreign NGO workers with dollars, pounds and euros. Some smile back, others mistake them for pickpockets and bums. 'It's very embarrassing at times,' Kamara admits.
Over the past few months the US dollar has skyrocketed against the Leone. Like all other goods traders, profit margins are shrinking for the Dollar Boys too. At the same time, prices of all basic commodities have soared because Sierra Leone imports most daily essentials like sugar, milk and eggs. On a good day Kamara can still pocket about $10 but he has to work harder than ever before.
Because of its soft crime status many young boys who came to Freetown looking for jobs after the civil war are now veterans in the field. But they wouldn't recommend it to another generation. 'I want an education and something better for my sons,' sighs Sankoh. Maybe an engineer even.