Money, money, money

At home, I have a pile of foreign currency that I used to decorate my house. Some of the more colorful bills are framed; others are just in a jar, or more accurately, a glass block with the term ‘travel fund’ applied to it. It reminds me of places I’ve been, and I’m still just a tiny bit sad I was never in Europe prior to the introduction of the Euro. All that to preface that fact that I still refer to Rwandan Francs as ‘play’ money instead of ‘real’ money. So are you curious about the finances of a PCV in Rwanda?  Just how many Rwandan Francs do I earn each month.  What exactly is a Rwandan Franc. No? then move along. If the answer is yes, have I got a post for you.

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I was an Amazon addict.  I ordered everything, and I do mean everything, I could on-line so that I would not have to go to a store. I hated everything about shopping from going to a store to search for what I need to standing in a check-out line.  Shopping in Rwanda was one of the tasks I looked least forward to.

Enter market shopping.

Tomatoes, onions, rice, fruits, beans, toilet paper, clothes… All of these transactions are now done in person, in cash, in the market.  Which means not only talking to people, but also having the cash to carryout that transaction.

First stop–getting that cash to start.

Rwanda has several main banks, and most of the time they work as expected. Unlike in America, if your bank card is misplaced or stolen, you cannot get a replacement the same day. The process could take months. Months! of having to plan your banking around banking hours to actually go in the bank. [shudder]

I am paid by the Peace Corps approximately $200/month in local currency. These funds are deposited into a bank account in my name.  These funds do come with a debit card; however, at least in my banking town, I find very few people who will accept it.  So usually twice a month I go into the banking town to withdraw funds so that I can do the market shopping. The only thing worse than market shopping is going into the banking town for banking purposes AND carrying around large sums of money.

Picture this scenario, if you will:

I’m strolling through the local food market searching for the tastiest tomatoes, freshest fruit, most exceptional eggs, or whatever. I see something I like, approach the vendor and ask the price [all of this occurs in a language I’ve had exactly six months practicing.] The vendor sometimes replies back in French; sometimes in Kinyarwanda.  Great, two languages I’m not very good at plus math. My eyes roll around in my head as I try to remember how to count in French; I then repeat what I think is the number in Kinyarwanda.  No matter the price, the reply is always ‘You’re crazy… That’s too much…’ I go back and forth trying to get things to a reasonable price, and when I do, money exchanges hands along with a very heart-felt ‘Murakoze’. And then the scenario is repeated at each and every market stall for every item I may wanted to buy.

It. Is. Exhausting.

This scenario is a prime example of about half the interactions I have when I go food shopping in Rwanda. BUT I will not be taken advantage of because of the color of my skin. Or the words that come out of my mouth.

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Before Training

There’s a lot of tasks that you must do prior do setting off for some far-off destination.  And a lot of that costs money.  In theory, the Peace Corps gives reimburses you for some of those expenses.  In practice, however, I never received anything. So I’m starting off in the hole.

Pre Service Training

Peace Corps | Rwanda arranges for  home-stays and gives that family a rather large sum of money to house and feed volunteer for the training period [Our training families received approximately 100,000 Rwandan Francs which is why after week 2 and my meals were dwindling in quantity and quality I made the off-hand comment that ‘I am supplementary income for this family. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the situation, but I will say that I was proven right. And was the situation was proven true with other volunteers from other cohorts. Again. and Again].

Peace Corps then gives you, the trainee, a bi-weekly allowance of 47,000 Rwandan Francs. In theory, this amount allows you to buy lunch everyday, phone credit, maybe an outfit or two, and snacks for yourself. It’s not a ton, especially when lunch is around 5000 francs, and when the host family isn’t feeding you, buying dinner with that 47,000 doesn’t get you very far.

Setting Up House

After swearing in you get a chunk of money to help set up house. For PC |Rwanda, we receive around 275,000 R Francs.  Is that enough? For me, it was plenty because my space came fully furnished except bedding [which I brought from home]. I did have to set up a kitchen so I probably spent 150,000 or so on that including a gas stove and a 15kg tank of gas plus 2 kitchen sized tables.  

The furniture in the house belongs to the landlord so the previous volunteer really didn’t leave me much of anything of value.The bottom line is that 275,000 Francs isn’t a lot especially when you have to buy furniture, and you might have to wait on some things.

In addition to the settling in allowance, PC will reimburse you up to 100,000 RWF  for the purchase of a bicycle if you convince them you need it [a policy change—they used to just give you a bike, and there are about 20 used TREK bikes partly covered by a tarp at PC HQ just wasting away] . 

Monthly Stipend

Each month after swearing in you get a stipend and sometimes another mid-month payment to cover one-time expenses and reimbursements. The stipend is supposed to be enough  to maintain a standard of living equal to that of your community, but in reality at least my standard of living is a little bit higher than my community.

For December 2018, I received 198,094 Rwandan Francs. Converted to US$, it’s just over $225.

 Peace Corps breaks it down in to categories:

Ultimately, how I spend that is up to me. Financially, I am comfortable in site. Sometimes I even save a little. This is not the case for all PCVs. Those in bigger sites or more rural sites sometime have to spend more.  

  • Living allowance: 120,596 [this is supposed to cover all food, laundry, clothing, internet/phone credit, evenings on the town [HA!], ect].  It rarely does.
  • Bank/ATM Fees: 1000 RWF.  Rwandan banks are worse than American banks and I can’t walk past an ATM without 1000 RWF being deducted from my account. But for example, it’s 236RWF for every transaction at your bank and 1587 for transactions at other banks.
  • Leave Allowance [goes towards any vacation I might take]: 30, 800 RWF
  • Utilities: 7,094 [we’re required to pay our own electricity and also includes someone fetching water for me]
  • In-country Travel Allowance: 6416 [for official PC travel, trips to banking towns for official business, ect]

I speak from experience: the second I leave site I start hemorrhaging money. There’s the expense of travel itself. And eating Every.Single.Meal out. I can’t put the amount of money I spent in Dec while on med hold in print because it’s so scary.  Let’s just say I’m glad I was frugal in Sept/Oct/Nov.

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Here is a sampling of prices:

  • One month of phone credit/internet: 30,000
  • Hotel room: 15000 Dorm 5000
  • A liter of milk: 1000
  • Enough fruits, vegetables, bread, eggs, ect to last me the week: 5000
  • Liter water: 500 RWF
  • Dozen of eggs: 1200 RWF

Finally,  unlike in the U.S. I never spend money on medical supplies like band-aids, ibuprofen, condoms or prescription meds. That’s 100% covered by Peace Corps. I have yet to be actually sick, so I’m not sure I’m realizing that benefit.

Of the living allowance 6400 is earmarked for travel. This covers any mandatory and/or Peace Corps organized travel but not optional travel, even if it is work related. If we don’t spend it on travel, it’s ours to spend how we please. But as one trip to the capital costs 6600-7600 round trip, it doesn’t go very far.

Long story short (too late!) I do okay.

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