I leave the office at exactly 1700 hours on a Friday evening. As I drive, I am trying to remember what I have run out of in my kitchen. I do not want to leave the house on Saturday and so I must get my shopping right. I curse myself for not making a shopping list but console myself with the fact that I am going to my local supermarket and if I browse aisle by aisle, perhaps my memory will be freshened and I will remember what it is that I need. When I arrive, I take a parking ticket and as I find a parking spot I make a mental note to only spend between 12 and 28 minutes so as to get free parking.
At the entrance of the supermarket I go through the routine invasion of privacy. I never zip up my handbag these days because at every turn, some security guard or other is asking to peep into it and confirm its contents. After forty five seconds of being patted down and felt up I am given the clear and I head straight for the trolley rack.
I walk down the aisles systematically, glancing at my watch to make sure that I do not overstay. When I have picked all I need I walk down to the till. There are long queues today! Where have people got money to shop mid-month? I guess they are asking the same question about me. As I wait patiently in the queue I remind myself that I have to buy dhania, sukuma wiki and pilipili from my mama mboga. The queue is moving steadily and now there is only one customer ahead of me. A quick glance at my watch tells me I am running out of time. I wish the lady would move along. From her dressing, hairstyle and body language, I doubt she is Kenyan. Probably an expat or a UN employee.
The teller scans her shopping and the total comes to four hundred and ninety four shillings. The teller asks brusquely, “Loyalty card?”
“Wot is dat?” the lady asks.
“Aha!” I exclaim in my mind. “I was right about her not being a Kenyan. My guess would be West African.”
In the meantime, the teller, impatient as ever, has ignored the lady’s question and sticks out her hand toward her. In Kenyan silentology this means “hand me the loyalty card and the cash”. The woman hands over a one thousand shilling note and the teller hands over the change and the receipt. A five hundred shilling note.
“Modom!” the woman exclaims holding up the five hundred shilling note in one hand and the receipt in the other. “Wot is dis now?”
“That’s your change,” says the teller nonchalantly. “And your receipt.”
“Bot it is short,” says the woman surprised by the indifference of the teller. “See here, receipt says change be five hondred ond six shilling!”
“I’m sorry but we have run out coins,” the teller says.
“Modom, me want me change now!” she demands angrily.
“As I said, we have no coins,” the teller says impatiently. “You can take a matchbox instead.” She hands over a matchbox to the lady. Big mistake.
“Chineke!” the woman exclaims dramatically banging her handbag on the counter and throwing the five hundred shilling note and receipt at the teller. “Me no want no matchbox now!” her voice is rising and her accent deepening with each decibel. “Ah, ah!” she puts both hands on her head and walks two paces towards me then four paces away from me then back to her former position. “I com to dis here store and I do me shopping. If I wanted de matchbox, I would have put de matchbox in my cart!” She bangs the counter with her fist.
“I’m sorry madam but that is the only help I can offer,” the teller says slowly rising from her seat as if she is preparing to flee. “You are holding up the line and other customers want to pay. Read the notice over there.” She points to a notice above her till and we all look up to read.
“Dear Customer,” it says. “We are experiencing a shortage of coins. Please bring us any coins you may have lying around your homes and exchange with notes.”
“How be dat me problem now?” the lady asks even more incensed. “Dis shop be robber! You be robber! Robber dat robs costomer in de daylight!” She pauses dramatically and puts her hands on her hips. “I am not leaving dis place until I get my money. Or I return all dis tings and you go give me bock my money. Mscheeeeeew!”
The teller signals to one of her colleagues and whispers to her . The colleague rushes away and comes back with a man wearing a tag written “Supervisor.” He asks quietly, “What is the problem madam?”
“Dey be no problam here,” says the woman. “Jos give me my six shilling and I be on my way.”
“Let us go to the customer care desk and we shall sort out this issue,” says the supervisor politely. “I apologise for inconveniencing you.”
The woman concedes and picking her handbag, moves off with the supervisor. As she does so, the teller rolls her eyes and says to me, “Imagine holding up a line of customers just for six shillings! What is six shillings? Is that even money that one can waste their time over?”
I am not even listening to her. My mind is reeling. That West African lady has made me think. How much money do supermarkets make out of our change? Imagine if one thousand customers passed through this supermarket in one day and each failed to claim an average of four shillings. That is four thousand shillings a day, twenty eight thousand shillings a week and one hundred and twenty thousand shillings a month! Twelve times the cost of my monthly shopping. Daylight robbery indeed!
By the time I finish doing this math, the teller has finished punching in my purchases. Six hundred and two shillings. I hand over my loyalty card and she scans my points. I then give her a one thousand shilling note and wait for the result. The teller hands me three hundred and ninety shillings. I take it and count it slowly in front of her.
“The change you have given me is less eight shillings,” I say.
“What?” she asks in disbelief.
“I want my eight shillings,” I say.
“I hope you read the notice up there,” she says. “We don’t have coins!”
“I’ve read your notice and I sympathise with your situation but I want my change,” I insist.
“I can offer you two matchboxes or four sweets,” she says pointing to a bin full of sweets at the till. They are even prepared for such situations by having sweets at the till to offer as change.
“Do you have a ten shilling coin?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she says.
I open my handbag and remove a sweet similar to the ones she has offered me. “Here is a sweet I was given in this supermarket last week instead of two shillings,” I say. “I’ll give it to you and you can give me ten shillings.”
The teller looks insulted. “Please move along or I will call the manager.” she threatens.
“Please call the manager,” I say.
She signals her colleague who rushes away and returns with an officious looking lady who, unlike the rest of the staff, is not wearing the supermarket branded t-shirt. The teller stands up quickly with respect and explains the situation.
The manager turns to me and says, “Madam we do not accept sweets. We only accept legal tender.”
“I also don’t accept sweets or matchboxes,” I retort.
“Then perhaps you could buy something else worth eight shillings,” she suggests.
“No,” I say. “I want my eight shillings.”
“But what can one buy with eight shillings?” she snorts at me.
“I intend to buy a bunch of dhania which goes for five shillings and pilipili that goes for fifty cents a piece,” I say calmly.
“Give her the ten shilling coin,” she orders the cashier. “And keep the queue moving. We cannot afford to waste other customers’ time over coins.” She gives me what I suppose should be a warning look and mumbles, “As if coins are money!”
I triumphantly take my coin and move along. The customers behind me are actually smiling. I would have expected them to be angry at my taking too long at the till. I hope the next customer causes as much trouble.
I walk out satisfied. I have learnt something from the West African lady. Shortage of coins at the supermarket is not the customers’ problem to solve. And when did this culture of accepting matchboxes, sweets and chewing gum in lieu of coins creep into our society? Foreigners and even the supermarkets themselves find this strange and unacceptable. They only accept legal tender. And so shall I from now on. I have officially began my one woman “claim my coin” movement.
As I exit the supermarket I realize I have spent twelve extra minutes haggling about what is rightfully mine. No free parking for me today. I scan my parking ticket and I am asked to pay ten shillings. I happily take out my ten shilling coin and pay for the parking. This is immediate proof that coins are money!