updated 9/14/2004 2:08:31 PM ET 2004-09-14T18:08:31

With paper bills so rancid even beggars hate to touch them, French-speaking West Africa gets down to serious money-laundering Wednesday: An eight-country campaign aims to retire more than 1 billion dollars in decaying currency seen as much as vectors of disease as units of exchange.

The cash campaign — already putting revamped, virgin bills into circulation — aims to replace currency in circulation since 1992 that bank officials say is deteriorating beyond use and ripe for counterfeiting.

Not to mention smelly.

Disgusting
“The old ones, they are just disgusting,” merchant Mohammed Hussein said at his wood-shelf store front in Dakar, grimacing at a dank note sagging limply between his pinched thumbs and forefingers.

“Ninety-five percent of people who fall sick are because of filthy money,” Hussein said, pulling out a bottle of liquid soap he keeps under the counter for every post-purchase scrub-down.

“You take a bill, you send it to a lab for analysis, you’re going to find 3 million germs,” Hussein said, lathering.

“We try — but sometimes our hands get wet and then we have to take money from the client,” vendor Oumy Diouf said in a nearby fish market, with suspiciously bloated fish piled on the floor around her, the hacking blade of an employee sending fish scales flying. A sewer ran open somewhere in the unseen but near distance.

Diouf smiled apologetically, and handed a customer a fish, and then change in the form of a damp bill.

The currency changeover effects eight countries, seven of them former French colonies, that all use the CFA franc: Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Niger, Benin and Togo, plus the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau.

Economists cite the common currency — which predated Europe’s euro by decades — with helping promote trade and keep inflation to between 2 and 3 percent. The exchange rate now is pegged to the euro, and guaranteed by France.

Bank robberies may have played a role
Starting Wednesday, French West Africans have until Dec. 31 to turn in old bills for new ones. Starting Jan. 1, only the new bills and coins are legal tender.

By some accounts, the switch was prompted in part by a series of big-money bank robberies in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

The thefts left reported millions of dollars in CFA in illegal limbo.

The Central Bank of West Africa, which handles the currency, refused comment on whether the robberies prompted the currency overhaul. Bank officials have said only that the change is meant to get rid of dirty money — dirty both fiscally, as in forgery, and physically — as in Hussein’s calling them “disgusting.”

Counterfeiting since 2000 has been so rife that some merchants refuse to take the largest notes in the old-style currency. The new bills, with revised designs but the same themes of African art and animals, have shiny strips to discourage faking.

They also are pristine — at least for now.

“I like to hold onto the new notes when I get some, because they are the only new things that I can get,” said Ibrahima Faye, a leper begging for a living on a mat outside a Dakar bakery.

“When I buy something, I use the old notes, and try to hold on to the new ones,” Faye said, fanning himself.

Disease-phobic public
Conscious of public phobias, some lepers here — the disease remains common in parts of West Africa, where treatment is not made affordable — carry bowls so donors can avoid putting alms directly in their palms.

Despite the stigma, leprosy is transmittable only by prolonged skin contact and not by money transactions, Maria Cheng, a spokeswoman with the World Health Organization’s infectious diseases branch, said in Geneva.

“Colds, yeah, because those viruses tend to be airborne,” Cheng said of the filthy-lucre theory of disease transmission.

“But with washing your hands properly and taking the right hygiene measures, that shouldn’t be a problem,” Cheng said.

Credit cards, electronic banking and even rapid check-cashing have yet to gain much of a foothold in West Africa, helping make it a cash-only society and putting more demand — and dirt, sweat, cooking oil, and germs — on the currency.

Manual labor is more intensive and extensive, too, so bills pass from fields and fishing boats to markets, pockets and banks.

“It’s not very nice,” customer Alima Seck said, wincing as she took her fish, and her change.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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