When we were at the South Sudan-Uganda border, a few of us went up to the road to film refugees as they crossed the border and walked to the refugee receiving center.
Isaac, one of the directors at JRS, came up with us, and decided to talk with some of the vendors while were shooting. While he was at a money changer, I decided to try and sneak in to find out a little bit about what seemed to be a lucrative business in this part of the country.
While vendors tend to line the streets throughout Uganda, with store fronts set up by various citizens with just about any product that they could get access to, there had been a clear change in products when we got to the border. The products got a little less random and more focused towards a specific category. Everything was focused towards people who had left quickly, bringing only necessities with them. They were the things people would need when they arrived in a new country, and would need prominently, before they could replace the rest.
The most prominent of these needs was currency. The South Sudanese would need to replace all of their money before they could buy other products inside Uganda, and nearly everything on the road at this point, this close to the crossing (except for the odd poster salesman… whom Isaac had bought a number of informative wall hangings from while we were shooting. We were confused too) was focused on exchanging currency.
When I was talking with Isaac and the money changer that he had gone to, they attempted to show me how much the difference in exchange rates were. The money changer pointed to a single Ugandan bill, then taking a wad of South Sudanese cash said that the two were equivalent. Isaac emphasized the refugees weren’t getting a good exchange rate.
At the receiving center and on the road, it was obvious that these refugees weren’t carrying much with them. There were no large items that they could sell, there wasn’t much food, no animals. For the most part, all they had were there families, and whatever close they on their back. These people did not have much.
Yet, when you looked at the tables of the money changers, it was filled with South Sudanese money. My mind wondered looking at these tables. How many life-savings were on those tables? How many people had left their homes, leaving nearly everything behind, only to lose the little they had left to these money changers?
In Matthew 21, Jesus flips the tables of money changers in the temple, telling them they have turned the house of worship into a “den of thieves” as he chases them out with a knotted rope. When you look at these people who have been taken advantage of in this way, it isn’t hard to understand why Jesus would react like this.