Kenyan Authorities Mistake a New Local Currency for a Separatist Movement

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They were in the wrong slum at the wrong time.

Two weeks ago, members of a Kenyan non-profit group working to improve conditions in an impoverished settlement outside of Mombasa were arrested and thrown in jail. Their crime? Setting up a local currency for businesses in the slum—known as Bangladesh—to make the exchange of goods and services easier.

The group, known as Koru Kenya, introduced the currency in Bangladesh at the beginning of May. Called the Bangla-Pesa, it is not intended to replace the Kenyan shilling, but rather, to bolster economic activity in the slum, where shillings are hard to come by. According to the group, in its short existence, the Bangla-Pesa has boosted trade by more than 20%.

But because Koru Kenya was printing the bills in Mombasa, authorities interpreted their ambitions as much larger and more radical. The coastal city is home to the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), an outlaw separatist movement that wants the Kenyan coast to secede from the rest of the country and has recently gained prominence. A new nation would, of course, require a new currency. According to Will Ruddick, an American and one of the founders of Koru Kenya, rumors spread that the group was working with the MRC, and police responded by taking five of its members into custody. Wrong slum, wrong time.

Their homes were searched, but no evidence of any connection to the MRC was found, according to The Standard, a Kenyan newspaper. But that didn’t end the interrogation.

Ruddick, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was not among the five initially arrested, was called in for questioning by the Central Bank of Kenya. He and the five others were charged with forgery for creating the Bangla-Pesa, and Ruddick was also taken into custody. They were released on bail: close to $1,200 for Ruddick (the American), and $600 for each of the others (the non-Americans), equivalent to about three month’s salary. They currently face criminal trial.

“It has been hell,” Ruddick wrote to Quartz in an email.

Both high profile Kenyans and international groups have expressed support for the Banga-Pesa program. Jimnah Mbaru, an investment banker who helped develop the Nairobi Stock Exchange, tweeted on the day Koru Kenya’s members were charged with forgery:

The International Reciprocal Trade Association, a trade group that promotes standards for bartering, also defended the currency (pdf), stating that “Banglapesa vouchers are private currency of a barter based system, and therefore are a perfectly acceptable and legal form of commerce.”

The six members of Koru Kenya going on trial are trying to raise money online to pay their legal fees. “We really hope the whole thing will just pass—and we can continue the program,” writes Ruddick.