July 11, 2010

The first time I ran across the term “CFA”, I was in the sub-Saharan country of Niger, about to change over a fistful of dollars into the local currency. As it happened, the former French colonies of Niger, Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso all shared the same currency, known as CFA. This was, in my estimation, exceptionally convenient, as every time I departed one country and entered another, I was getting hosed on the exchange rate, which always seemed to favor the other guy. The initials stood for “Something (I forget what)-Franc-Africaine”; the currency was tied to the French franc (this was in the mid-1980s, before the advent of the Euro), at the rate of 100 African francs to one French franc, as I recall. As there were seven French francs to the dollar at the time, and thus 700 CFA, I was suddenly a millionaire for the first, and thus far the only, time of my life. I merrily spent thousands on hotels, restaurants and gasoline fill-ups, and when I sold my car in Togo (to a local chieftain with a plethora of wives), I had a stack of banknotes that required a valise to carry them from the importation office.

It proved a bit difficult to get all those CFA out of Africa, however, as the rather draconian French currency laws at the time allowed one to cross borders with no more than about $1000 worth of francs. In the end, I bought traveler’s checks and hid them in a secret compartment of my money belt, and crossed my fingers against the possibility of an intensive body search. There was good news and bad news: the good news was no body search; the bad news was that the traveler’s checks were stamped on the back, per French law, “not to be cashed outside the franc zone”, which meant France, French West Africa, and French Polynesia, none of which was I planning to visit in the foreseeable future. Later in the trip, a clever American Express agent in London ingeniously solved the problem by destroying my useless traveler’s checks in front of my eyes, having me fill out a loss form, and then re-issuing a new set of checks without the franc zone limitation verso. I have never been back to Africa since, and over the years, the term CFA slipped into a quiet closet of my memory, only to be dragged out occasionally when comparing war stories with other travelers.

Fast forward twenty-some years, and I was chatting with some friends in the kitchen of their Prince Edward Island farmhouse. There was a knock at the door, and my friends introduced me to the newcomers as a “CFA”, albeit “not a bad one”. The others chuckled and allowed as to how a lot of CFAs had been showing up on the Island of late. Sensing that I was the butt of some obscure joke, I bit the bullet and asked “What’s a CFA?”

“Oh,” the answer came, “it’s someone who’s not from the Island. It stands for ‘comes from away’”, “away” being any place other than this tiny lump of red clay in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“Um, excuse me, but I was born here,” I rejoined, possibly a bit testily. All eyebrows raised to attention. It turned out that that made all the difference in the world. It seems that anyone born here is automatically embraced into the fold, fussed over like the proverbial prodigal son, even if he or she has, like me, been absent for most of a lifetime. By contrast, someone who moved here at six months of age will always be a CFA; no naturalization is possible. And so it is that the term “CFA” once again surfaces in my life; for the fleeting few months of summer, I am a native son, before departing for some distant continent where I will forever be a CFA.