BAMAKO, Mali - Cash has been in short supply in the northern Malian town of Gao since April when armed groups seized the town and looted banks, businesses and public buildings. The black market "Western Union" has become a lifeline to the North, allowing people to get money to their relatives in Gao within an hour.
The Binke Transport bus company ferries passengers daily from its bus station in Bamako to the occupied northern town of Gao. The journey takes about 18 hours.
However, if you go around to the side entrance behind the ticket counter, you will find a small office where you can get cash into the hands of your relatives or associates in Gao in a matter of minutes.
University student, Abourahamane Maiga, walks in. He needs to send $60 to his mother in Gao.
"How much? To whom?" asks Moussa Bathily, the unofficial manager of this unofficial business. Bathily takes down all the information on one row of a small lined ledger before folding Maiga's money into the neat wad of bills in his left hand. He sends a text message to his contact in Gao.
"Tell her to go see this man in one hour," he tells Maiga. "The money will be there."
Maiga says his mother needs to go to the market to buy food and other necessities.
He says this is the only way to get cash to her safely and quickly because all the banks in Gao are closed. He says there is food being sold in the markets at reasonable prices but she needs cash to buy it. He says he picks up odd jobs in Bamako to earn money. He says he and other northerners in Bamako cannot abandon their families.
This type of unofficial cash transfer system is not new to Binke Transport or other Malian bus companies. However, it has assumed newfound importance since April when armed groups seized control of the North, including Gao and two other key towns.
Hundreds of thousands have fled the region. Life for those who remained is increasingly difficult. Militants are imposing a hardline interpretation of sharia law that has included executions and amputations. Access to medical care is limited. Aid agencies say malnutrition is on the rise.
Residents of Gao say the al-Qaida-linked militants currently in control of that town are stocking the markets with food and other goods reportedly brought in illegally from Algeria. However, residents have little cash.
Bathily of Binke Transport says he takes in about 60 money transfers per day, a significant increase from before the crisis.
He says cash never physically passes between him and Binke's associates in Gao because there is too great of a security risk on the road.
The virtual transactions go in both directions.
A Bamako-based businessman, who preferred to give only his last name Cisse, comes in to collect $200 sent to him by his younger brother.
He says he will use the money to buy various products, in particular cell phones and the pay-by-the-minute cell phone credit scratch cards. He will ship the items to his brother in Gao that same day via Binke's package service so his brother can sell them or deliver them to people who placed special orders.
Bathily said Binke does charge a small fee per transfer - this is a business after all - but it is still less than what an established company would charge and is primarily intended to cover expenses like what he said can be long phone calls to sort out the occassional accounting error.
As Bathily processes transactions, no receipts are given.
He says people have been using this system for a long time and it is based on trust. He says people joke that the Binke bus station is the embassy of Gao, a hub of communication. Northerners, he said, tell him they come by when they are homesick and want to run into familiar faces from back home.