Saturday 9 November 2019

Crypto coincidence

Have you heard of OneCoin? It's an online currency like Bitcoin except (except?) that it's a scam - possibly the biggest cryptocurrency fraud in the world so far. Launched in 2014 and still up and running, it has attracted hopeful investors from all around the world who are, to put it mildly, dismayed to be just learning now that their hard-earned money has disappeared into the ether.
Well, not disappeared - it's actually been banked (presumably, and ironically, in a conventional off-shore account) by the scheme's founder: glamorous, red-lipsticked, Bavarian-born intellectual Dr Ruja Ignatova. Dr Ruja is the one who's disappeared and, as I've been squatting on a steep bank in my garden here on Waiheke, cutting steps out of the clay and sweating profusely in the spring sunshine, I've been listening to a gripping 8-episode podcast all about it: The Missing Cryptoqueen by technology journalist Jamie Bartlett and his BBC producer Georgia Catt. 
The last episode has just been uploaded - being real life, there's no neat tying-up of the loose ends, or even a well-deserved comeuppance for Dr Ruja. Instead, there are more false trails and heart-breaking interviews with people who thought their financial problems were all over, sucked into the hype of getting in on the ground floor with this new money-making scheme. Jamie talked to people who had persuaded their family members to invest huge sums of money - tens of thousands of pounds - and who now were faced with having to tell them that their life savings were gone. Or not tell them - one sad young man simply couldn't bring himself to confess to his mother that he had lost her money, and was desperately stringing her along in the hope that - somehow - the worst might not actually have happened.
And it was at this stage that this blog post's hook revealed itself: Jamie and Georgia had followed the trail of investors to Uganda, and had gone to a small town there to speak to this young man in front of his mother who, fortunately for her peace of mind, didn't understand English and had no idea that her life's savings were lost. And this random town, in the middle of Africa, where this particular victim, out of 50,000 investors in the country, was chosen by chance by Jamie and Georgia? Mbarara, which I passed through twice on my Intrepid Basix journey to visit Rwanda's mountain gorillas in 2017 - just about the time that Dr Ruja dropped out of sight.
I remembered the newspapers stapled shut on the newsstand in the shop where we bought drinks, the motorbike traffic with its sunshades and huge loads of goods and/or people (up to 4 men), a teeming market; and, on our return journey, camping in the bird-busy grounds of what by then seemed to us a fancy hotel, where I drank Nile beer in the garden bar and was quietly thrilled to hear Toto's 'Africa' being played. That was Day 12 of our dawn-to-dusk camping tour in a rattly bus with inadequate upholstery, passing through a never-ending roadside parade of lives lived on the margins. We were all looking forward to getting to journey's end in the sophistication of Nairobi and the subsequent return to our soft and comfortable lives. It had been an education, to see how hard these people's lives were - and, now, it's an outrage and a tragedy to know how much harder it is for some of them, all thanks to a clever woman with no conscience.

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