Kissi Pennies

In another example of strange currencies; the kissi penny also seen transcribed as kissy or kisi penny was an iron currency made in Sierra Leone that circulated widely in the immediate vicinity of its production among Gbandi (Bandi), Gola, Kissi, Kpelle, Loma, Mandinka and Mende and other people of Liberia and Sierra Leone and Guinea-Conakry. Portuguese records indicated that sailing voyages in the early sixteenth century carried iron bars. The currency began being manufactured in the specific form of the kissi penny around 1880.

Brooklyn_Museum_2006.67.24_Bundle_of_PenniesThe kissi penny is odd in shape, generally 8-12 inches long and very thin.  The kissi penny was a long twisted iron rod shaped like a “T” with a small disc fashioned on the opposite end. The pennies were not uniform and were often bundled together in what almost resembles a bundles of sticks.  

Europe and Asia often measured wealth in terms of gold and silver, pre-colonial Africa measured wealth in terms of iron.  In sub-Saharan Africa iron was a rare metal; Africa is known for very beautiful and elaborate gold working, it is a very easy metal to work with having a low melting point and high malleability.  Iron is much harder to work with and there was a lacking in technology to work with the iron. As a result iron was comparatively rare and only produced by highly skilled master metalworkers. This rarity gave iron a value comparative to silver in many other parts of the world.

The term ‘penny’ can be misleading because around the late 1800’s one hundred kissi pennies was enough to buy a cow, two hundred could purchase a virgin bride, and three hundred or more could buy a slave.

When Europeans colonized Africa in the 19th century the kissi penny continued as a form of currency, being used simultaneously with European paper money and gold or silver.  Despite being banned by the British and French in the 1930’s kissi pennies continued to be used up to the 1960’s until they were replaced with more convenient paper money.

While kissi pennies are no longer used as currency today, they are still occasionally usedGuinze-Monnaies-Musée_des_Confluences in religious rights and ceremonies. For example, as tokens of completing rituals in the Poro and Sande Societies; as bridewealth, and also to be placed on tombs and graves, where they were believed to channel the souls of the dead. At some point, the currency acquired spiritual aspects, perhaps because of its use in graves, and as a result, when a penny broke it was considered without value until a Zoe, or religious practitioner, repaired it in a special ceremony. It was this feature that led to it being called “money with a soul.”

European travelers regarded them as a curious form of primitive money, and as a result many were collected and deposited in museums. They continue to be sold on art and curio markets, as well as among numismatists to the present day.

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