By Sheriff Badmus
Trading by barter in the Yoruba world (present states of Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Osun, and parts of Kwara and Cote D’ivoire) started to fade by the end of 19th century as markets expanded beyond boarders and needs became diversified. That would mean that a person who had a goat and needed a yam might not see a person who had yam and needed goat – the limitation arising from double co-incidence of wants.
Barter trading could not last long because of the problem of bulkiness and transportation. That a person who had a goat as a means had to carry his goat around or at least to the nearest market; and after that would undergo another stress to convey the exchanged goods back to his destination.
Bartering was more beneficial to the skilled negotiator. For example, how many tubers of yam equaled a goat? What should be the size of such tubers of yam and goat respectively? These questions were left to the judgement of the individual which might be largely biased. Simply put, bartering was poorly standardised on all ends.
However, this problem still exists in Nigerian markets due to information asymmetry about prevailing market prices and lack of boards that would set and enforce market prices. Despite the use of standardised currencies, sellers and buyers still haggle for a clearing price. In developed countries, commodities are sold in price per a standard unit of measurement to evade this challenge e.g. pork may be set at N50 per kg.
The transition to the use of cowries wouldn’t be appreciated if we fail to note that barter as a means of transaction was not durable. Expressively, how long can a person who exchanged goat for yam keep his yam for varying purposes? Much of what was traded were agricultural produce which were subject to perishability. Thus, trading by barter was technically insufficient.
The need to conquer these challenges led to the emergence of cowries as popular means of exchange in the 16th and 17th centuries among Sub-Saharan African communities. Among those communities are the Yorubas who took cowries beyond currency. Because cowries were minted naturally by nature and from water bodies, the Yorubas hurriedly tagged the cowries with several goddess and theories that are highly diabolical. In this age, peddlers of cowries as a sacred entity would probably label minted currencies an enemy of the gods.
The origin of cowries as currencies started when European invaders presented traditional Kings and Chiefs jewelries made from cowries. This action would turn cowries to elements that were scarce and valuable; thus, marking its validity for value-in-exchange and use – the same theory behind the use of gold, silver and other precious metals as currencies. Since cowries were sourced from water bodies that meant that they were more expensive inland than the coast.
The suitability of cowries as a currency lies in its durability being a shell, its ease of conveyance and the extreme difficulty inherent in making its counterfeit. This amidst many others proves that the Yorubas engaged basic economic thoughts and fiscal policies required for the movement of an emerging community or state.
Cowries as Aesthetics
Prior to the advent of westernization, it was common to see maidens decorating their plaited hair with some cowries’ shells. Equally, drummers and other entertainers would attach cowries to their instruments for beautification. They were used as part of architectural designs of houses and they were usually inserted into walls and floors of houses.
Cowries in Romance
The use of cowries in romance can be classified under the use of Aroko – symbolic messages. Prior to the advent of sophisticated means of communication, Yoruba people leveraged on symbolic messages which were based on coded meanings which both the sender and receiver must understand; and conveyed via trusted party or secret place of delivery. For example, if a king packaged some gunpowder and sends it to another king, it means the receiver should prepare for war.
Ajisafe* in 1964 opined that if two cowries’ shells were tied together facing each other with a black thread, the sender is telling the receiver that he wants to see him. If a lady sends this to her future husband, it means she wants to see him for some reasons and he has to come immediately. If a feather is added it means be expecting me; I am coming.
If two cowries’ shells are tied back to back, it means “I shun you”. If another cowrie shell is added in return, it means “I kick you off”. But if a coal is sent in return, it means, “I fail to comprehend the cause of your shunning me.”
But with the advent of the internet and social media, nobody may need to tie cowrie shells together to know if a relationship is up for success or sham.
Cowries in Peace and Warfare
If cowries’ shells and a horse tail are sent to a king by another one, it means he wants them to come together and act as one for peaceful co-existence. Again, if eight cowrie shells were sent to someone, it means such an individual is free from danger.
If a king pierced a cowrie shell with a piece of wood and sent it to an individual especially a man, it means such an individual was no longer wanted in the community and he had to leave immediately. The pierced shell means that his actions hindered the peaceful co-existence of the community at large.
If a town sent salt, kolanuts and three cowries’ shells to another town, it means that the receiving town moved to wage war before deciding to apologise and acknowledge the superiority of the sender. It’s more of re-emphasising dominance and superiority.
* Ajisafe, A. K. 1964. History of Abeokuta. Abeokuta: Fola Publishing.