A Unique West African Penny in Sierra Leone
HAVE you ever seen money that looks like this? It is a Kissi penny. Some of these coins are displayed at the Sierra Leone National Museum, in Freetown. The information card states: “This curious form of money is native to both Sierra Leone and Liberia. It was in current use in the provinces as late as 1945. Since it was the symbol of a head (rounded end) and foot (pointed ends) it was said to be money with a spirit. When a chief died, many would be broken and stuck into his grave. The last exchange rate noted was 50 Kissi to one West African Shilling.”
According to the book The African Slave Trade, by Basil Davidson, long ago slaves were purchased for “lengths of iron.” Were these Kissi pennies? Some experts believe that they were. Others disagree. Yet, while these coins may not have been used to buy slaves, they were certainly used to purchase wives.
As indicated above, these coins were sometimes used in religious ways, particularly in connection with the unscriptural belief in the immortality of the soul. When a person died, it was considered proper to bury him in his native village. Of course, if the death occurred far away, it was not always convenient to bring the corpse home. The solution was to transport the soul by means of a Kissi penny.
A relative of the deceased would travel to the village where the death occurred and obtain a penny from the medicine man, who, through incantation, would supposedly attach the soul of the dead person to it. It was then the task of the relative to carry the soul (the penny) home and bury it in the ancestral grave.
The relative would wrap the penny in clean cloth and begin his journey, which was to be completed in silence. It was believed that if he spoke to anyone on the way, the soul would leave the penny and return to the village where the person had died. Then the relative would have to go back to collect it again—undoubtedly after another payment to the medicine man!
If it became necessary to speak during the journey, the relative could do so if he carefully put the penny down, though not on the ground, before talking. Once the penny was picked up again, the law of silence was binding.
Measuring 13 to 14 inches in length, Kissi pennies were hardly suited for either pocket or pocketbook. However, the shape was practical for their day, since they could easily be tied in bundles and carried on the head. Rich people used to store these pennies in their lofts. When the climatic conditions were right, condensation would form on the money and drip to the room below. The amount of “rainfall” was a good indication of the wealth of the person in whose home you were sitting.