Monday, November 19, 2012

The Magic Money Of Liberia

The concept of "Magic Money" is not necessarily a foreign one to someone from the US.  We have "lucky pennies" and mythologies about bowls of gold at the end of rainbows guarded by magical little men and even fairy tales about enchanted treasures guarded by dragons.  It is just that in general Westerners have lost their ability to believe these things are true.  In parts of Liberia this is not always the case.  In Liberia magical money still exists.

A "Kissi Penny"
A gift from Hope 2 Liberia President, Sam Wrisley

The Kissi Penny, "bush money" or "money with a soul" as it has been called, is an unique contribution to the world of numismatics and is strongly associated with Liberia.  The name "Kissi Penny" comes from the Kissi tribe that lives in Liberia and used it as a form of currency.  It was also used by the Bandi and Loma throughout their regions in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.  It is so closely associated with Liberia however that the Central Bank of Liberia has two of these bar-shaped "pennies" crossed on their seal.  The seal can be seen fairly well on the L$10 below.

The crossed "Kissi Pennies" are found in the CBL Seal on the left side of the reverse of Liberian bills

These rods of iron used as currency makes sense in an iron ore rich country.  Iron was and is a ready resource that is used in Liberia for basic agriculture and military protection.  One can tangibly see the value of this currency by thinking in terms of how many tools they would make: like a cutlass, hoe or weapon.  Also in this Kissi Penny Economy, one of the central figures of Liberian culture, the blacksmith, added to his power and prestige by becoming the director of his own mint.  He could literally print his own money!  The magical aspects of this currency comes from the fact that blacksmiths are often associated with having magic powers in Liberia and either they or the Zoe (they were often the same person) became involved in this currency production as we will see in more detail later.  First...


A "Kissi Penny" next to a US Quarter for reference
This is the question that has been most commonly asked when I show this form of currency to people.   According to an excellent Introductory Article on the Kissi Penny by Dr. Van Der Kraaij, who specializes in African Economics, these bars were often wrapped into bundles of 20 rods.  For example, a cow could cost approximately 100 bundles, a bride 200, a slave 300 and so on.  The bars themselves were also of different lengths with the longer bars being worth more, presumably because there was more iron in them.    


One of the thin "blades" at the end of a Kissi Penny
The shape of this currency is rather peculiar.  One wonders if there is some sort of secret meaning attached to it, especially in a society steeped in secrecy and secret societies.   A more practical reason is suggested by Dr. Van Der Kraaij and that is that this shape prevents tampering with the iron content. At each end of the rod the surface is pounded out into very thin "blades" that are easily inspected for purity.  In the middle the iron bar is very thin and twisted and is also very easily inspected for its quality.  It could just be that this is a practical shape for inspection; I like that theory, however I'm not convinced that it removes the possibility of the shape having a "magical" connotation as well.


Western society is familiar with the concept of money having a soul, especially when considering the influence of the King James Version of the Bible.  Jesus taught that man cannot serve both God and Mammon.  Here the concept of "Mammon" is equated to "wealth" (or money as we think of it) and is on the level of having a persona that competes with the Spirit of God.  Traditional Liberian societies would agree with Jesus that money has a persona, or a spirit or soul.  We Westerners would call this an animistic view of reality, however we would probably refuse to classify Jesus as an animist.  Let's step away from the cultural theology for the moment.... Why is this "Penny" called "Money With A Soul?"

"Pointy" end of the Kissi Penny with US Dime for reference

Let me start with a story.  While traveling in Monrovia we stopped by a store selling bottled and bagged water and intended to buy this water with a US$ 20.  We ran into a strange problem... the shop owner would not accept our bill because there was a slight tear on the corner of the bill.  What?  Well, this concept makes sense when one takes the time to listen to the Liberian's perspective on currency.  This currency only has power to seal transactions when it is complete (without defect).  A tear or rip indicates that the power that had been imbued upon this bill in order to complete a transaction has been taken away from the currency.  The bill had lost its soul and was "dead"; unable to transact proper business.

This may seem laughable to the Westerner who hasn't taken the time to investigate what gives his own little pieces of paper in his own wallet the "power" to purchase other objects.  We may believe that our bills are backed by some sort of mysterious "gold standard" or AAA rating of Treasury Bonds or the mood of the Stock Market or the GNP or whatever, but when it comes down to it this Liberian's explanation makes as much sense as ours.   This Liberian believed that this US bill was backed by the power (or perhaps magic) of the US mint and it had lost its power to transact because it had been torn.  Fascinating to say the least.  I also don't doubt that certain unscrupulous businessmen in Liberia have no problem perpetuating this theory by changing out the defective money for less than face value!

The "Paddle" end of a Kissi Penny with US Dime for reference

I'm not sure why the merchant didn't want to take our bill with a tear on it, however the Kissi Penny might give some insight into this particular perspective of currency.  You see, it wasn't just any old piece of iron ore that one could do business with, but rather only those pieces of iron that had been given the "power" to be used for currency.  This was imbued upon the iron by either the blacksmith or the Zoe (what we call 'witch doctor" and who may or may not have actually been the blacksmith himself depending on the custom).  Whenever one of these thin rods broke it no longer possessed the "power" to be used as currency.  It had lost its "spirit" or "soul" so to speak.  It had to be fixed by the Zoe for a price (nice business move).

This broken currency could supposedly be restored by being taken to a Zoe who would then recombine the two pieces with a special ceremony that would summon the spirit back into the piece of iron.  In fact, these objects are often associated with magic and considered by some to be living beings.  This is why I assume that the shape also has some ritualistic significance as I do also with the water spirit rings that are sometimes called "Kru Money" and are still found buried near Liberian villages.


According to Dr. Van Der Kraaij the use of this currency in Liberia began to quickly fade in the 1960's and so in that sense they are no longer used.  (As a side note, Liberia would therefore be the last region to hold out on using this form of currency which is what gives it such a strong attachment to Liberia.) Besides bartering, the Liberian people today use the US dollar and the Liberian dollar as their main forms of currency in trade.  However, the Kissi Penny is still used to this day, but not as currency.  Today it is mostly used in ritualism and tourism.  They are sold to interested tourists like the one that was bought and then given to me in the pictures above and they are also made and used in mostly secret society ceremonies: burials, divination, graduations, sacrifices and the like.  

We may see a vast gulf between the way Liberians view their "money with a soul" and the way we view our money backed by psycho-sociological agreements but I'm not sure the difference is all that great.  In the end, we either use money or it uses us and to the extent money uses us it very much behaves as if it were a being with a soul.  

Kissi Penny next to US Quarter for reference


  1. Hi Heath Vogel, a nice piece of work you have done by all the revelations about the Liberian culture, myths and historical accounts. It is brilliant and is able to touch on a lot of critical cultural points. I admire your work.

    One thing I found problematic is the story that Liberians believe that money have a soul and is imbued with magical powers (well, as it is believed probably by those locals, as presented here)- especially that they believe the "...ripped US$20 had lost its soul or died because it was ripped."

    This excerpt from your article: you entered a shop and "...the shop owner would not accept our bill because there was a slight tear on the corner of the bill. What? Well, this concept makes sense when one takes the time to listen to the Liberian's perspective on currency. This currency only has power to seal transactions when it is complete (without defect). A tear or rip indicates that the power that had been imbued upon this bill in order to complete a transaction has been taken away from the currency. The bill had lost its soul and was "dead"; unable to transact proper business."

    Being a son of the soil, born and raised in the same years you mentioned, involved in the local community life and having all my family born and raised there, this is my very first time hearing about this.

    Just a little about my family, we are from Maryland County and my grate grandmother lived up to the age of 113 years and died in 1984, my grand mother lived up to the age of 96 years and died in 2015, my father lived up to 84 years and died in 2016. I was raised in three counties: Grand Gedeh and Montserrado and Bong, among Kpelle, Loma, Vai, Gbandi (instead of "Bandi" as unintentionally typographically spelled in your article), Gola, and Krahn tribes. We have Kisi marriages in my family, which gives us access to tribal accounts, including many other sources of information about Liberian history.

    Many times I sat with my grandmother and she told me lots of folk stories, most of which I am writing about in a book I have title: Tradition and Development.

    While your story sounds mythological and strange, I do not totally dismiss it. It just sounds strange, especially coming from a stranger. I know are tribal traditionally individuals who dealt in witch craft and wizardry, could have possibly use that money situation just to exploit for economic and social power.

    What I think the true story is, mutilated money was widely rejected typically because Liberia does not manufacture her own money (currency notes), and having a mutilated money was seen as a economic risk to venders - a risk of losing your hard earned cash, considering the way money was kept and handled in such under-developed, rough local markets. Not much of the local venders kept their money in banks. A mutilated note transacting in the hands of multiple venders, quickly would erode and reduced the intrinsic value and the money would easily tear up and eventually become useless. For this reason, people rejected mutilated notes.

    It was not because they believed the money had died and lost its soul when it is ripped.

    Thank you however, for the brilliant work. Other information provided here are interesting in deed.

    John Fello.

  2. Thank you for the comments Mr. John Fello. It would appear by what you've written that I would enjoy conversation with you about Liberia! I look forward to hearing more about your book, especially as it approaches publication.

    The loss of so many old parables and oral traditions is a great tragedy in Liberia. I fully support your work and wish you the best in sharing with the world the beauty and depth of the various Liberian cultures.

    Please be in touch. I have many other experiences from the stranger perspective, but I just haven't had time to blog for awhile now.

    Often my outsider perspective of Liberian culture is laughable or even offensive to Liberians, but I've found most Liberians enjoy the palava with me nonetheless (as do I). I was surrounded by this kind of community interaction in group palava and was always encouraged to see something in one another's perspectives and grow from it. We tried to always walk away friends. Liberia taught me so much and still does.

    Thanks again for your comments and peace be with you.