Kissi penny, the metal rod currency used in early 20th-century West Africa abolished by colonizers

Emmanuel Kwarteng September 28, 2022
A bundle of kissi pennies at the Brooklyn Museum. Image via Wiki

The Kissi, Loma, and Bandi people who lived in the present-day border regions of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea introduced the “Kissi money” or “Kissi penny” around the end of the 19th century. Its use was fairly widespread in actual practice.

The Kissi coins have a peculiar form. Kissi’s distinctive shape is an iron rod that has been twisted and flattened at both ends, with a flat, hoe-like spatula at one end and a sharpened “T” at the other. 

It ranges in length from 9 to more than 15 inches, with the longer ones having a higher value. Larger “denominations” might also be made by bundling or bundling many pieces together, then fastening the bundle with a cotton or leather strip. 

Given that it was practically difficult to tamper with the metal content of the piece without being instantly obvious, the strange shape may have been created as a form of protection.

In the first part of the 20th century, West Africa was the main region that used Kissi pennies. They could be traded for local currency in the form of coins and bills. 

While individual Kissi pennies could be used for small purchases, bigger payments were often made with bundles of 20. A cow cost between 30 and 40 bundles in the early 20th century, according to the National Museum of American History.

Legend has it that a traditional witch doctor known as Zoe, who is frequently the blacksmith, would repair the broken fragments of the iron rod and reincarnate the ‘escaped soul’ for a price, and could only restore the value of the broken iron rod through a particular ceremony. Kissi money was hence seen as “money with a soul.”

The Kissi currency served as a universal unit of exchange. Kissi coins were used for a variety of things and served as legal tender for goods and commodities.

French authorities abolished Kissi penny

The Kissi currency was the first to be outlawed in the French colony. In 1940, the British came next. Things moved a lot more slowly in Liberia. The Western Province of Liberia’s most northern District, Voinjama, which borders the British colony of Sierra Leone and the French colony of Guinea, attempted to forbid the use of Kissi money in 1936 in order to avoid the dreaded hut tax

The U.S. Firestone Company had arrived in Liberia eight years previously, but its operations were concentrated in areas that were closer to the coast. 

Tribal people in the northwest of the country continued to use traditional currency because the North American Rubber Company had little impact on their way of life.

Kissi money wasn’t really displaced by Liberia’s official currency, the US dollar, until the administrative reform of 1964 and the rise of modern employers in the 1960s as a result of President Tubman’s Open Door Policy. 

President Edwin Barclay—18th president of Liberia—had declared the US dollar the only valid currency in the nation during that year, outlawing the British pound.

Kissi penny or “money with a soul”

Kissi money was used mostly for ritual celebrations, such as those marking the occasion of young people returning from the bush schools, sacrifices, and divination rituals, after being superseded by Western currencies. 

Additionally, it is used to make fetishes for protection and to adorn the graves of deceased warriors. Many individuals continue to think that old money is magical. As a result, many indigenous Liberians still believe that Kissi “money has a soul.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 29, 2022


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