Pernille writes that:
“The fact that Zitto Kabwe is reporting via Twitter, blog, Flickr and Facebook from Kigoma North, while at the same time operating an election campaign with traditional elements – like the ngoma and the kanga – is a clear fact of Africa 2010. An Africa in between tradition and modernity.”
To me, it just shows how useless categories like “modernity” and “tradition” are, here. The printed kanga shipped from India is no less “modern” than a twitter feed, and no more. These aren’t the terms that will tell you anything interesting about what is going on. These are terms that will prevent you from saying anything new about what is actually interesting.
Today, I’ll be talking in my class about Cowrie shells and “modernity,” and I’ll do a version of the following little talk, which I’m excerpting from a blog post of a year ago:
If you’ve read Things Fall Apart – and if you haven’t, for shame! – you’ll recall that before the missionaries show up, Umuofia has a thriving economy based on the cowrie shell, an economy which gets radically shifted around after the white folks start dropping benjamins and palm oil kernel becomes a thing of great price, with tragic consequence. It’s a narrative about falling apart, as the title proclaims, so there’s an easy reading in which the difference between a local economy based on local indigenous production gets crushed and supplanted by outside economic forces.
The thing about cowrie shells, though, is that they are about as non-indigenous as they could possibly be: the shells used for money by isolated villages in the backcountry Niger delta, as it happens, came from the Maldives, twelve-hundred islands in the middle of the Indian ocean.
How, you ask, did they get there? Well, I’ll tell you. They were used as ballast by slave ships. If you care to know all about it, you can read Johnson and Hogendorn’s The Shell Money of the Slave Trade, or you can be satisfied with my brief sketch: since the cowrie shell happens to have all the qualities one needs of currency (accurately countable, incredibly durable, and with just the right balance between being cheap but not being of unlimited supply) it went from being a East Indian trade object in the pre-European hegemony era to being (around the turn of the 18th century) the primary merchandise used to trade for African slaves.
A “Dutch Gentleman,” for example, lamented that “Formerly twelve thousand weight of these cowries would purchase a cargo of five or six hundred negroes, but those lucrative times are now no more; and the negroes now set such a value on their countrymen that there is no such thing as having a cargo under twelve or fourteen tons of cowries.” As far back as the 14th century, Ibn Battuta visited the Maldives and described how: “They gather this animal in the sea and then put them in holes in the ground until the flesh rots, leaving the white shell…. They exchange [the shells] for rice with the people of Bengal, who also use them as currency. They also sell them to the people of Yemen, who ballast their ships with them instead of with sand. These cowries are also used in the lands of the blacks. I saw them being sold in Mali and Gawgaw at a rate of 1150 per dinar.”
Paul Lunde tells us that the exchange rate at that time was 400,000 cowries to the dinar (or more), which was 1/350 of the rate those currencies traded for in Mali, “a proportion that gives an idea of the profits possible in the cowry trade if the shells could be transported far enough from their place of origin. And they were transported great distances: After Yemeni ships, Portuguese, Dutch and English ships also carried them as ballast, and huge quantities were auctioned to slavers in Amsterdam and London in the 18th century.” And then, presumably, shipped onward to West Africa.
This is one of those facts that its good to have on hand when teaching Things Fall Apart; after all, treating the novel like a “first contact” story gets a little strained when you reflect that the “pre-colonial” money used by these isolated natives actually connects them to a global trading network that spans centuries. And I’m pretty sure that Chinua Achebe knew this – or if he didn’t I’m going to pretend – because it makes the story of Things Fall Apart a lot more interesting to recognize Umuafia’s isolation as more apparent than real, a globalizing exclusion rather than a primitive insularity.