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Shells to Wealth: Ghana’s Currency Journey Inspired by the Cowry Shell

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

Ghanaian currency has undergone multiple changes throughout the course of its history. In 1965, Ghana adopted the cedi (pronounced SEE-dee) which has its roots in Akan word for cowry shell. The name cedi was chosen to reflect the cultural heritage of the cowry shell by reflecting its significance as symbol of wealth, spirituality, art, and as medium of trade in many parts of Africa, including Ghana.

The Ghana Cedi
The Ghana Cedi

Cowrie or cowry (pl cowries) are small glossy, porcelain-like shells that come from various types of sea snails. They may vary in size, shape, and color and can be found on rocky areas of the sea bed. They gained popularity as an acceptable form of payment due to their small size, rarity, durability, sacredness, and easy identification.

In some communities, shells contained a unique marking to denote who it came from, and debts owed for goods and services. If one shirked their financial obligations, the community learned to ignore their shells, rendering them worthless. When people were paid back, it augmented the value of the shells, and solidified trust in the person using them.

Their acceptance as currency has roots in the belief that they possess intrinsic value. In some societies, they were used as adornments for headdresses for the affluent. They were also used for jewelry, clothing, ornaments, and accessories. Cowry shells also hold spiritual significance. They are often used in religious rituals, as well as divination practices in ancient african religions.

With the transition to metal currency, cowry shells gradually lost their economic significance.

The Ghana pesewa coin
The Ghana Pesewa coin

However, they retained cultural and traditional importance. Their enduring legacy is not merely a relic of the past but a testament to the enduring power of cultural symbols. It reminds us that the significance of currency extends beyond face value. It encapsulates a rich history and heritage of this prized of our shared ancestry.

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