Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

"Only One Cowry: A Dahomean Tale" | Learning about Brideprice & Cowrie Shells with a West African Folktale

I just love reading a fun folktale that leads to discussions about culture and history. Only One Cowry: A Dahomean Tale by Phillis Gershator does just that. The Dahomey King, from Benin, wants a bride but rather than parting with his wealth for a proper bride-price, he wants to offer nothing more than one cowry. Cleverly, Yo takes on the challenge to find his king a wife, and through trade grows the cowry into a sizable sum. More clever still is his future bride who tricks the king into providing a bride-price fitting to his stature. 

This is a fun, cumulative story colorfully illustrated through paper collage. There is also an endnote that gives a general explanation of bride-price and the role of cowries as currency in Africa. 


Photo Credit: Thalo Porter Tempest
Though increasingly controversial (and sometimes abused), bride-price continues to be expected among traditional families in many parts of Africa. Before a marriage can occur, the husband to be is expected to give money and/or goods (sometimes cattle) to the bride's family. This "gift" is considered a symbol of good faith, bringing two families together. At one time, cowries served as bride-price.

Of all the currency in history, cowrie shells have been used the longest. Initially used in China over four thousand years ago, cowries were used in Africa as currency for centuries until the mid 1900s. Originally, they were so valuable in Africa that two cowries would be enough for a bride-price. When western traders recognized the value of cowry shells in Africa, they flooded the market with them. By the end of the 1800s, a cowry bride-price required 100,000 shells. 


Photo Credit: Carsten ten Brink
No longer used as currency, cowry shells continue to be used in many ways in West Africa. The are a worn as jewelry, they adorn clothing, boxes and masks, and they are used as part of musical instruments. To some they are ornamental and to others they symbolize prosperity or fertility. In The Gambia, cowrie shells are threaded onto a waistband worn around a woman's hips in order to increase her fertility. They are also considered an important tool for divination in West Africa, the answers read based on what side the shells land when they are used. 



Ghanaian currency Cedi
Photo Credit: Bill Maurer for IMTFI
A 'Cedi' coin is the unit of currency in Ghana. The word 'Cedi' is derived from the Twi word for cowry shell ('cediee'). Because the shells were used in the past, Ghana's first president, Nkrumah, adopted the name of the currency after Ghana's independence


You can find all of our posts with children's books about West Africa here.

You can find more kid lit posts at the Kid Lit Blog Hop and activities to do with folktales at the Poppins Book Nook
You can find more posts exploring culture, geography and history with kids at All Things Beautiful

Kid Lit Blog Hop

13 comments:

  1. Super post! I'm pinning this one for future reference. - Thank you.

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  2. Wow, I'm trying to conceive of having 100,000 shells. That's a lot of shells.

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    1. Sooo many shells! They were strung up in groups, but can you imagine the work of counting them out and stringing them?

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  3. A really interesting post. How big are Cowry shells? From the picture with a lot of them it looked like they are quite big, but then in the one with the people wearing jewellery they look tiny. Or does it depend on the age of the shell??

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    1. From what I've seen, they are tiny - perfect for jewelry. I remember making hemp "Hawaiian" bracelets with some for one of Pea's birthdays years ago.. it's hard to conceive of them as being so valuable!

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  4. Sounds like a very fascinating story. The pictures are amazing and I love books that teach children something they may otherwise never discover. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I do love how books can open up entirely new worlds to us! Thanks for stopping by Stacie!

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  5. Another great post!! I love your book selections for West Africa. This is a great post, with great pictures. Thank you for linking up.

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    1. Thanks Phyllis! Have you read many books for your African continent study? If you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them :)

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  6. GORGEOUS post! I'm pinning this on my "must read" Board!

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  7. This looks like such a beautiful book. Thanks for sharing so many book resources from Africa! We are always looking for more multicultural books.

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  8. What a great post!! I loved learning about bride price and cowry as currency! Thank you so much for sharing at Multicultural Children's Book Day and for joining us as well!

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