Object of the day: Nkutshu currency (D.R. Congo)

Image courtesy of Bruno Claessens.

These enigmatic U-shaped pieces of copper currency were made by Nkutshu blacksmiths for their monetary system. They also traded them with their neighbors, the Basongo Meno, a group of Mongo origin. The Nkutshu called them Konga or Kunga; among the Basongo Meno they were known as Boloko or Okano. The aforementioned considered them important objects and used them both in dowry payments and in the purchase of slaves and big animals. Alfred Mahieu specified their value in Numismatique du Congo 1485-1924 (Brussels, 1924):

  • 1 boloko bought a billy goat,
  • 2 boloko bought one goat or a man slave,
  • 3 boloko were worth a female slave,
  • 10 boloko constituted a normal dowry for a wife.

I found mine on Ebay for much less. The above information is quoted from Roberto Ballarini’s encyclopedic book on African currency, The Perfect Form; with its 415 pages a must have if you’re interested in the subject. These currencies were very rare in the West until the eighties; but with patience and a little luck you can find them at a double-digit price these days – a good example that even on a budget it’s possible to collect authentic African art. Dating these is impossible, but they could be much older than we think – the copper’s surface is amazing up close. Their simple form makes these objects very decorative. Most often they are placed on a base, with the open side upwards. But placing them upside down – which is only possible if the circles on the end are flat and the currency itself isn’t warped – presents a whole new dimension to the objects.