The Sound Of Money

Is it, one wonders, love or simply money that makes the world go round? I think it is money. But the moment money is mixed with love and passion, the destructive force generated is enough to blow the world to pieces starting from your family. Especially if a femme fatale has been after your money and you have gone bananas over her!

But, money has not always been coins and green bucks. To cattle herders, who prize their cows more than their children, money is still a four-footed asset, eats grass and goes where you lead it. Unfortunately, rustlers pop in from time to time, and carry away your treasure across the border. This is nothing but a traditional bank robbery or maybe a transfer of assets courtesy of ‘Wells and Fargo’ or ‘Western Union’.

In traditional Eritrea, there was a time when bartering was the order of the day. People came with chickens, eggs and salt slabs to the market place.

“That bleating sheep over there, the one with a plump tail, how much does it cost?”

“Half slab of salt and twelve eggs, my lord.”

“Okay… is your slab and keep the change.” 

I remember that as far back as 1950s some village shops accepted eggs as legal tender in Eritrean towns. Two eggs and you got a certain quantity of tealeaves or sugar. That was bartering come to town. Why eggs? Because eggs are easy to carry, and in general have approximately uniform weight. So if you had a poultry yard in those days, it could be said of your hens that they laid golden eggs for you.  


In the year 2000 B.C, Eritreans used gold and silver coins for trade. Earlier we sold ivory, monkeys, incenses to the Egyptians and the Greeks, and accordingly enriched our foreign exchange reserve not with slabs of salt but with precious metals. I don’t know what type of coins the Pharaoh’s subjects used in those days. Probably they gave us corn or papyrus in return for our myrrh and frankincense.

After the fall of Adulis and the subsequent Dark Age, Eritreans used, in general, slabs of salt and beads. And then during the colonial era, we used their coins, probably Portuguese escudo, Turkish girshi, Italian lira, British East African shilling or jinye (probably from guinea), Ethiopian thaler or dollar or santim (centime) and Derg’s birr.

Why was it that the shilling coins were minted with holes in their middle? I asked my father when I was a little boy, and he said that perhaps the British thinking that Africans went about naked anyway, expected them to use the coins as beads to be put around their necks. An easy way to get strangled with your own savings!

When the Nakfa was announced in 1997, I read in the papers that one tegadalai (combatant) fainted at the news; so much was he overwhelmed with rupture and joy. He was right. At last, we had our own currency for the first time after the fall of Adulis.

With the advent of colonialists, the Maria Teresa coin became a ‘national’ currency. How on earth could an Austrian Empress spread her effigy so easily to distant lands?

The Maria Teresa batera (currency) replaced salt slabs and beads and became so much part of the economic life of our people that the Italians failed, for a time, to dislodge it, and changing tactics even flirted with the idea of using it as their colonial legal tender.

The first bank in Eritrea was probably established by the Italians in Massawa. When I was a child I saw a picture of a chieftain (from across the border) who rode his mule to town to put his money in the magic chest of a bank. He tied his mount to one of the pillars supporting the roof of the bank. All his capital was in a bag. I think he trusted coins more than banknotes. His bag looked very heavy indeed. 

But our mothers never trusted the bank, probably because they witnessed successive colonialists opening and closing banks with every initial victory and final defeat.

That’s why they kept the money, handed over by daddy at the end of each month, under their pillow or sewn up inside a mattress. It was money to be expended to feed mommy, daddy and a brood of nine or ten crying and whining children for a solid month.

And when some wives fed the family shiro (powdered chickpeas, boiled and spiced) and hamli (boiled and spiced greens) for thirty days in a row, the father took the stick and taught the wailing spouse to revise her lessons in home economics.

If the pillow was the cash register, the mattress was the armored safe comparable to Fort Knox in USA. The thief who came by night or the unruly child who sneaked into the room by day, had little chance to conduct a perfect crime, because mommy was always carrying the money in her handkerchief secured with a knot. And as for the money in the mattress, it took a meticulous search by an experienced rogue to arrive at the sheaf of banknotes hidden and sewn with consummate professionalism. The mother seemed to be saying to all burglars worldwide: “over my dead body”

Another means of keeping one’s money in a safe place where it could be easily retrieved was purchasing gold ornaments. That was the ideal bank designed to put the unstable feelings of our mothers at rest.

“Addey Letu, why are you putting so much jewelry in your chest and on your person when you should have put it in a bank?”

“When things turn bad, I can always sell my gold ornaments wherever I am and can survive.”

So if you somehow see a poor looking Eritrean woman wearing gold earrings, gold necklaces and gold bracelets, be sure that she is wearing the Bank of England or the Lloyd’s, in case. 

Addey Letu is also a member of uqub, a traditional loan and saving association. You contribute a certain amount of money every month. You draw lots. The winner gets the jackpot. This is repeated every month.

“So how was the uqub, Addey Letu, was it your turn to collect the money last Sunday?”

“It was very kind of the ladies to hand over the first collection to me without drawing lots,” sighs Addey Letu who straightaway bought gabi (flimsy cotton shawl with four plies) for the winter.

But in general, money is described as dirty by traditional people. Bosom friends get into a raw because of money, families break up because of money, and the son sues his father in court for reasons related to money.  However, it is not money that is dirty, but the love of money. A person may have billions of dollars, and if this money doesn’t stand as a veil between him and his Maker, he will prosper; if not, his money will become the source of all evil and will finally speed up his demise.

You cannot worship God and Mammon at the same time, goes the sacred saying. Well, why not? For I have seen old people waking up by night under the guise of reading the Dawit (Psalms) and directing their steps towards that glittering chest in the corner.

There they open hidden treasure, get hold of bundles of banknotes and start counting.

The Psalm had to wait. It was, after all, money and a lot of it that assured them respect and acceptance in the society; and by reading the holy verses, their entry into paradise was assured.


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