Why Your ‘Funny’ Currency Matters…And It Has Nothing To Do With The Economy

IN the US, there was a long campaign –finally successful in 2015 – to put the portrait of a woman on the dollar.

The honour went to Harriet Tubman, who was a black American abolitionist, humanitarian, and an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the American Civil War.

The last woman on US paper currency was Martha Washington, who was on the $1 Silver Certificate between 1891 and 1896.

I have not checked all African countries, so I am not sure how many women are on the various currencies on the continent. I suspect few, as women have largely been written out of history in most of Africa. Also, because very few have been leaders of their countries, they miss out given that in Africa the male politicians usually flatter themselves by plastering their faces on currencies.

Because the focus in Africa tends to be on how much the currencies can buy in the real world, several are “funny” money not worth the paper they are printed on, scant little is paid to what other social purposes they serve.


I didn’t think much widely of it either, until a Kenyan friend recently returned from the US told me his story.

He was working in technology, buried in computers programming, when one day an acquaintance who taught at a nearby local school begged him to speak to his class. The scheduled presentation was on Africa, and what better candidate than an African – don’t mind that he knew little about the politics and economics of the continent.

He is, if truth be told, not an outstanding speaker and shy, and had never made a formal presentation. Then he got an inspired idea – he would show the class various things that he had from several parts of Africa, and explain what they were about.

The majority of the class were African-Americans from poor families. On the day of the presentation, he arrived lugging his big bag full of “African stuff”.

He did his thing, not knowing how it would go down. He was surprised. He blew the kids out of the water. The biggest hit was the last thing he desperately threw in the mix because, he felt, he didn’t have enough items – the Kenyan shilling.


The kids were “mesmerised”, he told me, because of something he himself hadn’t foreseen. It was the first time, both the white and black kids, were seeing the portrait of a black person on a currency note!

It had a profound on the black students, and they followed him after the class to ask questions. Several asked him for permission to come to his apartment, to hear stories about things that black men with power were doing in Africa.

He became a popular speaking figure in the district with his African act. But speaking at primary schools wasn’t going to pay the bills, of course, so he concentrated on writing code.

However, of the stories he brought back home, it is the African money in America that still grabs him the most. That and the time one when an anti-system thug put a gun to his head and asked him if he was working for Uncle Sam in any way.

But that is a story for another day.

In the future, one sees possibilities to redesign African currencies as some of kind of live histories.

If Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai was to get on a Kenyan shilling, young people might want to grow up to become environmentalist.

Or, for that matter, Uganda’s Sarah Ntiiro.

Hardly any young Ugandan women know her. But they are because she was.

Her story is remarkable, but one incident is striking. At the close of the 1940s Ntiiro joined Makerere College (now Makerere University). She entered and sat in the lecture room waiting to start her class in Mathematics.

When the male lecturer arrived, he was appalled. Thinking she had lost her way, or was unworthy, he demanded she leaves and goes to where “female” courses like knitting and tailoring were being taught.

She stayed put. The lecturer walked out in outrage.

To cut a long story short, as Uganda’s Daily Monitor reported it, “In 1954, she returned to Uganda, triumphant as the first woman in East and Central Africa to graduate from Oxford”.

Assume Ntiiro’s portrait was placed on a Uganda Shilling note. Staring at it, one imagines some little girls could well start out on interesting life journeys by asking, “who is this woman, and why is her picture on the money?”



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