Tuesday, May 27, 2014

African Adventures Volume 1. The Goddess of Cowries

Living on the Indian Ocean is a sublime experience and I feel fortunate to be able to experience it. Roger’s family, his Mom in particular, has always collected shells.

The noble cowrie has been gathered for its beauty and also used as currency since, well long before I walked this stretch of beach in Southern Africa. To quote Wikipedia directly:

‘The shell most widely used worldwide as currency was the shell of Cypraea moneta, the money cowry. This species is most abundant in the Indian Ocean, and was collected in the Maldive Islands, in Sri Lanka, along the Malabar coast, in Borneo and on other East Indian islands, and in various parts of the African coast from Ras Hafun to Mozambique. Cowry shell money was important at one time or another in the trade networks of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia.’

Since we have been living in our little apartment on the sea, we have also been looking for cowrie shells to decorate our place. Roger’s mother always has a way with them. Finding them easily when I look for hours and come back empty handed. Rog says she once told him that you have to call the cowries.

I liked the idea of that, calling them as if they were children that needed to come home for lunch. I did a little more research and according to Wikipedia (I’m lazy) many African countries used the cowrie as money. Another quote:

‘In the countries on the coast, the shells were fastened together in strings of 40 or 100 each, so that fifty or twenty strings represented a dollar but in the interior they were laboriously counted one by one, or, if the trader were expert, five by five. The shells were used in the more remote parts of Africa until the early 20th century, but then gave way to modern currencies.’

The first day we had good weather I decided to go hunting. I thought that it was a quaint notion. The idea of asking and receiving. I tried it and I was rewarded with an exquisite little pink cowrie with spotty sides that gleamed like a gem stone among the rocks of a tidal pool.

I excitedly ran over to Rog to show him. It’s amazing how much I become like a little kid when I’m at the ocean. The idea of finding little treasures from the sea has me almost giddy with excitement.

As the morning wore on, we swam and came back for breakfast and later went back down to the beach because when you get those wonderful hot windless days, you have to make the most of them.

After having a swim, I grabbed my little plastic bag and started shell hunting. I did an invocation. I asked that any cowrie (or cowry, it seems that both spellings are okay) that would like to be a part of my collection to please make itself known.
I was wandering close to a tidal pool when I saw the most amazing one. Small and spotted, I picked it up with great excitement. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something pink, like a rubber band disappear back into the shell.
I called Rog over who was amazed with the shell and I said, “I think something is living in here.”

“I doubt it,” Rog said and turned it over.

“Really, I think it’s still alive.”

We set it down in a tidal pool to watch and it started to move. He stuck out two tiny little feelers and made his way along the sandy depth of the small pool.

“Told you it’s alive,” I said. “But that means we can’t keep it.” He nodded in agreement. You can’t collect a shell if the inhabitant is still living there. It’s kind of like killing someone to get their apartment.

Anyway, we watched as the little guy made his way to a rock and promptly disappeared under it. I shrugged, happy to see him even if I couldn’t collect him.

Later I was looking for flat black stones to decorate the top of a pot which contains a palm tree my mother-in-law gave us. As I filled my bag I saw what appeared to be a decent sized stone and plucked it up. I couldn’t believe it when I realized it was a cowrie, a large one, bigger than a walnut. I was so excited that I raced down the beach to show Rog. He couldn’t believe it either. It was brown with a large purple spot on the top. He said he’d never seen one that size in all the years he’d combed the beach as a child. I was literally shaking with excitement. I now had the cowrie bug and bad.

I took it into the apartment and rubbed a bit of olive oil on it to make it shine and I stood back and admired it. I think I must have felt what others may have felt through the millennia when finding such a gem washed up, waiting on the beach.
We went back for another swim and soaked in the sun and water which is chilly but crystal clear. On the way back home I was humming and smiling, the influence of the beach is strong on me. I happily walked along the flat sand feeling very good about my day.

Rog and I were almost to the stairs when I saw a very large brownish stone the size of my fist, I almost tripped over it. I suddenly realized it wasn’t a stone but another cowrie, the mother of all cowries. We looked at each other in disbelief and I grabbed it up feeling the hefty weight of it in my palm. I’ve seen ones like this but only at shell shops.

I rubbed some oil on it and placed it with the others and texted my sister-in-law to see if she’d ever seen a cowrie that size. So far, no one I’ve asked has found one that large. Is it because I called the cowries? Is it sheer luck? Or maybe you really do get what you ask for.

Whatever it is, I’m hooked. I found a little book called Nautical shells of the Southern African Coast and I looked up my shell which is appropriately named the giant cowry.

I took one last look at Wikipedia (I told you, I really am lazy) and they went on to describe the sheer volume of shells that were needed to make up a large sum of money. I decided to check out a couple more pages and found one from the British Museum and they explained it like this:

40 shells equal a string. 40 = 1 string
2000 = 1 head = 50 strings
20,000 = 1 bag = 10 heads
(Cowrie counting in Nigeria)

After living here a couple of weeks we’ve now found eighteen cowries in total. I guess I’m not going to get rich anytime soon. Holy cow…rie that’s a lot of shells you’d have to find to get a gold coin or whatever they traded for in those days. Were there more shells back then or maybe just more time to look for them? I don’t know but for me, an hour of searching usually yields one or two at most.

They are delicate and small, none like the giant one that amazed us but I know they’re out there. I’ll keep calling the cowries and see what happens. Then I’ll report back to you.

Now it has become like a game to see who can find the most on any given day. Today I found four to Roger’s pitiful one. I took great delight in calling myself the goddess of cowries. Yes, I’m silly like that, don’t judge me… one day I’ll be the envy of all my friends with my wealth of coweries. Maybe I’ll start a museum or a shell shop or maybe and this is a strong maybe, I’ll just enjoy looking at them and collecting them.

Cheers from South Africa


  1. Hi Shari! Oh I'm so jealous! I used to live on Ocean Beach in San Francisco and I hunted shells and sea glass. I miss it! What fun and life changing experiences lady ahead for you in your life journey along the Indian Ocean! And Keep us posted! ♡