Monday, January 21, 2013

How Would You Like to Pay for That?

Last week I said I would talk about the Trobriand Islanders' money. To recap, I told about how the man works to make his wife rich. If he does a good job at this, his father and brother-in-laws would give him spending money of his own.

Red Kula Necklace
Trobriand's have three forms of currency. Unlike most currency, it is not made of paper or metal nor is it in the form of coinage. It is difficult to even call it currency, but it is not a barter system so that is what it is called.

One form of currency is the Kula. It is an exchange of items made of shells. Red shells are traded North and white shells are traded South. In this exchange, shells are the only physical things traded. Really, what all the traders want is prestige. The more one gives, the more others will respect them and thus they create relationships between islands.

This relationship is sometimes described as a marriage with how the traders are to treat each other. However, the trading relationships are passed down through the generations. When a man dies, his son inherits the trade. If the inheriting son is not as honorable or trustworthy as his father, the relationships will be pulled and he will lose all his families prestige.

The next currency is the most important. It is one that can be spent on anything at anytime. It is yams.

Trobriand men spend a large part of their lives growing yams. These yam gardens are the only gardens that they keep and are a sign of their manhood. When a boy becomes a teenager he works for a year in the yam garden of a neighbor. If he is a good worker and honest, the neighbor will give him yams in order to start his own garden.

Once a man has cultivated his yam crop to where he now has two gardens, one for yam money the other for yam food, he can find a wife. If he has a good garden, he will be able to marry a woman with many brothers (important for the next form of currency). After finding a wife, all his money yams belong to his wife. She decides how they are spent and when.

Trobriand Yam House
A good husband is determined by how rich he makes his wife. In order to increase her wealth over the years, he needs to be able to story the yams long term. To do this he needs a yam house, but he can not build the yam house himself. The only way a man can get a yam house is if he is a good husband. If he proves to be such, his father and brother-in-laws will build the yam house for him, if not he goes without.

As soon as a man proves to be a good husband, with a yam house and everything, he can begin to collect the last form of currency from his in-laws. It is the best form of allowance: banana leaf skirts.

Banana leaf skirts, or doba, are purely ceremonial but very important. They are required to be worn at all birth and funeral rituals. The family hosting the event must supply all the guests with skirts. If they do not, they insult the guests. The number of skirts each person gets is also a determinant of a families wealth and goodwill.

Trobriand Woman making a leaf skirt
Women make the grass skirts and give them to their husbands in order for the husband to give to his sisters' and daughters' husbands. Because a family is unable to make all the skirts they will need, they instead use them as money to be spent and then collect them when they need them. The skirts are what the men spend while the women spend yams.

The way that the currency works on the Trobriand Islands encourages in-laws to get along and for men to be honest in their dealings.

So, I would like to know what my readers thought about this post. Please leave a comment!



  1. I can see it now: "I want banana soda, but I'm fresh out of shells. Can I borrow one?" or "Oops, I left my yams at home, loan me one and I'll pay you back tomorrow." Or better, "Hey, we're all meeting over at Joe's tonight. Don't worry about bringing any food, he'll grill for us if we all bring a few skirts for him." Some things just don't float well between cultures, do they? I love this! Don't "shell out" all your dough in one place. Haha!

    1. lol, You are having a lot of fun with this one, aren't you? No, I could not see this working in America.