Metropole Magazine

Today's Weather: Abuja NG: Partly Cloudy, Day 360|Night 260

25 Feb Written by  Kimberly Ward

An Ode to the Forgotten Kobo

The first time I received coins as change at Shoprite supermarket, I stared at the small metal discs in my hand with interest. Kobos? In Nigeria?

The presence of coins in Abuja is almost non-existent; you will hardly find anyone swapping them as part of transactions anymore. Kobos have become a rare sight: invisible, obsolete, forgotten relics from long ago.

But there once was a time when coins meant something in Nigeria. Although a whole generation of children is growing up that will never see, much less spend kobos, there was a time when coins had a central purpose in the economy.

Many remember fondly when 50 kobo could buy you lunch at school, sweets after school and transport to and from school with change left over; times spent placing a piece of paper over a kobo and shading the outline of the engraved image with a pencil; days when you could use a magnet to locate money you lost, or the joys of finding a coin on the ground, washing it clean and using it to buy treats.

In England, coins are still very much a part of everyday monetary transactions, and take pride of place in the history and culture of the country. Kids whose tooth had fallen out leave it under their pillows, and whilst they sleep, their parents replace the tooth with a one pound coin so that when the gap-toothed children awoke, slid their hands under their pillow and pulled out the gleaming coin, they imagine that the tooth fairy had visited them, swapping their tooth for money.

Telephone booths, ticket machines at train, tube and tram stations, slot machines and amusement arcades all rely on coins to operate, and at Christmas, some families still uphold the tradition of hiding coins in the Christmas pudding and whoever finds it finds luck. The theme of good fortune associated with coins is well known, with everyone from children to adults reciting the familiar ditty ‘find a penny pick it up/all day long you’ll have good luck/give the penny to a friend/and your luck will never end’ whenever they happen upon a penny on the floor.

Piggy banks for loose change is often a child’s first experience with financial responsibility, and flipping a coin to aid decision making is a common practice from the football pitch to the board room. Banks also often issue commemorative coins linked to special royal occasions, and dedicated coin collectors cultivating coin albums abound across the country.

Sayings likes ‘a penny for your thoughts’, ‘a dime for your time’ ‘that’s my two cents’ all point to the significance of coinage in culture, yet Nigeria has succeeded in wiping it all away.

Inflation and the changes in the economy are of course to blame, but it is a sad fact that many people will now only ever understand and appreciate the kind of money that folds and never the type that jingles. The variety of the coloured steel or copper discs featuring nationally significant images engraved on both sides is a norm many around the world take for granted, but not in Nigeria.

Here, kobos are delineated only in some receipts and bank statements, but are largely meaningless. You are expected to forego anything less than N10 owed to you by vendors as an unimportant nuisance, or accept sweets as alternatives. But with goods priced in fives, tens, hundreds and thousands and never in units (you can’t buy a bag of rice say, for N3,558), there’s hardly ever a time when kobos are asked for or received anyway.

The clinking of coins in pockets or bags has long since ceased to be heard nationwide, and the separate coin pockets in purses and wallets have been rendered useless.

But there once was a time when coins were the only currency children handled, when they were lost and found in gutters and drains, backs of sofas or the bottom of drawers, and when the money-pouches of traders were weighed down by clusters of kobos.

There was a time when the Kobo was King, but today it exists only in memories, stories, and the cashiers' drawers at Shoprite supermarket.