King’s museum volunteer, Rachel tells us about one of her favourite objects in the current exhibition; a Yoruban Aroko:
As part of #MuseumWeek, let’s #zoom in on one of the objects in the current MacGregor exhibition…
Strange as it might seem, this simple object hides a secret message.
Created by the Yoruba people in the late nineteenth century in what is now Nigeria, this is an Aroko; an old Yoruba way of communication over long distances, often between the most elite people in society. Aroko involved sending an item, or group of items, with symbolic meaning to somebody else through a messenger. Sometimes they were wrapped in leaves or a cloth to hide the message from the messenger, just as a letter is sent in an envelope.
So what is the hidden message in this aroko? It’s not easy to work out. The Yoruba word ‘efa’ means both ‘six’ and ‘attracted’ so the six cowrie shells nearest the knot in the string could signify that the sender and the recipient are attracted to one another. The two cowrie shells facing the other way however could mean that they are no longer friends.
Add to this the feather, which is believed to refer to conversation, and the long string believed to refer to a long distance and we can start to work out what the message is. It would seem then that it’s about friendship over a long distance, the breaking of that friendship, and the need to meet and have a conversation, perhaps to make amends.
There’s another interesting tale to be told about this object. Money cowrie shells like these aren’t found off the coast of West Africa but come from much further afield. During the slave trade, Europeans collected cowrie shells off the coast of the Maldives and imported them to West Africa where they used them to buy slaves. As a result, the shells became very common in Yorubaland and were widely used as currency there, as well as for divination and creating arokos such as this one.
Later, following the Industrial Revolution, Europeans imported the shells again for a while, this time from East Africa in order to buy palm oil to use for making candles and lubricating machines. However, we may never know whether the shells in this aroko came from the Maldives or East Africa.
And so, by zooming in on just one object, we can discover stories from far and wide. This unassuming cluster of shells can take us from the transatlantic slave trade to candle-making, and from collecting shells in the Maldives to a personal message of friendship.