Where do African currencies get their names from?

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The dinar – which is used today in Algeria, Libya, Sudan and Tunisia – comes from the Latin word denier, which means “containing 10”. The denarius was originally used as currency during the time of the Roman Republic, and the term was subsequently exported to many parts of the world. It has been translated into Greek, Spanish (having dinner means “money”) and in Arabic.

French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) once said that the Mediterranean was “not a civilization, but civilizations piled on top of each other”.

Exchange rate (as of July 12, 2021): 1 € = 159.4 DZD (Algeria); 1 € = 3.2 TND (Tunisia)

Morocco’s official currency, the dirham, takes its name from Greek drakhme. This term designates the Greek currencies which were in circulation in Antiquity, in particular around the Mediterranean basin and in modern Greece, until the arrival of the euro.

In 1959, three years after independence, Morocco abandoned the Moroccan franc and reinstated the dirham as its official currency. Idris I, who was considered the first Moroccan ruler, first introduced it in the 8th century.

Exchange rate (as of July 12, 2021): 1 € = 10.6 MAD (Morocco)

Arab-Muslim influence

Other currencies have names of Arab-Muslim origin. One such example is Mozambique’s currency, the metical. In circulation since 1980, its name is derived from the Arabic unit of measurement, mithqal, which is a unit of mass equal to 4.25 g.

The same goes for the ouguiya – the Mauritanian currency – which comes from the Arabic word awqiya, which means ounce, or between 15 and 34g.

A name can have several origins. This is the case of the Malagasy ariary, derived from the Arabic word al ryal. The rial is the official currency of some countries in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia. The term comes from Portuguese real, which in this context can be translated as royal, referring – as for the franc – to seigniorage.

Colonial heritage

The period of European colonization profoundly transformed the continent’s monetary systems, starting with the CFA franc, which is still “perceived as one of the vestiges of the Françafrique“, According to French President Emmanuel Macron. Françafrique refers to the opaque links between France and its former African colonies.

The CFA franc is currently used in 14 countries in West and Central Africa. In addition, the acronym CFA has a different meaning in these two areas. It is called the franc of the African Financial Community in West Africa and Franc of Financial Cooperation in Central Africa.

Exchange rate (as of July 12, 2021): € 1 = 656 XOF (West Africa) and € 1 = 656 XAF (Central Africa)

Likewise, the acronym CFA has not had the same connotation throughout history. When it was created in 1945, it meant franc of the French Colonies of Africa. From 1958 to 1960, he became the franc of the French Community of Africa. Later, once decolonization began, the F in French disappeared and was replaced by f for financial.

The word “frank” is often attributed to two origins: some believe that it comes from the German word free (free) while others believe it dates back to the year 1360, when the King of France – John II the Good – had the first francs minted with the Latin phrase Francorum rex (“the king of the Franks”).

The franc is also used in countries outside the CFA zone: Djibouti, Guinea, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Throughout the 20th century, the Congolese franc was the official currency of the various political entities that existed, except between 1967 and 1997, when Mobutu Sese Soko created Zaire.

British colonization also left its mark; for example, with the Egyptian pound and the South Sudanese pound. The term “pound” refers to a unit of mass. One pound was equivalent to approximately 327 g in the Roman metric system.

The shilling is also a vestige of the British passage to Africa. The word is derived from the old English word schilling, which comes from the Latin word solidus. The solidus was a Roman currency dating back to the 4th century. The shilling is currently in circulation in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Somalia.

Exchange rate (as of July 12, 2021): 1 € = 18.58 EGP (Egypt)

  • Spanish and Portuguese colonizations

The dobra – the official currency of São Tomé and Principe – comes from the Portuguese word dobrão, which means duplicate. The doubloon was a currency used in the Iberian Peninsula between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Sierra Leone’s currency, the leone, is derived from the Spanish word leone (Lion). The Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra named this country in 1462 and the name of the country means “mountain of the lion”.

South Africa, after withdrawing from the Commonwealth in the early 1960s, chose to abandon the South African pound and adopt the rand as its official currency.

Word rand, which comes from Afrikaans and is derived from Dutch, refers to the word Witwatersrand – a chain of hills extending for about 280 km.

Exchange rate (as of July 12, 2021): € 1 = ZAR 16.85 (South Africa)

Several currencies have indigenous origins. The Eritrean currency, the nakfa, has a highly symbolic meaning. Nakfa is the name of a town in the north of the country where the Popular Front for the Liberation of Eritrea celebrated its first significant victory against the Ethiopian government during the War of Independence (1961-1991).

Ghana’s currency, the cedi, is also a reference to national history. Cedi Means “small shell” or “cowrie” in the Akan language, spoken by more than nine million people in the region. In West Africa, seashells – especially cowries – have long been used as a bargaining chip.

Other African currencies have an almost literal meaning for silver (metal). These include the Ethiopian birr, which comes from Amharic, the country’s official language along with English; the lilangeni (Eswatini); and the rupee, which means “forged money” – from the Sanskrit word rupee. The rupee is used in Mauritius and the Seychelles, both of which have large populations on the Indian subcontinent.

Botswana – a semi-arid country partially covered by the Kalahari Desert – has a currency called the pula, which comes from the word tswana pula (rain).

Finally, some currencies have a geographical origin. Loti, from Lesotho, is the unique form of Maloti-Maluti in South Sotho (a language of southern Africa), which refers to a mountain range that runs through the country and part of South Africa.

The Angolan kwanza is derived from the Cuanza River (or Kwanza River) – one of the main rivers in the country.

The naira is also indirectly named after the Niger River, the third largest river in Africa which gave rise to the name “Nigeria”. The British government coined the term in 1886 in reference to the Niger River.

Finally, Kwacha comes from Nyanja, a language spoken in Zambia and Malawi. Both countries adopted it as the name of their currency after independence.



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