A Symbol of Culture: Francs Guinéens Paint a Picture of Life in Guinea

by Kaylee Gund

During a recent visit to the Museum’s offsite collections storage, one carving in particular caught my eye — the Nimba (D’mba). After living in Guinea for over a year, I immediately honed in on the familiar polished wood of the Nimba among the other West African pieces.


The Nimba.

The Nimba is a symbol of feminine power and fertility, carried on someone’s shoulders around the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. It wasn’t one of the traditions in the region where I lived, but I still saw the Nimba almost every day in my village on the corner of the 5,000 FG (franc guinéen) note.


The Nimba appears on the corner of a 5,000 FG note.

Among many other traditional symbols, the Nimba has become an expression of national pride, as evidenced by the Guinean bank’s use of it on currency and as its logo. Guinean currency is an interesting mix of national and local identity. Each denomination represents a different culturally distinct region of the country, showing important symbols and economic activities for that region.


A gold mining operation appears on the back of a 500 FG note, paying homage to the major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture.

Haute Guinée, the eastern plateau, is featured on the 500 FG, complete with an image of gold mining on the back. A major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture, gold mining was also an occasional source of exasperation for schoolteachers, as our students would often leave for months at a time during a gold rush and “cherchent l’or,” or “search for gold.”


As you’ve probably noticed, the number of zeros behind monetary amounts in Guinea can be a bit intimidating. Pictured above is a whopping 16,600 FG, worth a little over $2 in the U.S.

What can all this money buy?


Bags of clean drinking water are sold for 500 FG each. Drinking water from the well is ill advised, so this is a worthwhile investment at $0.07.


At the peak of mango season, everyone has more fruit than they know what to do with. It spoils fast with no refrigeration, so piles of mangoes are sold for 2,000 FG (less than $0.30).


Prepared food, like this rice with potato leaf sauce, costs between 5,000 and 7,000 FG for a plate (around $1).

So many mundane things require money that it’s easy to forget what an incredible symbol it can be. Guinean currency gives a glimpse into the many traditions of its different regions, and while there is occasionally ethnic strife between groups and the road to democracy is still rocky, the entire nation is unified in using Guinean francs.

Culture is an incredible thing, and we’re lucky enough to have access to a rich treasure trove of it: from Ancient Egypt to the Amazonian rainforest, even the smallest things can hold great significance.

Next time you’re about to spend a dollar, take a look at what’s on it. You might be surprised!

Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. During her time in the Peace Corps, Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French.

Amazon Scavenger Hunt: a Fun Way to Explore Rainforest Sustainability

Recently my daughter and I were making cookies when she asked me, “Where do chocolate chips come from?”

I considered the glib answer, “From the chocolate chip factory,” but decided to take advantage of a teachable moment and said, “Well, chocolate is made from seeds of the cacao tree that grows in the South American rainforest.”

If you know any six-year-olds, one question inevitably leads to another. So began a conversation about rainforest plants, animals and people that tested the limits of my understanding — all for the love of cookies.


Chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla beans, all from the Amazon.

As we enjoyed our cookies, we talked about other things in our house that came from rainforests. A quick online search later and we were off counting different foods, checking out the furniture and even kicking the tires on the car. As it turns out, a lot of things in our home originate in a rainforest. We easily found 30 items!


Example of mola on a quilt.

 Indigenous peoples sustainably use rainforest resources. Besides food, clothing, tools and homes, some cultures harvest rainforest animals and plants for ceremonial clothing that is passed from one generation to the next. Many cultures trade in non-food items like handmade baskets and bowls, and art produced by some cultures has found its way into our lives. The ornately patterned molas made by the Kuna Indian women of Panama can be found on purses, wall hangings or even quilts.


Example of another mola.

As a consumer, supporting companies and artisans that sustainably harvest these products can make a difference a world away. To raise awareness and enrich your child’s education, why not have your own Rainforest Celebration Day? Get your kids involved and try a rainforest product scavenger hunt or have a rainforest food-tasting party. Feeling crafty? Try making a mola out of fabric you have at home, or if like me you’d probably appliqué yourself to it, try making it out of construction paper instead! Brightly colored craft feathers (chicken, peacock, and pheasant) can be used to make necklaces, arm bands or if you’re really excited, headdresses or crowns for the little princesses in your life. 


Macaw feather headdress.

For more information on indigenous peoples, check out our John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas or the upcoming exhibit Out of the Amazon: Material Culture, Myth and Reality in Amazonia. The Cockrell Butterfly Center offers a taste of the rainforest, literally! Check out the vending machine downstairs, complete with edible bugs. Ask about our Wildlife on Wheels Rainforest topic to bring to your child’s school.

Experience a rainforest close to home with these ideas and your imagination. Happy hunting, and may all your scavenger hunts include cookies!

Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Seventh Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on 12days.hmns.org – we won’t tell).

Many of the exhibits we host here – like Genghis Khan or the Terra Cotta Warriors – present objects from long-dead cultures, and the wonder comes from the experience of coming face-to-face with artifacts that were created so long ago. And when you walk through our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, and contemplate the absolute beauty of the vibrant, intricate feather art and objects on display, it’s easy to forget that the cultures that created these works are very much alive – though also fast disappearing.

Learn more from Adam Mekler, associate curator for Amazonia, who believes, “When a culture disappears, I think an aspect of all humanity disappears.”

Click play to explore the exhibit and discover these vanishing worlds.

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: 12days.hmns.org Happy Holidays!

Vanishing Worlds – Still Vanishing

raoni cropped - Steven
Photograph by Cristina Mittermeier

One of the tribes featured in our exhibit on Amazonian rainforest people is that of the Kayapó people. We also have on display a series of large photographs taken very recently by Cristina Mittermeier. These photographs show daily life among the Kayapó. The title panel of this section of the exhibit carries the title of “Guardians of the Forest,” and displays a portrait of the tribe’s leader, Raoni, a man famous enough to have an institute named after him.

Recently, Raoni’s image also appeared on the BBC world news website.  He was shown together with Sting, who was there to lend his support to the tribe’s long-standing opposition to the construction of a dam on their lands. Initial reports of the Kayapó’s success in opposing the construction of the dam appear to have been premature, with recent reports surfacing in Western media that the project was slated to go ahead anyway. Even though intense media scrutiny has caused this mega-project to have been put on hold, it remains to be seen if it will be permanently shelved. If implemented, it would impact huge swaths of Kayapó lands, including their burial lands and their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In other words, their world would literally vanish in a matter of years as the waters rose and covered their land.

As always, there is another side to the story. Brazil, a huge country with a growing population, faces ever increasing demands for energy. Its efforts to become energy independent, by developing its own sources of energy, have received attention from many a country abroad. The potential for hydro-electric power is immense in Brazil, as shown in the case of the Itaipu dam. However, it is also subject to interference by Mother Nature, as a recent power outage in Brazil, leaving 60 million people in the dark, clearly showed.

Shrunken Head on display at HMNS

Much further to the West, the story of the Shuar people (formerly known as the Jivaro), continues to generate headlines as well. Living in Ecuador, the Shuar are one of a very small number of Amazon tribes who once practiced the custom of shrinking human heads. The Shuar are also part of our current Amazon exhibit, as are two shrunken heads, possibly their handiwork. A recent National Geographic broadcast, part of what is dubbed Expedition week, focused on what could be the only known documentary film ever made on this process. The procedure is shown as taking place in a village, rather than in the field, which has made some surmise that perhaps we might be dealing with a “re-enactment” of this event.  I found it amazing to realize that the footage was considered rare, and unique, given that it was only made in the 1960s.

These two recent episodes of Amazon cultures making the headlines remind us that their world, just like ours, is always in transition. While we can deplore the disappearance of civilization and our lack of understanding of their past, those of us who work in museums can help document and thus preserve customs which are vanishing in front of our eyes. It may very well be that our treatment of the Kayapó in the exhibit will be overtaken by events and that our next write up or exhibit on these people will have to use the past tense when referring to them. Similarly, when we realize that the label “1960’s – era” may imply rare and gone, it emphasizes the need to document what we see today. Museums need not only collect “really ancient stuff”; they should also do so with much more recent materials, indeed materials that may still be abundant today. Collecting such recent items has the additional benefit of being able to collect data on who made the items, when and where they were used, etc. One can only hope that later generations will appreciate our efforts in preserving a trace of cultures now long gone.

It appears that vanishing worlds continue to vanish in front of our own eyes.

Don’t miss the chance to see our exhibit Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon while it is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. With over 100 objects of rare artwork and body costumes used in daily life and rituals and ceremonies, these beautiful pieces show the unique lifestyles of disappearing Amazonian tribes.