Traditional Money - Bagi and Mwali
via Papua New Guinea
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Bagi (necklaces) and Mwali (armbands) - Traditional trading items used in the Milne Bay Kula Ring.

Bagi are red shells strung together and worn as a necklace. It is regarded as being the mark of a Milne Bay person although nowadays it is not uncommon for people from all provinces of Papua New Guinea to be seen wearing a bagi necklace.

Bagi was a principal trading item in the Kula Ring which has been around for 100's of years and has intrigued anthropologists for 80 years or longer.

Kula shells traditionally move through a series of islands, along a particular path. There are two types of shells used in the exchange, white shell armbands (mwali) and red shell necklaces (bagi). The mwali move in a counterclockwise path through the villages in which the various kula partners live. The bagi pass through the same hands, but move clockwise, or the opposite direction to the mwali. Men who do kula have partners on other islands. If we were to begin with any one man, draw a line tracing the path of the shells, as in a picture made by connecting the dots, we would have described a circle leading back to the origin point. A shell makes this circuit in anywhere from two to five years. Men generally know their kula partners whose islands are closest to them, because they sail to these islands to trade, and they host kula sailors who arrive. Those who are more distant are not known personally, but are known by name.

Mwali and bagi are both assessed for their value based on size, colour, and how well they are polished or finished. In addition the shells increase in value with age and both men and shells gain prestige in their association with one another. A man may gain fame and notoriety for having possessed a particularly fine armband; similarly, a necklace may be highly regarded for having been owned by a great man. To be big in Kula is to be big in most other things.

A basic rule is that one cannot keep a valuable bagi or mwali indefinitely nor withdraw it from circulation unless one owns it personally.

Nowadays Bagi can be purchased for cash but in the past it was originally manufactured by the people of Calvados, Sudest and Rossell Islands from the rare oyster shell "chama pacifica imbrica" or "Chama Pacifica Imbricata" and traded in the Kula Ring.   The Mwali originated from Kiriwina in the Trobriand Islands. The Trobriand Islanders also use money created from the leaf of a banana called Doba.

The shells that the Bagi are made from are the rare "Chama Pacifica Imbricata" a relative of the oyster, which can be found at depths of three to more than fifteen metres. The shells are white inside with a narrow rim of red which is the only part used. Pieces of the rim are broken off and ground flat by holding with a green stick and rubbing on a flat rock. A small hole is drilled in the center of each piece and they are threaded onto a stiff wire then ground until they are smooth (which takes several days to do). Once this stage is reached the beads are threaded onto a length of pandanus bush string and polished with coconut oil.

Bagi is also known as soulava , veigun on Woodlark Island.

Kundus, Buai, Bilums
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Created 29 Nov, 1999
Updated 14 Feb, 2012

© 1998 - Trevor Michie

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