In 1887, two years after acquiring the Congo as his personal kingdom, Leopold II signed a decree organising the currency system, and giving the Belgian franc the status of the single currency. However, the Congolese people were very reluctant to use this new coinage, and it was a long time before the standard currency became generally accepted.
The reason is easy to see. The Congolese have a long history of payment systems which have never accorded an important role to coins. In Africa, just as among numerous other peoples, barter has predominated for many centuries. Over the years, the value of the exchanged goods became fairly stable and certain products became standard means of payment. Salt is one example, but it was always being reused so that it was difficult to store it up. From the 15th century onwards, people switched to metal. However, in the Congo this change was not due to the durability or compact nature of metal, but to the magic power which the Africans had always ascribed to it. Moreover, they did not mint coins: from that time on, the African peoples preferred weapons.
The largest and most striking Congolese weapons are the decorative axes which are called zappozaps and are attributable to a single tribe: the Lulua who live in the south-eastern part of the Congo. The delightful name zappozap is derived from a notorious Lulua bandit chief and slave trader, who appears in countless tribal legends. His followers, originating from various neighbouring tribes, settled in Luluaberg and were renowned for their skill in working iron. Yet at first, the zappozaps were not means of payment in the literal sense of the term. The axes were more in the nature of decoration or signs of prestige, indicating power and carried during parades and ceremonial displays. Their rich decoration or the use of copper alloys distinguished the zappozaps from ‘ordinary’ axes. It would be wrong to describe them as real weapons. The ordinary man could never even dream of owing one, and although they represented wealth, they could not be used to buy anything
Like the example here in the museum, the earliest zappozaps were works of art. The axe blade consists of five struts, all with matching decoration. The axes belonging to the chief are embellished with human figures; those belonging to other dignitaries are just as decorative but simpler in design. Once decorated, the five struts are placed in the fire to weld them together. This gives the axe an ornate and elegant appearance, despite its weight. The finest examples, like the one in our museum have a handle encased in lizard skin.
When the native population saw that Europeans were becoming interested in the zappozaps, the Lulua suddenly began to make these axes in large numbers. Garish and over-decorated examples in polished copper flooded the market and were used for native trade. From then on, the zappozap became a genuine means of payment with which the Lulua could purchase all kinds of luxury goods. Although the ceremonial axes were shipped to Europe on a large scale, the magical power of the weapons never diminished. As mentioned earlier, the reason lies in the material used to make them. The techniques of smelting and forging iron are still a carefully guarded secret. So treat the zappozap with respect, because it was made by a blacksmith, a man of great prestige, just as powerful as a tribal chief or priest.