Adinkra Symbols and the Rich Akan Culture

Adinkra in 1817
Adinkra in 1817

Today, we will talk about Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The Adinkra symbols are believed to originate in Gyaman, a former kingdom in modern day Côte d’Ivoire.  According to an Ashanti (Asante) legend, Adinkra was the name of a king of the Gyaman kingdom, Nana Kofi Adinkra.  King Adinkra was defeated and captured in a battle.  According to the legend, Nana Adinkra wore patterned cloth, which was interpreted as a way of expressing his sorrow on being taken to Kumasi, the capital of Asante.  He was finally killed and his territory was annexed to the kingdom of Asante.  The Asante people, around the 19th century, took to painting of traditional symbols of the Gyamans onto cloth, a tradition which has remained to this day.

Adinkra work, 1825
Adinkra work, 1825

The arrival of the adinkra in Akan culture seems to date as far back as 1817, when the English T.E. Bowdich collected a piece of adinkra cotton cloth from the city of Kumasi.  The patterns on it were printed using carved calabash stamps and a vegetable-based dye.  The cloth featured fifteen stamped symbols, including nsroma (stars), dono ntoasuo (double Dono drums), and diamonds, and is currently hosted at the British Museum in London.

Sankofa symbol
Sankofa symbol

Adinkra symbols are visual representation of concepts and aphorism developed by the Akan people of Ghana.  Adinkra symbols are extensively used in fabrics, pottery, logos, and advertising.  They can also be found on architectural buildings, as well as on traditional Akan gold weights, and sculptures as well as stools used for traditional rituals.  The adinkra symbols are not just decorative objects, or drawings, but actual messages conveying ancient traditional wisdom relevant to aspects of life or the environment.  A lot of the Adinkra symbols have meanings linked to proverbs, such as the sankofa symbol.  Sankofa, in the Twi language, translates in English to ” reach back and get it” (santo return; koto go; fato look, to seek and take) or the Adinkra symbol of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back, or of a stylised heart shape.  It is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”  Other Adinkra symbols depict historical events, human behavior and attitudes, animal behavior, plant life, and objects’ shapes.

Adinkra means ‘goodbye’ or ‘farewell’ in the Twi language of the Akan ethnic group, to which the Asante belong.  No wonder the Akan people, and particularly the Asante, wore clothes decorated with Adinkra symbols mostly for funerals as a way to show their sorrow, and to bid farewell to the deceased.

Some Adinkra symbols
Some Adinkra symbols

Adinkra cloths were traditionally only worn by royalty and spiritual leaders for funerals and special occasions.  They were also hand printed on undyed, red, dark brown, or black hand-woven cotton fabric depending on the occasion and the wearer’s status.  Today, adinkra is worn by anyone, women, men or children, and it is frequently mass-produced on brighter colored fabrics.  The 3 most important funerary Adinkra are: the dark – brown (kuntunkuni), the brick – red (kobene), and the black (brisi).  There are however, other forms of which cannot be properly called mourning cloth. Their bright and light backgrounds classify them as Kwasiada Adinkra or Sunday Adinkra meaning fancy clothes which cannot be suitable for funerary contents but appropriate for most festive occasions or even daily wear.

Adinkra symbols and their meaning
Adinkra symbols and their meaning

The center of traditional production of adinkra cloth is Ntonso, 20 km northwest of Kumasi, the city where the Englishman was first given it in 1817.  Dark Adinkra aduro pigment for the stamping is made in Ntonso, by soaking, pulverizing, and boiling the inner bark and roots of the badie tree (Bridelia ferruginea) in water over a wood fire.  Once the dark color is released, the mixture is strained, and then boiled for several more hours until it thickens.  The stamps are carved out of the bottom of a calabash piece, and measure on average 5 to 8 cm2.

Enjoy the video below on Adinkra, and the articles on Adinkra symbols, Adinkra in Ntonso and the article on The 21st Century Voices of the Ashanti Adinkra and Kente Cloths of Ghana with gorgeous images of the process of making Adinkra stamps and clothes, and lastly GhanaCulture.

Proverbe Bambala sur l’ingratitude / Bambala proverb on ingratitude

Le Baobab / The baobab tree
Le Baobab / The baobab tree

Coupes-tu l’arbre qui t’a sauvé le jour ou tu as fui le buffle? (Proverbe Bambala – République Démocratique du Congo (RDC)).

Do you cut the tree that saved you the day you were running away from the buffalo? (Bambala proverb – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)).

Lion and Baboon


BABOON, it is said, once worked bamboos, sitting on the edge of a precipice, and Lion stole upon him.  Baboon, however, had fixed some round, glistening, eyelike plates on the back of his head.  When, therefore, Lion crept upon him, he thought, when Baboon was looking at him, that he sat with his back towards him, and crept with all his might upon him.  When, however, Baboon turned his back towards him, Lion thought that he was seen, and bid himself.  Thus, when Baboon looked at him, he crept upon him.*  When he was near him Baboon looked up, and Lion continued to creep upon him. Baboon said (aside), “Whilst I am looking at him he steals upon me, whilst my hollow eyes are on him.”
When at last Lion sprung at him, he lay (quickly) down upon his face, and Lion jumped over him, falling down the precipice, and was dashed to pieces.

*Whilst Baboon did this, Lion came close upon him.

South African Folk Tales, by James A. Honey, 1910, Baker & Taylor Company.

Fasilides Castle: a Pure Gem of Ethiopia’s Rich History

Map of Ethiopia
Map of Ethiopia

Throughout human history, every great empire has had great builders and phenomenal architectural fits: The Romans with Emperor Titus who built the Colosseum, the Inca builders of Machu Picchu, the Egyptian pharaohs with the great sphinx of Giza and the great pyramids, the first emperor of China and the Ming dynasty with the Great Wall of China.  However, few today know of the Abyssinian builder Fasilides and his work.

Ethiopian Emperor Fasilides is one of most remarkable rulers of Abyssinia, the ancient name of Ethiopia.  A member of the Solomonic dynasty, emperor Fasilides ruled over Abyssinia from 1632 to 1667.  He founded the city of Gondar in 1636 which became the capital of Abyssinia, in the northwestern part of Ethiopia.  He was known as Alam Sagad or ‘To whom the world bows.’  Today, thousands bow to his work, and his footprints have marked the history of Ethiopia forever.

Fasilides' Castle
Fasilides’ Castle

Among the buildings he constructed there are the beginnings of the complex later known as Fasil Ghebbi, as well as some of the earliest of Gondar’s famous 44 churches: Adababay Iyasus, Adababay Tekle Haymanot, Atatami Mikael, Gimjabet Maryam, Fit Mikael, and Fit Abbo.  Fasilides is also credited with building seven stone bridges in Ethiopia.  Sebara Dildiy (broken bridge in Amharic) was one of two stone bridges built over the Blue Nile River during Fasilides reign.  Sebara Dildiy was later repaired during Emperor Menelik II‘s reign in 1901.  Emperor Fasilides also built the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Zion at Axum.  Fasilides’ church is known today as the “Old Cathedral” and stands next to a newer cathedral built by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Fasilides' Bath
Fasilides’ Bath

When King Fasilides made Gondar the seat of his empire in 1636, he constructed a palace that would eventually sprawl into a large complex, as succeessors added their own buildings to the compound.  Set in the heart of what is now one of Ethiopia’s largest cities, the palace complex is a mixture of beautifully-preserved period architecture with European and Moorish influences, and rambling ruins.  Interestingly, Fasilides’ Castle itself is the best-preserved, with its lower halls, reservoirs and steam-baths, remains of kitchens and stables, and even enclosures for leopards and lions that used to grace the grounds.  The castle is located near the city center.  Its structure is purely made of stone.  Today, Fasilides baths are used for baptism during the Timkat festival, the epiphany, in late January; they are only filled with water for the festival.  The castle can be found in Gondar, Amhara regionFasilides’ Castle is definitely a representation of Ethiopia’s great and rich history.


Proverbe Congolais sur l’Ingratitude / Congolese Proverbe on Ingratitude

Singe / Monkey

On ne lave pas la figure du singe, c’est dangereux (Proverbe Mongo/Bangala – Republique Democratique du Congo (RDC)). –  N’aidez pas les ingrats.

Do not wash the monkey’s face, it is dangerous (Mongo/Bangala proverb – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)). –  Do not help ingrates.

Rudyard Kipling ‘If’

Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling

I know Rudyard Kipling is not an African, but I always liked his poem ‘If‘.  I first read it in secondary school, and to me it has always represented a way of living life without being too frazzled.  This symbolizes a way of living, that we should all aspire to.  Kipling apparently wrote it as advice to his son.  There is so much stoicism in it.  Enjoy!!


By Rudyard Kipling

(‘Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies)

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Source: A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)

Proverbe Libinza sur l’amitie / Libinza Proverb on Friendship

Une chenille / a caterpillar
Une chenille / a caterpillar

Beaucoup de chenilles, peu d’huile (Proverbe Libinza – République Démocratique du Congo (RDC)). –  Trop d’amis, trop peu d’amitié.

Many caterpillars, little oil (Libinza Proverb – Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)). –  Too many friends, too little friendship.