ADINKRA are ancient visual symbols created by the Akan of Ghana that represent and convey essential cultural concepts, values and traditional wisdom. As such, each Adinkra often has a corresponding proverb which imbues the symbol with rich meaning. According to Akan oral tradition, Adinkra images came into existence in the early 1800s as a design element on fabric. Traditionally Adinkra cloths were only worn by royalty and spiritual leaders on special occasions such as funerals. Over time and as the Adinkra symbols attracted commercial interest, they have been used more extensively in furniture, pottery, wall and wood carvings, jewelry, T-shirts and so on. A few of the approximately 400 known Adinkra symbols popularly used in Ghana are presented below:
ADINKRAHENE “Chief of the adinkra symbols” – symbol of greatness, charisma and leadership. This symbol is said to have played an inspiring role in the designing of other symbols. it signifies the importance of playing a leadership role.
AKOBEN “war horn” – symbol of vigilance and wariness Akoben is a horn used to sound a battle cry.
AKOFENA “sword of war ” – symbol of courage, valor, and heroism. The crossed swords were a popular motif in the heraldic shields of many former Akan states. The swords can also represent legitimate state authority.
AKOKO NAN “the leg of a hen” – symbol of nurturing and discipline. The full name of this symbol translates to “The hen treads on her chicks, but she does not kill them.” This represents the ideal nature of parents, being both protective and corrective. An exhortation to nurture children, but a warning not to pamper them.
ANANSE NTONTAN “spider’s web” – symbol of wisdom, creativity and the complexities of life. Ananse, the spider, is a well-known character in African folktales.
ASASE YE DURU “the Earth has weight” – symbol of providence and the divinity of Mother Earth. This symbol represents the importance of the Earth in sustaining life.
AYA “fern” – symbol of endurance and resourcefulness. The fern is a hardy plant that can grow in difficult places. “An individual who wears this symbol suggests that he has endured many adversities and outlasted much difficulty.”
BESE SAKA “sack of cola nuts” – symbol of affluence, power, abundance, plenty, togetherness and unity. A widely-used cash crop, the cola nut played an important role in the economic life of Ghana. This symbol also represents the role of agriculture and trade in bringing peoples together.
BI NKA BI “No one should bite the other” – symbol of peace and harmony. This symbol cautions against provocation and strife. The image is based on two fish biting each other tails.
DAME-DAME name of a board game. symbol of intelligence and ingenuity
DENKYEM “crocodile”- symbol of adaptability. The crocodile lives in the water yet breathes the air, demonstrating an ability to adapt to circumstances.
DWENNIMMEN “ram’s horns” – symbol of humility together with strength. The ram will fight fiercely against an adversary, but it also submits humbly to slaughter, emphasizing that even the strong need to be humble.
EBAN “fence” – symbol of love, safety and security. The home to the Akan is a special place. A home which has a fence around it is considered to be an ideal residence. The fence symbolically separates and secures the family from the outside. Because of the security and the protection that a fence affords, the symbol is also associated with the security and safety one finds in love.
EPA “handcuffs” – symbol of law and justice, slavery and captivity. Adolph Agbo, in “Values of Adinkra Symbols” notes that handcuffs were introduced in Africa as a result of the slave trade, and later became popular among chiefs in cuffing offenders of the law. “The symbol reminds offenders of the uncompromising nature of the law. It however discourages all forms of slavery.”
ESE NE TEKREMA “the teeth and the tongue” – symbol of friendship and interdependence. The teeth and the tongue play interdependent roles in the mouth. They may come into conflict, but they need to work together.
FAWOHODIE “independence” – symbol of independence, freedom, emancipation. “From the expression: Fawohodie ene obre na enam. Literal translation: “Independence comes with its responsibilities.”
FIHANKRA “house/compound” – symbol of security and safety. Typical of Akan (Asante) architecture, the communal housing compound has only one entrance and exit.
FOFO “yellow flowered plant” – symbol of jealousy and envy. “When the fofo’s petals drop, they turn into black spiky-like seeds. The Akan liken the nature of this plant to a jealous person.” There is a Akan proverb associated with this symbol: “What the fofo plant wishes is that the gyinantwi seeds turn black.”
GYE NYAME “except for God” – symbol of the supremacy of God. This unique and beautiful symbol is ubiquitous in Ghana. It is by far the most popular for use in decoration, a reflection on the deeply spiritual character of the Ghanaian people
HYE WON HYE “that which does not burn” – symbol of imperishability and endurance. This symbol gets its meaning from traditional priests that were able to walk on fire without burning their feet, an inspiration to others to endure and overcome difficulties.
KETE PA “good bed” – symbol of a good marriage. From the expression that a woman who has a good marriage is said to sleep on a good bed.
MATE MASIE “What I hear, I keep” – symbol of wisdom, knowledge and prudence. The implied meaning of the phrase “mate masie” is “I understand”. Understanding means wisdom and knowledge, but it also represents the prudence of taking into consideration what another person has said.
ME WARE WO “I shall marry you” – symbol of commitment, perseverance. From the expression “No one rushes into the job of mixing the concrete for building the house of marriage.”
MMERE DANE “time changes” – symbol of change, life’s dynamics.
MMUSUYIDEE “that which removes bad luck” – symbol of good fortune and sanctity
MPATAPO “knot of pacification /reconciliation” – symbol of reconciliation, peacemaking and pacification. Mpatapo represents the bond or knot that binds parties in a dispute to a peaceful, harmonious reconciliation. It is a symbol of peacemaking after strife.
NEA ONNIM NO SUA A, OHU “He who does not know can know from learning” – symbol of knowledge, life-long education and continued quest for knowledge.
NEA OPE SE OBEDI HENE “he who wants to be king ” – symbol of service and leadership. From the expression “Nea ope se obedi hene daakye no, firi ase sue som ansa” meaning “He who wants to be king in the future must first learn to serve.”
NKONSONKONSON “chain link” – symbol of unity and human relations. A reminder to contribute to the community, that in unity lies strength
NKYINKYIM “twisting” – symbol of initiative, dynamism and versatility
NSAA a type of hand-woven fabric. symbol of excellence, genuineness, authenticity. The nsaa symbols reflects a saying: “nea onnim nsaa oto n’ago”, which means “He who does not know authentic Nsaa will buy the fakes.” The quality of Nsaa has come to represent quality of workmanship in general.
NSOROMMA “child of the heavens [stars]”- symbol of guardianship. A reminder that God is the father and watches over all people.
NYAME NNWU NA MAWU “God never dies, therefore I cannot die” – symbol of God’s omnipresence and the perpetual existence of man’s spirit. This signifies the immortality of man’s soul, believed to be a part of God. Because the soul rests with God after death, it cannot die.
NYAME YE OHENE “God is King” – symbol of the majesty and supremacy of God.
NYAME BIRIBI WO SORO “God is in the heavens” – symbol of hope. A reminder that God’s dwelling place is in the heaven, where he can listen to all prayers.
NYAME NTI “by God’s grace” – symbol of faith and trust in God.similar to Gye Nyame. This stalk is depicted as the staff of life in many cultures. It symbolizes to the Akan that food is a basis of life and that they could not survive if not for the food that God has placed here on Earth for their nourishment.
NYANSAPO “wisdom knot” – symbol of wisdom, ingenuity, intelligence and patience. An especially revered symbol of the Akan, this symbol conveys the idea that “a wise person has the capacity to choose the best means to attain a goal. Being wise implies broad knowledge, learning and experience, and the ability to apply such faculties to practical ends.”
ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN “Love never loses its way home” – symbol of the power of love
OKODEE MMOWERE “the talons of the eagle” – symbol of strength, bravery, power. The eagle is the mightiest bird in the sky, and its strength is concentrated in its talons. The Oyoko clan, one of the nine Akan clans, uses this symbol as their clan emblem.
ONYANKOPON ADOM NTI BIRIBIARA BEYE YIE “By God’s grace, all will be well” – symbol of hope, providence, faith.
OSRAM NE NSOROMMA “The Moon and the Star” – symbol of love, faithfulness, harmony. This symbol reflects the harmony that exists in the bonding between a man and a woman. Proverb: “Kyekye pe aware.” (The North Star has a deep love for marriage. She is always in the sky waiting for the return of the moon, her husband.)
OWO FORO ADOBE “snake climbing the raffia tree” – symbol of steadfastness, prudence and diligence. Because of its thorns, the raffia tree is a very dangerous challenge to the snake. His ability to climb it is a model of persistence and prudence.
OWUO ATWEDEE “the ladder of death” – symbol of mortality. a reminder of the transitory nature of existence in this world and of the imperative to live a good life to be worthy of a soul in the afterlife
PEMPAMSIE “sew in readiness” – symbol of readiness, steadfastness, hardiness. The design of this symbol resembles the links of a chain, and implies strength through unity as well as the importance of being prepared.
SESA WO SUBAN “Change or transform your character” – symbol of life transformation. This symbol combines two separate adinkra symbols, the “Morning Star” which can mean a new start to the day, placed inside the wheel, representing rotation or independent movement.
TAMFO BEBRE “the enemy will stew in his own juice” – symbol of jealousy and envy
WAWA ABA “seed of the wawa tree” – symbol of hardiness, toughness and perseverance. The seed of the wawa tree is extremely hard. In Akan culture, it is a symbol of someone who is strong and tough. It inspires the individual to persevere through hardship.
WO NSA DA MU A “If your hands are in the dish” – symbol of participatory government, democracy and pluralism. From the aphorism, “Wo nsa da mu a, wonni nnya wo” — “If your hands are in the dish, people do not eat everything and leave you nothing.”
WOFORO DUA PA A “when you climb a good tree” – symbol of support, cooperation and encouragement. From the expression “Woforo dua pa a, na yepia wo” meaning “When you climb a good tree, you are given a push”. More metaphorically, it means that when you work for a good cause, you will get support.
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING:
- The Adinkra dictionary: A visual primer on the language of Adinkra by W. Bruce Willis
- Cloth as Metaphor: (re)reading the Adinkra cloth symbols of the Akan of Ghana by Dr. George F. Kojo Arthur.