Adinkra symbols are a unique representation of cultural expressions, concepts, values and traditional mythology of the Akan of Ghana and Gyaman of Ivory Coast. The adinkra symbols represent popular proverbs and maxims, record historical events, express particular attitudes or behavior related to depicted figures, or concepts uniquely related to abstract shapes. It is one of several traditional cloths produced in the region.
There are divergent views about the origin of Adinkra symbols. Attempts to trace the origin of the symbols have elicited diverse opinions each with their own claims about originality and authenticity. Oral traditions maintained by some craftsmen in Asante (at Asokwa and Ntonso, the two principal centres of Adinkra designing) attribute the introduction of the Adinkra symbols to two mutually exclusive sources. Damuah, for example, observed the claim by some Asante artisans that the “very early craftsmen who used adinkra patterns in cloth learnt the trade from ‘Odomankom’—of God” (Damuah, 1982: 14; Danquah, 1944: 124).
Some artisans, on the other hand, claimed the symbols were adopted from Gyaman (an Akan group found in present-day Cote d’Ivoire) as a commemoration of the defeat of their king called Kofi Adinkra (Damuah, 1982:13; Martino, 2018). In keeping with this claim, the king, Kofi Adinkra, provoked the Asante to war in 1818 when he made a replica of the sacred Golden Stool of Asante. Subsequent to the defeat of Gyaman, Asante artisans, it is claimed, discovered the patterns at the court of Gyaman.
While scholars support the historical narrative that attributes the introduction of Adinkra symbols to Asante, in particular to the aftermath of the 1818 battle with Gyaman, different opinions have been expressed about the origin of the symbols in general. Danquah, for example, expressed the view that Adinkra symbols were age-old Akan funerary ideographical symbols used to bid goodbye to the soul of the deceased (Danquah, 1944: 124). He therefore argued that the symbols were evidence of cultural remnants of the erstwhile great Sudanic Kingdoms from which the Akan had migrated to their present locations.
Rattray, however, suggested an Islamic source for the introduction of the symbols. He maintained that many of the symbols are Islamic in nature and might have come through contacts with Muslim merchants during the trans-Saharan trade with the Akan. He expressed the view that the symbols may originally have been amulet designs perhaps of the Tuareg Arabs (Rattray, 1927: 269-294).
Although the actual origin of the symbols seems illusive, it is fair to assert that Akan artisans (especially Adinkra cloth stampers at Asokwa and Ntonso) have over the centuries invested creativity into Adinkra symbolism so that we might argue that they represent a uniquely Akan heritage.
The Adinkra Cloth
Adinkra cloth is more widely available today, although the traditional methods of production are very much in use. The traditional ink (adinkra aduru) used for stamping is obtained by boiling the bark of the Badie tree with iron slag. Adinkra cloth is used in Ghana for special occasions such as weddings and initiation rites. Some Adinkra cloth in Ghana is specifically used for funeral dress. In Ghana, the people revere their ancestors. These mourning robes printed with the sacred symbols show expressions of respect. The word Adinkra means farewell. So the wearing of the mourning robe is a way for the person to say goodbye to the departed. Since ancestors are held in such high esteem in Ghana, some of the most exquisite examples of Adinkra cloth are worn at funerals.
Damuah, C. (1982). Traditional symbols as a source of textile designing in Ghana (BA Thesis). Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.
Danquah, J.B. (1944). The Akan Doctrine of God: A fragment of Gold Coast ethics and religion. London: Frank Cass.
Martino, A.J. (2018). Stamping history: Stories of social change in Ghana’s Adinkra cloth (PhD Thesis). University of Michigan, USA.
Rattray, R.S. (1927). Religion and Art of Asante. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Contemporary Journal of African Studies 2019; 6 (1): 46-58