Adinkra symbols

Adinkra symbols recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray, 1927

Adinkra are symbols that represent concepts or aphorisms. Adinkra are used extensively in fabrics and pottery among the Ashantis of Ashanti Kingdom and the baoules who historically migrated to Ghana. They are incorporated into walls and other architectural features. Fabric adinkra ary woodcut sign writing as well as screen printing.[citation needed] Adinkra symbols appear on some traditional Akan goldweights. The symbols are also carved on stools for domestic and ritual use. Tourism has led to new departures in the use of the symbols in such items as T-shirts and jewellery.

Calabash adinkra stamps carved in Ntonso, Ashanti.

The symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. There are many different symbols with distinct meanings, often linked with proverbs. In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, they were one of the means for "supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief".[1]


1817 Adinkra mourning cloth

Adinkra, according to oral tradition, was originally the name of a King of Gyaaman Adinkra cloth was the mourning cloth worn by the King of Gyaaman after his people were defeated and captured by the then Asantehene. It is said that the guild designers who designed this cloth for the kings were forced to teach the Asantes the craft. King Adinkra Kofi’s first son, Adinkra Apaa, who was said to be well versed in the Adinkra craft, was forced to teach more about Adinkra cloths. Oral accounts have attested to the fact that Adinkra Apaa taught the process to a man named Kwaku Dwaku in a town near Kumasi. [2] [3][4][5]

The Englishman Thomas Edward Bowdich collected a piece of adinkra cloth in 1817, which demonstrates that adinkra pieces existed at least since this time.[6] Bowdich obtained this cotton cloth in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Empire. The patterns were printed using carved calabash stamps and a vegetable-based dye. The cloth features fifteen stamped symbols, including nsroma (stars), dono ntoasuo (double Dono drums), and diamonds. It is now in the British Museum.

1825 Adinkra cloth

The next oldest piece of adinkra textile was sent in 1825 from the Elmina Castle to the royal cabinet of curiosities in The Hague, in response to an assignment from Major F. Last, who was appointed temporary Commander of Dutch Gold Coast. He probably had the cloth commissioned for William I of the Netherlands, which would explain why the Coat of arms of the Netherlands is in the centre. The other motifs are typical of the older adinkras. It is now on display in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.[7]

Adinkra cloth[edit]

Adinkra cloths were traditionally only worn by royalty and spiritual leaders for funerals and other very special occasions. In the past they were hand printed on undyed, red, dark brown or black hand-woven cotton fabric depending on the occasion and the wearer's role; nowadays they are frequently mass-produced on brighter coloured fabrics.[citation needed]

Anthony Boakye uses a comb to mark parallel lines on an adinkra cloth in Ntonso, Ashanti.
Anthony Boakye prints an adinkra cloth with a calabash stamp in Ntonso, Ashanti.

The present centre of traditional production of adinkra cloth is Ntɔnso, 20 km northwest of Kumasi.[8] Dark Adinkra aduro pigment for the stamping is made there, by soaking, pulverizing, and boiling the inner bark and roots of the badie tree (Bridelia ferruginea)[9] in water over a wood fire. Once the dark colour 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. They measure between five and eight centimetres square. They have a handle on the back, and the stamp itself is slightly curved, so that the dye can be put on with a rocking motion.

Symbols listed by Rattray[edit]

Robert Sutherland Rattray recorded a sample of fifty three adinkra symbols and their meanings in his Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford, 1927):

Symbols recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray
List of symbols and Information
Number Symbol Name Literal Meaning Further Details Related Symbols
1 Gyawu Atiko the back of Gyawu's head Gyawu was a sub-chief of Bantama who at the annual Odwira ceremony is said to have had his hair shaved in this fashion
2 AKOMA NTOSO the joined hearts
3 Epa handcuffs No. 16.
4 Nkyimkyim the twisted pattern
5 Nsirewa cowries
6 Nsa from a design of this name found on nsa cloths
7 Mpuannum five tufts (of hair)
8 Duafe the wooden comb
9 DAME-DAME name of a board game symbol of intelligence and ingenuity
10 Aya the fern the word also means 'I am not afraid of you', 'I am independent of you' and the wearer may imply this by wearing it
11 Aban a two-storied house, a castle this design was formerly worn by the King of Ashanti alone
12 Nkotimsefuopua certain attendants on the Queen Mother who dressed their hair in this fashion. Similar to a swastika.
13 Sankofa turn back and fetch it No. 27
14 Sankofa turn back and fetch it No. 27
15 Kuntinkantan bent and spread out kuntinkantan is used in the sense of 'do not boast, do not be arrogant'
16 Epa handcuffs No. 3
17 Nkonsonkonson links of a chain No. 44
18 Nyame dua an altar to the Sky God
19 Agyindawuru the agyin tree's gong the juice of a tree of that name is sometimes squeezed into a gong and is said to make the sound pleasing to the spirits
20 Sepow a knife thrust through the cheeks of a man the man is about to be executed to prevent his invoking of a curse on the king
21 Adinkira 'hene the Adinkira king 'chief' of all these Adinkira designs No. 34
22 Fihankra the circular house
23 Papani amma yenhu Kramo The (large number of) people who do good prevents us knowing who really are Mohammedans as adherents of Islam are enjoined to do good works in the community, and increasing numbers of non-Muslims are also doing so, we can no longer use that criterion to distinguish those Muslims living amongst us
24 Mmrafo ani ase the keloids on a Hausa man
25 Musuyidie something to remove evil a cloth with this design stamped upon it lay beside the sleeping couch of the King of Ashanti, and every morning when he rose he placed his left foot upon it three times
26 Nyame, biribi wo soro, ma no me ka me nsa O God, everything which is above, permit my hand to touch it the pattern was stamped on paper and hung above the lintel of a door in the palace. The King of Ashanti used to touch lintel, then his forehead, then his breast, repeating these words three times
27 [None listed] No. 13
28 Akam an edible plant, possibly a yam
29 Se die fofoo pe, ne se gyinantwi abo bedie what the yellow-flowered fofoo plant wants is that the gyinantwi seeds should turn black An Ashanti saying. One of the cotton cloth designs bears the same name. The fofoo, the botanical name of which is Bidens pilosa, has a small yellow flower, which, when it drops its petals, turns into a black spiky seed. Said of a jealous person.
30 Mmra Krado the Hausa man's lock
31 Dwenini aben the ram's horns
32 Dono ntoasuo the double dono drums
33 Ma te; Masie I have heard (what you have said); I have hidden it this extols the virtue of being able to keep a confidence
34 Adinkira hene The Adinkra King No. 21
35 Nyame nwu na ma wu May Nyame die before I die
36 Hye wo nhye He who would burn you be not burned No. 49
37 Gye Nyame 'Except God' or 'Only God'
38 [None listed] No. 26
39 Ohene niwa (in) the king's little eyes To be in the king's favour
40 Akoben the war-horn
41 Kwatakye atiko at the back of Kwatakye's head Kwatakye was a war captain of one of the Ashanti kings; at the Odwira ceremony he is said to have cut his hair after this fashion
42 Akoma a heart, with a cross in the centre
43 Ohen' tuo the king's gun
44 [None Listed] No. 17
45 Obi nka obie I offend no one without a cause
46 BI NKA BI no one should bite the other
47 Akoma the heart
48 Nsoroma a child of the Sky referring to the saying: Oba Nyankon soroma te Nyame so na onte ne ho so, 'Like the star, the child of the Supreme Being, I rest with God and do not depend upon myself.'
49 Nsoromma Child of the Heavens the pattern was on the King of Ashanti's pillow
50 [None Listed] copied from Europeans
51 Kodie mmowerewa the eagle's talons
52 Dono the dono drum
53 Akoko nan tia 'ba, na nkum 'ba A hen treads upon chickens but does not kill them


  1. ^ Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1993). In my father's house : Africa in the philosophy of culture (1st paperback edition 1993. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506852-8.
  2. ^ Adinkra: An Epitome of Asante Philosophy and History by Dickson Adome, Erik Appau Asante, Steve Kquofi, July 2016
  3. ^
  4. ^ "History and Origin of Adinkra Symbols". 25 April 2015.
  5. ^ "Adinkra Symbols and the Rich Akan Culture". 27 August 2014.
  6. ^ Adinkra cloth history Archived 2010-06-11 at the Wayback Machine. University at Buffalo.
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-03-22. Retrieved 2011-04-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) clickable image on right links to description
  8. ^ "Cool Planet - Oxfam Education". Oxfam GB. Archived from the original on 2012-07-29. Retrieved 2011-04-16.
  9. ^ Jansen, P. C. M. (2005). Dyes and Tannins. PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa). p. 102. ISBN 9057821591. Retrieved 2013-06-19.

Further reading[edit]

  • The Adinkra dictionary: A visual primer on the language of Adinkra by W. Bruce Willis ISBN 0-9661532-1-9
  • Cloth as Metaphor: (re)reading the Adinkra cloth symbols of the Akan of Ghana by Dr. George F. Kojo Arthur.
  • Legon, Ghana: Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems, 2001. 187, [6], p. 29 cm. ISBN 9988-0-0791-4
  • African Accents: Fabrics and Crafts to Decorate Your Home by Lisa Shepard ISBN 0-87341-789-5
  • Adinkra Symbols: To say good bye to a dead relative or friend by Matthew Bulgin
  • Adinkra: An Epitome of Asante Philosophy and History by Dickson Adome, Erik Appau Asante, Steve Kquofi

External links[edit]