are visual symbols, originally created by the Akan of Ghana and the
Gyaman of Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa, that represent concepts or
aphorisms. Adinkra are used on fabric, walls, in pottery, woodcarvings
and logos. Fabric adinkra are often made by woodcut sign writing as
well as screen printing. They also can be used to communicate evocative
messages that represent parts of their life or those around them. There
are many different symbols all have unique looks and meanings.
adinkra symbols of West Africa also represent popular proverbs and
maxims, record historical events, express particular attitudes or
behaviour related to depicted figures, or concepts uniquely related to
abstract shapes. It is one of several traditional cloths produced in
the region â€“ the other well known cloths
being kente and adanudo.
are some of the more popular adinkra west african symbols.
Ben - the 'war horn'.
represents a state of readiness, vigilance, and wariness.
refers, in essence, to an instantaneous response to a call-to-arms. The
symbol is based on a traditional war chief's horn which was embellished
with the jaw bones of defeated enemies It is said that such a horn
sings the praises of the chief through the jaws of his enemies.
nyame", Adinkra symbol meaning "except for what God allows to happen"
or "Unless God allows it to happen"
- the 'drum".
represents goodwill and diplomacy.
can mean either the word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates
in English to "go back and take" (Sanko- go back, fa- take) or the
Asante Adinkra symbol. 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."
- the 'crocodile'.
crocodile lives in the water and yet he breathes air"
â€“ an example of adaptation to two
Nka Bi - 'Bite not one another'.
represents harmony and peace.
related proverb warns against provoking others into retaliation
â€“ "If you don't harm someone, they will
have no reason to harm you".
Saka - 'bunch of Kola Nuts'.
bese, or kola nut, was a favourite treat amongst the northern Akan
tribes. It was a symbol of affluence and a major item of trade.
represents creativity and wisdom.
Ntoaso - 'Linked hearts'.
represents agreement and understanding.
Nan - the 'hen's leg'.
represents parental protection, mercy, and nurturing.
related proverb is "the hen treads on her chicks but she does not kill
them" - the protective nature of parents for their offspring. Symbol is
formed from a hen leg and spur.
Nwu Na Mawu - 'If God dies, so shall I.
represents the immortality of the human soul.
proverb is interpreted as "as God never dies, so my soul never dies"
â€“ after death the soul becomes one with
- 'faith in God'.
Also known as Adwera - a river plant.
represents consecration, cleanliness, chastity, purity, and faith in
proverb related to Adwera says that "the water of life sustains through
its purity", a recommendation to the life of the virtuous and pious.
The Turkana are a nomadic people that originated from Northern Uganda
and eventually migrated into Kenya some 400 years ago. With their
nomadic lifestyle, the Turkana developed a loose and flexible culture,
not as structured as that of the Akans. They consider animals the
ultimate symbol of wealth or affluence. A person may own vast stretches
of land, but unless that person owns livestock, too he is considered
poor. They share the practice of cutting the ears of humans and animals
with other nomadic groups like the Masaai. The cutting act symbolizes
“separation”, so when a child dies, the child next in line
will have the tip of his ears cut off in order to
“separate” him from death. The dead are buried facing east
towards the rising sun to symbolize the beginning of their new life
because the sun is a symbol of life. These are bits and pieces of
Turkana symbolism not unlike in many other cultures, deeply embedded
into the fabrics of their daily lives.
Color Symbolism in African Symbols
There are as many similarities as there are peculiarities in the use of
color among the different cultural groups in Africa as each color
conveys unique information about each particular group’s way of
life. It is easier to simply cite some well known examples of these
many color symbolisms. Mourning generally has two official colors,
depending on whether the deceased is young or old. People wear black to
the funeral of a person who died young, signifying the pain of losing a
loved one who has not yet accomplished his task on earth and therefore
has not had the chance to prepare for an easy passage into the land of
the ancestors. White on the other hand is worn to the funeral of an old
person as a symbol of celebration for his easy passage to the land of
the ancestors. In Nigeria, red holds a very powerful religious
significance and is therefore worn by the chief priest of the local
shrine in performance of his official duties.
Animal Symbolism In African Calture
The use of animal symbolism in African art is intricately woven into
the fabric of their culture. Animals signify human character traits and
are therefore used in abundance in many African artworks, including
wood carvings and embroidered clothing. The lion symbolizes royalty and
strength; the female lion represents fierce motherhood and protection;
the camel is a symbol of sobriety; the leopard stands for courage and
aggression; the elephant symbolizes dignity, patience and wisdom.
There are as many symbol systems in Africa as there are cultural
sub-groups. Truly understanding and appreciating even a few of these
symbolic systems will require total dedication from anyone who wishes
to study them in-depth.