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African Symbols

Adinkra 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.

African Symbols and their meanings

The 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 – the other well known cloths being kente and adanudo.

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Here are some of the more popular adinkra west african symbols.

Ako Ben

Ako Ben - the 'war horn'.

Symbol represents a state of readiness, vigilance, and wariness.

It 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.

gye nyame

Gye nyame", Adinkra symbol meaning "except for what God allows to happen" or "Unless God allows it to happen"

African Symbol

Dono - the 'drum".

Symbol represents goodwill and diplomacy.

sankofa symbol

Sankofa Symbol

Sankofa 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."

Denkyem Crocodile

Denkyem - the 'crocodile'.

Symbol represents adaptability.

"The crocodile lives in the water and yet he breathes air" – an example of adaptation to two different environments.

west african symbol

Bin Nka Bi - 'Bite not one another'.

Symbol represents harmony and peace.

The related proverb warns against provoking others into retaliation – "If you don't harm someone, they will have no reason to harm you".

bese saka symbol

Bese Saka - 'bunch of Kola Nuts'.

Symbol represents wealth.

The 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.

ananse ntontan

Ananse Ntontan.

Symbol represents creativity and wisdom.

akoma ntoaso

Akoma Ntoaso - 'Linked hearts'.

Symbol represents agreement and understanding.

akoko nan symbol

Akoko Nan - the 'hen's leg'.

Symbol represents parental protection, mercy, and nurturing.

The 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.

west african symbol

Nyame Nwu Na Mawu - 'If God dies, so shall I.

Symbol represents the immortality of the human soul.

The proverb is interpreted as "as God never dies, so my soul never dies" – after death the soul becomes one with God.

nyame nti symbol

Nyame-Nti - 'faith in God'.
Also known as Adwera - a river plant.

Symbol represents consecration, cleanliness, chastity, purity, and faith in God.

The proverb related to Adwera says that "the water of life sustains through its purity", a recommendation to the life of the virtuous and pious.

Osrane ne nsoroma symbol

Osrane ne nsoroma:

In Adinkra symbols, Osrane represents the moon and Osrane ne nsoroma symbolizes the moon and the star. The symbol stands for the North Star (that is female) waiting patiently for the return of the Moon, her male partner. Osrane ne nsoroma is a symbol for love, faithfulness, commitment and patience. It signifies the harmonious bonding between man and


Duafe :

A stylized wooden comb that was used by the Akan woman to straighten or plait her hair, Duafe symbolizes the desirable feminine traits. These include qualities like beauty and good hygiene as well as the abstract virtues such as goodness of nature, love, tenderness, consideration, caution and circumspection.

Turkana Symbolism

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.

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