Ghana’s Kente: Fascinating Stories And Meanings Behind The Cloth’s Designs And Colours


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The Kente cloth, which is a type of silk fabric made of interwoven cloth strips is not just like any other ordinary cloth. Always known to be a Ghanaian fabric, almost every Ghanaian owns at least a piece of the kente cloth, either sewn or not.  But over time, its usage has spread to so many other parts of Africa and the world at large. it has gone as far as the United States. it is usually worn as scarves on graduation day by thousands of African Americans and African students across the United States.

Initially, the kente was only manually-woven from silk and could only be afforded and worn by royalties, but it is now available in different types of machine-woven fabrics including cotton and therefore available to one and all. It is rich in beautiful brilliant multi-colours such that almost everybody loves it at first sight. Though I’m not a Ghanaian, I fell in love with the cloth and got one for myself. Even if you are not the native attire type, on seeing the kente, you would certainly fall in love with it.

The kente comes in a variety of patterns, colors and designs; and has it ever crossed your mind that the various colours and design may be symbolic? Read on to find out the very interesting stories and meanings behind the kente cloth, patterns and colours.

1. Meaning of the word “Kente”

The word “Kente” which means basket comes from the Akan or Ashanti dialect. The Ashanti are members of the Akan people who speak the Akan dialect. Due to the nature of the weaving of the web, the fabric the two farmers mentioned earlier produced looked like a basket which is known in the local palance as “Kenten”. The cloth then became “kenten ntoma” which over time has become Kente.

2. Legend Behind the Kente

The origin of the kente could be traced back to the Ashanti tribe of the 17th century. According to Ashanti legend, two hunters, whose names were given as Krugu Amoaya and Watah Kraban, from the village of Bonwire(a town in Ejisu-Juaben Municipal district in the Ashanti Region of Ghana), came across a giant spider, (known as Ananse in the Akan dialect), and critically watched it spinning a web.

Amazed by the web’s intricate beauty, the farmers went back to their houses curious to try and see if they could recreate something similar. They wove a cloth using fibers from a raffia tree following the patterns of the spider’s web, first from white, and then black and white. They took the product to their king (the Ashanti Asantehene), Nana Osei Tutu, who reigned from 1701 to 1717.

The king was so excited by the beauty of the present, that he promoted the weavers to the rank of royalty, and they became the king’s exclusive tailors. It is the home of the Akan “Kente” cloth. Kente cloth is reserved for the Kings and is associated with royalty and sacredness. Even in recent times, it is worn only during important times. Though the cloth now has a widespread acceptance and usage, it is still held in high esteem among the Akan tribe and the Ghanaians in general.

3. The Colours

The various colors that usually appear on the kente cloth represents different values and concepts of life. This why the kente is used not only for its beauty, but also for its representational qualities. Read on to find out the meanings of the popular kente colors:

Green

The earth and its vegetation, planting, harvesting, life, growth, and good health.

Kente Green

Blue

Peacefulness (such as seen in the sky and sea), love, harmony, patience, wisdom and good fortune.

Yellow

Just like that of the rising sun or the yolk of an egg, it represents fertility, preciousness, royalty, wealth, and glory.

Yellow kente

Red

Political and spiritual associations; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death.

Pink and Purple

Associated with the female essence of life; calmness, sweetness, tenderness

Black

Black is the color of bereavement, and darkness, but also of mystery and secrecy, and is mostly used in initiation and purification ceremonies. It also represents strength and maturity, ageing, intensified spiritual energy.

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White

White derives its symbolism from the white part of the egg and from white clay which symbolize innocence, healing, and peace and is used in spiritual purification, healing, sanctification rites and festive occasions.

Grey

GREY derives its symbolism from ash. Ash is used for healing and spiritual cleansing rituals to re-create spiritual balance when spiritual blemish has occurred. It is also used in rituals for protection against malevolent spirits.

Gold

This color means royalty, wealth, and spiritual purity.

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4. Patterns/Designs

There are more than 300 different patters of the Kente cloth. Each pattern has a name and its own meaning. The meanings come from religious beliefs, political ideas and social customs, proverbs, historical events, important chiefs, queen mothers, and plants. Usually, more than one pattern and color is found in a particular piece of the kente cloth. It is on few occasions that just one pattern or color is used in designing a full piece of cloth. Here are the various meanings some of the most popular patterns represent:

 ACHIMOTA KEYS (ACHIMOTA NSAFOAH) – Symbol of KNOWLEDGE, UNITY IN DIVERSITY, and HARMONY

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This motif originated from the Achimota School logo which looks like piano keys. It was designed in honor of the popular Ghanaian secondary school opened in 1927, one of the oldest and most respected school in Ghana. According to the design, one can make melody on either the black or white keys of the piano, but one can make harmony by playing together both the black and white keys of the piano.

NANKA TIRE (PUFF ADDER’S HEAD) – Symbol of EXPLOITATION AND FORCED LABOUR

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The “Nanka Tire” design is derived from the proverb: “Meso annini mentumi one wose menkofa nanka tires mmo kahyire”. Translated as: “I can not even carry the python, but you ask me to use the puff adders as a carrying pad.”

KYEMFERE (POTSHERD)

ptsherd-kente

This pattern is derived from the proverb: Kyemfere se odaa ho akye, na onipa a onwene no nso nye den? Which is translated as: “The potsherd claims it has been around from time immemorial; what about the potter who molded it?”

OYOKOMAN NA GYA DA MU (CRISIS IN THE OYOKO NATION) – Symbol of INTERNAL CONFLICTS, WARNING AGAINST INTERNAL STRIFE, NEED FOR UNITY IN DIVERSITY, and RECONCILIATION

kente-scarf

This cloth name commemorates the civil war after the death of Osei Tutu between two factions of the Oyoko royal family. One faction was headed by Opoku Ware and the other by Dako.

SIKA FRE MOGYA (MONEY ATTRACTS  BLOOD RELATIONS/MONEY STRENGTHENS FAMILY BONDS)

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This means that when one succeeds, one has responsibility to share one’s success with one’s relatives. In the Akan extended family system, the attraction of financial success to blood relations is usually encompassing.

NSOROMMA (STARS) – Symbol of DEPENDENCY ON GOD, HOPE, HIGH EXPECTATION, and POWER OF THE PEOPLE

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In summary, the stars portrays a sense of dependency on greater powers other than oneself. It promotes decentralization of powers which helps the king not to become an all sovereign dictator. Even as a head or ruler, one should depend on God and not on himself.

APREMO (CANON)

Kente-fabric1

This motif represents the superior military strategy which Akan nations such as the Asante and Akwamu used to defeat the Europeans who had superior arms. An Asantehene is said to have remarked: “The white man brought his canon to the bush but the bush was stronger than the canon.”

BABADUA (STRENGTH) – Symbol of STRENGTH, TOUGHNESS, RESILIENCY, POWER and SUPERIORITY

Kente rails quitl pattern

This design got its name from the babadua tree, which is a strong tree used for building fences, thatch roof frames, barricades during war, etc, because it was particularly strong and resilient.. the pattern is usually used in weaving the hem of almost all other kente designs.The use of this motif at the edge of the woven cloth gives tensile strength to the cloth and prevents unraveling or fraying.

Others Include: 

OBI NKYE OBI KWAN MU SI (TO ERR IS HUMAN)

This pattern portrays the importance of forgiveness. It encourages us to forgive if someone eventually crosses our part or does something to offend us, knowing fully well that we may still do same to same person or someone else some other time.

AWIA REPUE – RISING SUN

The Awia Repue (rising sun) pattern symbolizes vitality, life spark, warmth and energy. The symbol was used by the Progress Party that ruled Ghana from 1969 to 1972.

AKOKOBAATAN(MOTHER HEN) – Symbol of MOTHERLINESS, PARENTAL CARE, PARENTAL DISCIPLINE, and TENDERNESS

This design is derived from the Proverbs: “Akoko baatan tia ne ba so a, onku no and Akoko baatan na Onim dea do mma bedi” . This is translated as: “When the hen steps on the toes of her chicks , she does not mean to kill them and A good mother knows what her children will eat. These therefore mean that, parental discipline is not intended to harm the child , but for the child’s own good and that and A good mother does not only feed her children food but also with love, affection, warmth, tenderness and care,” respectively.

AKYEM(SHIELD) – 

The Akyem(shield) pattern derives from the adage: “Akyem head a eka does mmeramu.” Translated as “When a shield wears off, the frame remains. This means that good deeds of people live after them.

FA HIA KOTWERE AGYEMAN – LEAN YOUR POVERTY ON AGYEMAN

This pattern derives from a story which does not really have a certified authenticity. According to the story, it happened that there was a rise
of the bureaucracy in Asante in the 19th century. Several men chose to serve in the king’s court rather than stay poor as village farmers. Very soon some of these bureaucrats in the king’s court became rich to the extent that some were vying for stool positions.

Also read: 9 Major Tribes and Ethnic Groups in Ghana

5. Pattern Shapes

If you closely observe the patterns of the kente, you’ll notice that they take various shapes. These shapes also have symbolic meanings. They are:

Block/Square

is the symbol of the earth and cosmos, with its four sides marking the junction between these two entities. It is associated with femininity, because the woman gives life (creation – procreation). This shape is very common in the kente as a reminder that the Akan society is matrilineal.

Diamond

The three sides represent the union of masculine and feminine principles that combine to give a third principle, like the father and the mother who give birth to the child or as the intellect and the heart which give birth to will-power.

Traingle

The three sides represent the union of masculine and feminine principles that combine to give a third principle, like the father and the mother who give birth to the child or as the intellect and the heart which give birth to will-power.

Circle

The circle represents that concept of eternity or infinity. It is usually used to design royal outfits to symbolize the endless nature of the royal lineage.

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