Adinkra Symbols

This month the project began soliciting post topics from board members and interested persons. There was a suggestion to explore the significance of adinkra symbols to the Akan, Ghanaians, and persons in the Diaspora. It seemed like an easy subject to tackle and so research was started. In exploring this subject, the use of symbols, pictographs and hieroglyphics as language mushroomed. In the same manner that advertisers and manufacturers create a trademark or logo, there are symbols that designate religious beliefs – the Star of David, the Star and Crescent, the Cross; cultural identity – the Celtic knot; and political persuasion – the donkey, the elephant, the panther, the dove. Most are easily recognized if not specifically understood.

Adinkra symbols fall under that category, but also are usually attached to a parable or expression. Adinkra Symbols The Akan people of Ghana, the creators of these pictograms and ideograms, traditionally used them on cloth, metal and wood. “These art forms carry proverbs, anecdotes, stories, and historical events through visual form,” Cloth as Metaphor: (Re) Reading the Adinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana by G. F. Kojo Arthur. The symbols themselves are multi-layered and represent cultural mores, values, philosophical concepts, codes of conduct and social standards. Over the years, as with any living language, the symbols have expanded even while maintaining an historical core. Presently there are more than 500 adinkra symbols incorporating automobile and soft drink logos as well. In order to understand the symbol, its designated place and context, the when and where of using the symbol, has to be examined. The pin pointing of the origin of adinkra symbols is disputed. Historical recorded evidence attributes its introduction at some time between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As kingdoms and federations fought for dominance in the region it was quickly adopted by Akan victors as a means of enforcing and proclaiming their culture and values.

In tracing the history of Ghana and the predominance of the adinkra symbols as an accepted language form, by the 17th century the Akan emerged as the major ethnic group in the area later to be known as the Gold Coast of West Africa. By 1824, with many intervening wars with neighbors, the Asante nation became one of the most powerful states in the region. The adinkra symbols reinforced the cultural, social and political identity of the Asante Empire.

The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project selected the “sankofa ” symbol as one component of its logo for many reasons. First of all it is the second most widely recognized adinkra symbol universally. It has particular meaning for this project because Professor Arthur in his work, Cloth as Metaphor (1999) states:

Sankofa – Go Back and Retrieve

Symbol of Wisdom, Knowledge and the People’s Heritage

From the aphorism: Se wo were fin a wosan kofa a, yenkyi.

Literal translation: There is nothing wrong with learning from hindsight. The word SANKOFA is derived from the words San (return), Ko (go), Fa (look, seek and take). This symbolizes the Akan’s quest for knowledge with the implication that the quest is based on critical examination, and intelligent and patient investigation. The symbol is based on a mythological bird that flies forward with its head turned backwards. This reflects the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future, or the wisdom in learning from the past in building the future. The Akans believe that there must be movement with times but as the forward march proceeds, the gems must be picked from behind and carried forward on the march. In the Akan military system, this symbol signified the rearguard, the section on which the survival of the society and the defence of its heritage depended. (page 181)

Ghana has the distinction of being deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade; it was the first of the African nations to gain independence from European colonialism; and it also has a long history and association with pan-Africanism which those in the Diaspora appreciate since for many the African heritage is continental rather than ethnic or nation specific. And because this project is focused on ancestors Arthur’s words are especially appropriate, “…this symbol signified the rearguard, the section on which the survival of the society and the defense of its heritage depended.” We are talking about our ancestors, those of the Middle Passage.

Source Documents:

The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on The Language of Adinkra by W. Bruce Willis, The Pyramid Complex, Washington, DC (2009)

Cloth as Metaphor: (Re) Reading the Adinkra Cloth Symbols of the Akan of Ghana by G. F. Kojo Arthur, Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Accra, Ghana (1999, 2001)



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