This is part of our Diverse Expressions of Grief series, written by Hilary Dockray.
Adinkra are visual symbols or ideographs that represent concepts and aphorisms originating from the Akan people, the dominant ethnic group of present-day Ghana and the Ivory Coast located in West Africa. Adinkra are an important part of Ashanti culture, an ethnic subgroup of the Akan people. The Ashanti Empire spanned a large portion of West Africa, including what is today Ghana, from the late 17th century until the early 20th century, until the British deposed and exiled the Ashanti king and annexed the Ashanti Empire to the Gold Coast colony in 1902. The Gold Coast gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, the first African colony to do so, and renamed itself the Republic of Ghana. The Ashanti region now lies in the heart of Ghana, based around the city of Kumasi.
The origins of Adinkra symbols are debated and several theories exist to explain their creation. The origin story from the Ashanti is that the first chief priest of the Ashanti who lived in the 7th century called down from the heavens the golden stool, the royal throne which came to symbolize the power of Ashanti kings. On top of the golden stool called down from the heavens lay cloth adorned with Adinkra symbols.
The first recorded account of the existence of Adinkra symbols is from a drawing of an Akan celebration in Thomas E. Bowdrich’s book Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee, published in 1819. The British government sent Bowdrich to Ghana in 1817, and his book that came out of his expedition was the first European account of the Ashanti people. The drawing from the book does not explain the origins of the Adinkra symbols, but it does illustrate that the Adinkra symbols and their adornment on clothing was already an established practice of the Ashanti people by the early 19th century, if not much earlier.
Adinkra symbols are widely used all throughout present-day Ghana, which I saw for myself during my study abroad trip to Ghana this past summer. Adinkra symbols can be found on clothing, fabric, furniture, jewelry, art, decorations, common day-to-day objects, and even in architecture; I remember seeing exposed cinderblocks used in all sorts of construction and architecture throughout Ghana bearing the very common Adinkra symbol Gyε Nyamε (pronounced “jyeh nyah-meh”). Gyε Nyamε generally translates to “except God (I fear none)”.
While Adinkra symbols have been adapted to be used in everyday life on all kinds of objects, traditionally they were used in considerably more limited and reverent ways as ceremonial clothing pieces. Traditional Adinkra cloths and clothing are stamped with carved calabash (a type of gourd common to Ghana) stamps using a dye made from the badie tree. The bark of the badie tree is boiled and then strained from the resulting dark liquid that forms. The liquid is further boiled down until it is a thick, ink-like dye. I saw the process of creating this traditional dye and had the opportunity to stamp cloths with calabash stamps during my study abroad trip.
Traditionally, Ashanti royalty, spiritual leaders, and other elites wore Adinkra cloth to special occasions, including to funerals as a way to honor the deceased. The Adinkra symbols chosen to be worn to funerals could represent traits the deceased had, communicate sentiments and messages to the deceased, or both.
While any Adinkra symbol can be worn at funerals, one relevant Adinkra symbol for funerals is the Nkɔnsɔnkɔnsɔn (pronounced “n-kon-son-kon-son.”) The Nkɔnsɔnkɔnsɔn Adinkra symbol translates to “link” or “chain”:
“Yεtoatoa mu sε nkɔnsɔnkɔnsɔn; nkwa mu at, yεtoa mu, owuo mu a, yεtoa mu; abusua mu nnte da.”
“We are linked together like a chain; we are linked in life; we are linked in death, men who share a common blood relationship never break away from one another.”
This link or chain represents the importance of bonds between people. As is the case of many Adinkra symbols, this basic meaning has been adapted to symbolize a variety of human bonds. This bond can be between members of a community, members of a family, or for the purposes of honoring the deceased, between the living and those who have died.
The bond between the living and those who have died signifies that even when separated by death, the link between those who shared an important bond in life is never truly broken. This everlasting bond calls for veneration and remembrance of the deceased by the living. In return, the deceased give protection and love to those who are still living.
The Nkɔnsɔnkɔnsɔn symbol is an affirmation that relationships are important because people are inextricably interdependent of each other. Our lives are created, shaped, and given meaning by other humans, and we provide the same in return. For many, this unity between people that is central to human existence does not begin and end with life, but continues on in a link spanning from those who are alive to all those who have passed on into death. It is safe to say that this is a sentiment that is felt not just by the Ashanti people, but by many people all over the world; the Adinkra symbol is just one means among countless many of capturing a feeling that is universal to humanity.
About the Author:
Hilary Dockray came to know The Christi Center through her full-time field internship as a graduate student from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. She is expecting her MSSW in December of 2012 and hopes to work in nonprofit administration and management. She is an advocate for the understanding of grief and the support of those who grieve in both her personal and professional lives. Her favorite hobby is writing, so she is delighted to be a guest blogger for The Christi Center.
Links where I gathered my information from, and where you can learn more about the Akan, the Ashanti, Ghana, Adinkra symbols, and Adinkra stamping:
Adinkra stamping and cloths:
Akan and Ashanti people: