After three months of struggling to fit in, I finally left with a better understanding of the written and social symbols in the Ashanti Ghana region. Symbols are very important. Not only do Akan symbols adorn the walls of compounds and the fabrics that they wear, but there are many living cultural symbols as well. This list represents a lot of hard work and a lot of awkward stories prior to cultural competency.
1. Hand Holding- in Ghana this is a sign of friendship. Boys hold hands with boys, and it is not seen as gay or anything like it is here. Couples do not show physical intimacy in public. If you see a boy and a girl holding hands they are probably brother and sister. When someone grabs you hand it means they have taken you as a friend. This was a little hard at first for me to get used to.
2. Handshake, Rubbing Middle Fingers, and Then Snapping- this is the handshake of good friends. It steps away from formalities and shows a degree of closeness. I cannot snap so I could not perfect it, but just trying seemed to suffice. At least it got a few laughs.
3. Handshake With Left Hand- the left hand is the dirty hand in Ghana. Sometimes quite literally in places where they do not use toilet paper. It is very rude to offer a left hand shake or to take anything with your left hand. If someone tries to shake your left hand it means that they are a fetish priest or that they are possessed.
4. Stool- The stool is the symbol of power or the presence of kings and queens. It is found everywhere from on cloth, barbed gates, to the window in my bathroom. To say someone is stooled or has been de-stooled means that they have gained or lost power. The stool can also refer to the golden stool myth associated with the creation of the Ashanti nation.
5. Dreaded Hair- This is a symbol for the fetish priests in the village. If he wears white shells in his hair, it means he is a river priest.
6. Annoyance- We got this a lot at first and were not sure what it meant. It is a sound somewhere between a kiss and a slurp, and it means that you are pushing buttons.
7. Hissing- Easy to mistake with the annoyance sound, a hiss just means someone is trying to get your attention.
8. Face of Disgust- If you make a face like you have eaten something gross or sour, it means that you severely dislike someone. You have to be very careful about facial expressions.
9. 8 Staffs Together- This symbolizes the Akan clans coming together.
10. Scars- Found on the cheek or on the stomach, these are tribal marks to ward off evil spirits. They are used mainly by certain northern tribes and Ashanti’s do not do them as often. Sometimes these are marks for people who convulsed when they were children. Our host brother Emmanuel taught us that they are embarrassing and that kids get laughed at if they have them at school.
11. Thumbs Up- This is a symbol for leadership. It can also be very offensive to flash at someone who is not a leader, kind of like a swear word.
12. Horn- A wind powdered horn is the traditional symbol for war.
13. Pineapple- This delicious fruit is more than just food to Ghanaians. It represents a proverb that teaches us two heads are better than one. I think I too have heard that one before…
14. Fertility Dolls- If a woman is seen wearing a fertility doll on her back it means that she is trying to get pregnant.
15. Yellow, Green, and Black Together- If you see these colors all together in cloth it represents the traditional Ashanti people, or "rich black men that live in the forest."
16. White, Red, and Blue- These are the colors for the NPP, or the National People’s Party. This is the main political party of the Ashanti region. When we used to see these colors we were cautioned to avoid political rallies because it was not our place.
17. Blood of Jesus- This is a plant with big green and red leaves. If seen on the farm it is a sign for a boundary.
18. "Bra"- By having your palm down and motioning your fingers towards you, this is a symbol to come. If you have your palm up and do this motion it is very offensive.
19. "Kiss"- A kiss is actually a fist pound. It means hello. It is mostly done by younger children.
20. Lion Teeth- A symbol for clarity in judgment. Traditionally they were given to the king to help him see clearly.
21. Elephant- An important traditional animal symbolizing humility and power, this is also a symbol for the king.
22. Flashing Left Blinker- Taxi’s and tro-tro’s have their own communication system going on, and if you value your life at all you will learn it. Having a flashing left blinker means that you are safe to pass the car.
23. Ivory Bangles- Traditionally a symbol of the favorite wife. Ivory is a very expensive material, and it is also a sign of wealth.
24. Baton- Traditionally if a girl was engaged she would take a baton in public to ward off suitors when she went to the market.
25. Red and Black- These are the main colors of a Ghanaian funeral today. Red hues, collectively identified as kokoo or kobene, are identified with blood, unrest, and the bereavement of death. It reflects the seriousness of the occasion. Dark colors like black or dark brown characterize night, death, sorrow, sadness, depression, and seriousness. When a king dies, his white stool is blackened at the time of his death.
26. White- This color among Akans represents spirituality, sacredness of place, purity, joyousness, and victory. After recovery from a long illness, the sick person and their family wear white to reflect their joy at the recovery of their family member. A woman who has recently delivered a baby dresses in white to recognize a successful delivery and to celebrate new life.
27. Left Hand on Ground While Eating- If you leave your left hand on the ground when eating with your right hand it means that the energy from the food will leave you and get lost into the ground. This is not good dinner etiquette.
28. Beaded Necklaces on Children- This is so that they do not "get a big head," but also to check and see if they are growing if they are malnourished.
29. Pounding Fufu- This is a symbol for marriage. If you asks someone to help you pound fufu you are either inviting a marriage proposal or asking to have intercourse.
30. Yawning- This means that a person is hungry in Ghana.
31. Single Black Star- A single black star, like on the flag, represents Pan Africanism, or African uniting.
32. Flag of Ghana- The red symbolizes the blood of their fathers, the gold is for the gold coast of Ghana, an important natural resource, and the green is a symbol for the forest. The black star stands for Pan Africanism.
33. Spider- Ananse, or the God of tricks. He is sly, clever, and a symbol for Wednesday borns. There are a lot of stories associated with him.
34. Kente cloth- A sign of royalty, packed with symbols woven into the cloth, but now is a sign of wealth.
35. Person Under Umbrella at a Funeral- A chief
36. Jeans- Blue jeans are not practical in Ghana, but they are a symbol of western education and wealth.
37. I-pod Headphones- If you see someone with I-pod headphones and no I-pod it is a sign of wealth. It is a fashion statement.
38. Clipping Shears Together- If you see someone doing this at the market it means a tailor is calling for work.
39. Hitting a Rubber Stopper on a Wooden Block- If someone is doing this at the market it means that they are a shoe repair man.
40. Hitting Dame Pieces- In the board game of dame, when you smack a piece three times on the board it tells your opponent that they have to jump you.
41. Wiggle Middle Finger in a Handshake- This handshake means I love you.
42. Hitting Your Head- Doing the kiss fist pound (see number 19) and then hitting your head means that you are crazy.
43. Cork Screw Motion- If you see someone do this motion to their head it means that they are calling you stupid. The best way to respond is to say ‘beware,’ which essentially means don’t mess with me.
44. Red Ribbon- If you see a red ribbon tied to anything is a symbol for juju protection against curses and witchcraft.
45. Pointing Your Thumb Towards You and Your Fingers Out- This is a symbol for a proverb about not judging people more than you would yourself, probably a blend of a traditional story and the Christianity parable about the woman caught in adultery.
46. Shaking Finger- This hand gesture means means ‘I am coming,’ which literally means I will be right back.
47. Slapping Hands Together and Then Putting Them Out- This gesture is a sign of accepting God’s will. It is posed as a question of "what can be done?"
48. Excuse me- by having both palms up and places on on top of the other you are saying "please" or "excuse me." This is done most frequently by beggars.
49. Flipping Over Wrists- This gesture asks "where are you going?" or "wo kwey?"
50. Tree Branches in the Road- Having branches in a row blocking the flow of traffic mean that there is a broken car ahead, or that there is danger. It is a sign that you need to be careful.
51. Cowrie Shell- Traditionally this is a symbol of a mans life in slave trade. It used to the form of currency, and it is where the word cedi comes from today.
52. Double Knock- If you knock twice on a taxi or tro-tro this is how the driver knows you want to stop.
53. You Have Done Well- The hand symbol of the peace sign only without using your thumb is how you say "ya dea" or "you have done well."
54. Waving Hanky- If you are at a funeral it means donate more money.
55. Woman Holding Flowers at a Funeral- This is how you identify the widow. She holds flowers because you cannot shake hand with her.
56. Pot Breaking at a Funeral- this is done by the widow while they bury the body, and it means that marriage is over.
57. Open Palm to Chest- This signifies intimacy in the Muslim community of Ghana.
58. A Sideways Hand Cut- This gesture means that that person is going to go weeding.
59. Cop Dropping Hand- This is a hand symbol of the police to get a car to pull over.
60. Licking Bowl- As far as dinner goes, this is a very polite thing to do when you are finished. It means it was very "sweet," or "very good."
(Field Notes 8.3, 10.7, 14.15, 16.8-10, 16.9, 20.7, 22.16, 22.33-34, 24.4, 30.17-18, 55.9, 56.27, 72.12, 87.4, 87.6)