Thursday, September 16, 2010

Akan Symbols

As a photographer, an oil painter, and an avid reader, I have a deep love for symbols. Symbols are especially important in Ghana, and because I think they go a step beyond the typical cultural symbols, I thought I would share some of the Akan, or Adinkra Symbols, of West Africa. Language was not written until relatively recently given oral tradition, and these were the main way that people communicated. They are still important today, especially in the making of cloth.

A few, like Gye Nyame, were so frequently found on buildings, houses, and tourist pamphlets that there was no escaping it. Others were more difficult. I got many of these answers from Emma and Eli’s batiking shop on the shores of Cape Coast. I want to incorporate some of these into future art projects and writings, so here they are.

1 GYE NYAME- most common symbol I saw. “Except for God,” or “I fear nobody except God,” and “the supremacy of God.” God is regarded as the creator of the world and humanity, and therefore must be reverenced and worshiped. This symbol reflects that supremacy, power, and domination of God over all situations and creations. He is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Creator of the universe and all mankind. If you see this symbol with a circle around the outside it means NYAME YE OHENE, or “God is King.”

2 AKOFENA- the state ceremonial swords. When a chief is first enstooled, or put into power, he uses this Akofena to swear his loyalty to the people. It is thus the symbol of authority and gallantry, courage and valor. This symbol was on the school uniforms of the Okomfo Anokye Secondary School I worked in. It makes sense, seeing that they were called “the warriors.”

3 FIHANKRA- “compound house” or security and safety. I like this symbol because I think the set up of a compound is genius. There is a community bond that is established based on the structure. This typical Akan architecture normally has only one main entrance, which serves also as an exit. It reflects security, safety, and solidarity and communal enjoyment in the company of family members who live in a compound. It is a symbol that you see mostly drawn in front of houses. Traditionally it is believed to be a symbol of protection for the home.

4 BIN NKA BI- “no one should bite the other,” or peace and harmony. This symbol cautions people against social vices like backbiting, cheating, etc. It encourages fair play and cordiality, which brings about peace and co-existence. It is about being a good neighbor.

5 AKOKONAN- “the leg of a hen” or “the hen treads on its chicks, but it does not kill them.” This is the symbol of mercy and nurturing and how upbringing is not destruction. This symbol signifies the protective, corrective, and loving nature of mothers for their children. Children are reprimanded and punished when they do wrong for corrective measures. This symbol teaches the importance of nurturing children and warns us against pampering them too much. It can also encourage showing mercy to offenders in some cases.

6 DUAFE- “dua” is wood,” and “afe” is comb, so this is the wooden comb. This particular comb is used to marking lines in the fabrics for printing Adinkra cloth. As a comb, it is used to keep your hair tidy. It is thus the symbol of cleanliness. It is typically associated with beauty, hygiene, and feminine qualities.

7 SANKOFA- “go back and take,” or positive reversion and revival. “Sanko” means “return,” and “fa” means “take.” It is shown in two different signs as a bird taking the seed from its back, symbolizing “back to our roots,” repentance, and the fact that it is okay to turn to the past to make sense of the future. It is about the importance of past cultural values that are needed today. It is also believed that progress is based on the right use of the positive contributions of the past. Sankofa teaches us the wisdom in learning from the past, which helps in building the future. It also teaches people to cherish and value their culture. This symbol is appreciated and used by the African Americans in the Diaspora. It has been printed on T Shirts and other batiked fabrics, and is one of the more popular ones. It is one of my favorites.

8 OHENE ANIWA- “Ohene” means king, and “Aniwa” means eyes. This symbol implies that the eyes of the king see many things. Since he sees so much, if you are planning to say something bad about him you had better be careful. He has a number of people who give him information. So this symbol is about support, security, and vigilance.

9 MMUSUYIDEE- or “that which removes ill luck or curses.” This is the symbol for good fortune and sanctity. Various items are used as sacrifices and offerings to God in order to ward off evil powers and thoughts and also bring about good omens. This symbol encourages regular request for good omens from God. It also stresses the need for confession and repentance of ones sins. If we break down the words, “Kra” means “gat,” and “Pa” means “good.” Kra can also mean soul. Cats do not like filth, so a good cat believes in neatness and holiness. Cats are an important symbol in tradition, and the krapa is a symbol of good fortunate and holiness.

10 NTESIE or MATE MASIE- means, “I have heard and kept it.” “Mate” literally translated is “I have heard,” and “Masie” is “to hide.” It is symbol of knowledge and wisdom, but also prudence.

11 MPUANNUM- is a traditional hairstyle where the hair is plaited into five parts. Rachel Morrison, a girl in my group, was fortunate enough to have these in for half a day before she ripped them out (Haha). It is supposed to make your hair neat and clean and is a symbol for cleanliness. Literally translated the word means “five turfs” (of hair). More traditionally it was for priest offices, loyalty, and adroitness.

12 ADINKRAHENE- this is the “chief of adinkra symbols,” showing greatness, charisma, and leadership. This symbol is noted for playing an inspiring role in the design of other symbols, making it the strongest among all symbols. It signifies the need to be inspiring and the need to take leadership roles. It is also the basis of the Adinkra printing.

13 OWUO ATWEDEE or BAAKO MMFO- literally translated is “owuo,” death, and “atwedea,” meaning ladder. “Baako” is one,” but “mmfo” means do not climb. All strung together it means that all will climb up the ladder of death. Death is no respecter of persons, and everyone will eventually die. It is a symbol for mortality.

14 NYAME BIRIBI WO SORO- “God, something is in the sky,” or “God, something is in the heavens.” Means hope. The symbol signifies the belief in the sky as God’s dwelling place, which has all the blessings that he offers to those who request for them. This symbol stresses the need to be optimistic and positive minded, reminding people to pray.

15 NKONSONKONSON- means unity and human relations. It is supposed to represent a chain with several units linked together, but the strength depends on the individual units. One when unit becomes weak, it can cause a break in the chain. It signifies the strong bonds between people of common blood relations that are difficult to break apart. The belief includes ancestors who are constantly protecting the living. It can also serve as a reminder to give a helping hand to strengthen the communities we live in, and encourages the veneration of the ancestors in order for them to keep in touch with the living. I have also heard a variation that says there is a link between life and death.

16 OSRANE NE NOSOROMA- literally translated is the moon and star. The moon and the stars are found at their places in the skies during the right time. They do not fail, and are thus a symbol for faithfulness, love, and harmony. This is not the kind of take I am used to hearing on the night sky, and I find it refreshing.

17 GYAWU ATIKO- “Gyawu” is the name of a person, and “Atiko” is the back of the head. It is said to be a hair design of Kwatakye, a war hero, who was a chief of Bantama, a suburb of Kumasi. It is a symbol for valor and bravery.

18 AKOBEN- “war horn,” symbolizing loyalty, devotion and service. Akoben is a wind instrument used in summoning warriors to the battlefield. It signifies alertness and readiness to serve a good cause. Seeing this symbol is supposed to encourage people to be ready at all times to serve their nations even in times of war. It also stresses loyalty to ones nation.

19 OHENE TUO- literally translated is “ohene,” a king or a chief, and “guo” means gun. It is a symbol of defense and protection of the king.

20 AKOMA NTOSO- “linked hearts,” or understanding and agreement. This symbol fosters togetherness between married couples, friends, and other relations. This symbol is meant to encourage people to enter into agreements in order for them to become committed. “Akoma” means “heart,” and “Ntoaso” means “link.” I have also seen representations of this symbol laid on its side with the points in the corners like an invisible square.

21 DWENNIMMEN- “ram’s horns,” meaning humility and strength. The ram is noted for its strength when it engages itself in a fight against its adversary. However, it submits itself humbly for slaughter. The symbol signifies modesty and toughness in the character and nature of people. It stresses the need to be humble in every aspect of life in order to learn and acquire knowledge.

22 AKOMA- “the heart,” or patience and tolerance. Not surprising to many familiar with this symbol, the heart is believed to be responsible for a persons emotions such as anger, hatred, love, joy, grief, etc. A person is said to “have a heart in his stomach” when the person is very tolerant. I saw this reference when I was reading The Famished Road by the Nigerian author Ben Okri, and I think this expanded definition is telling of what heart can mean. The symbol is meant to teach the importance of tolerance in the face of provocation. It stresses patience in all endeavors of life. There is a saying in Ghana that says “Nya Akoma,” or “take heart or be patient.” It is wise to use the good side of what the heart offers. Not your typical love definition is it? I like it.

23 MMARA KRADO- “Mmara” means law, and “Krado” means padlock. This padlock shows the need to be a law-abiding person. It represents supreme authority and the court of justice.

24 SUNSUM- means the soul. Without the soul a person is believed to be dead, but the soul is believed to last forever after it leaves a man and lives with God. With God’s word, liberation and sacrifice, the soul is revived. Sunsum is then a symbol of spirituality.

25 NYAME NNWU NA MAWU- “God never dies, therefore I cannot die.” This symbol stands for perpetual existence, signifying the immortality of a man believed to be part of God. After death the soul returns to God and stays perpetually, because God never dies. This is part of the reason why we have a neighbor named Perpetual I guess…. It stresses the belief in life after death and the need to lead exemplary lives to attain an ancestral status after death. It symbolizes the everlasting nature of the human soul. It is a symbol that believes in reincarnation, and that after death the soul goes to God in everlasting and constant existence.

26 NKYINKYIM- literally means “twistings,” and represents initiative, dynamism, and versatility. It signifies the ability to take initiative and play many roles, adjust and withstand difficulties. It advises people to endure hardships and be committed to duty. It also stresses the need to live exemplary lives for others to emulate, encouraging people to adjust to face difficulties.

27 KINTINKANTAN- “extravagant and puffed up.” This is a symbol for arrogance and extravagance for arrogant, pompous, and bossy people. It serves as a warning against boastfulness and the disregard for people and the need for humility.

28 KRAMO BONE AMMAYAANNHU KRAMO PA- or “the bad had made it difficult to identify good,” is quite a mouthful, and probably a good thing it is a symbol instead. More literally “Kramobone” means bad Muslim, so it means the bad Muslim had made it difficult to identify the good one. It basically means that one should be careful when dealing with human beings. It symbolizes pretence, deceit, and hypocrisy.

29 SEPO- the executioner’s knife. The sepo was used by executioners to prevent their victims from talking by thrusting the weapon through the cheek of liars in traditional times so that they bleed together. This a symbol of justice and punishment.

30 OSRANE- exactly what it looks like. The moon. It symbolizes time in Ghana.

31 NYAME DUA- translates literally this means “God’s tree.” It is a symbol of worship, and I liked it, especially in regards to my own faith and the symbol of the tree of life.

32 FUNTUNFUNEFU DENKYEMFUNEFU- represents Siamese crocodiles, democracy and unity in diversity. These reptiles share a common belly yet they fight over food. (Sometimes referred to as just animals) This symbolizes the unification of people of different cultural backgrounds for achieving common objectives despite their divergent views and opinions about the way of life. This symbol also stresses the importance of democracy in all aspects of life. It encourages oneness of humanity, and discourages tribalism. It symbolizes unity in diversity when struggle occurs in life. In Adinkra cloth production, the cloth by the above name is made for the exclusive use of Otumfuo, or an Asante King.

33 NKYIMU- means “crossing.” It shows the divisions done on a plain piece of cloth before the stamping of the symbol. It is mostly done with the Duafe (wooden comb, see symbol number 6). It depicts the divisions that exist in life as well as skillfulness and precision.

34 EPA- “handcuffs.” This is the symbol for captivity and slavery. Handcuffs were introduced as a result of the slave trade. It later became popular among chiefs in cuffing offenders of the law. Anyone who is handcuffed becomes a slave and captive of the captor. It reminds offenders of the uncompromising nature of the law. It however discourages all forms of slavery, and is also a symbol for justice.

35 AYA- means “fern.” This is a plant that can withstand diverse weather conditions and different soil types. It depicts forcefulness and perseverance in life. It is a symbol of hardiness, resourcefulness, endurance, and defiance. I think it is a little ironic that this was the symbol that was all over the ceiling of the Internet Café in Kumasi we went to. The one that only worked half the time.

36 BESE SAKA- literally translates this is a “bunch of colanuts.” The colanut is enjoyed by chewing for a stimulating effect. It is mostly patronized and used by Northern tribes today, but it used to be very important when inviting guests to your home in traditional times. It is a symbol of power and wealth, as well as abundance and unity.

37 KONTIRE NE AKWAMU- means “they are elders of state.” There are two divisions in a state, “Tikro nko agyina,” meaning “two heads are better than one.” It emphasizes the need for democracy in governance and a consensus decision.

38 EBAN- translates as “fence.” It shows how some homes are fenced, and is a symbol for protection, safety, and security.

39 DENKYEM- “crocodile” or adaptability. The crocodile lives in the water but it does not breathe water it breathes air. The crocodile is noted for its ability to stay both on land and in water. This signifies the tendency to adjust oneself to all forms of conditions in life. It advises and encourages people to adapt, especially when circumstances seem difficult or beyond control.

40 OWO FORO ADOBE- “snake climbing the raffia tree” is the literal translation of this image, but it stands for steadfastness, prudence, and diligence. It is normally difficult for snakes to climb thorny trees, but when a snake does it is considered an impossible task. It signifies the accomplishment of unusual and impossible feats of bravery. It also encourages people to be persistent and diligent in all their undertakings in order to achieve success. It can also show that life has not been easy, and it calls you to be strong, forceful, and persistence. It signifies an evidence of surprises and how an unusual or impossible thing can always happen.

41 ANIBERE ENSO GYA- the shorter version of “Anibere enso gya, anka mani abere ko,” or “seriousness does not show in the fiercesome eyes, else you see my eyes all red.” It symbolizes life never being easy, and that life is war. Still, despite the situation, this symbol encourages people to be able to stomach certain feelings and go on in the struggle of life.

42 FOFO- a yellow leaf plant. There is an Akan saying that says “Sedee fofo pe ne se gyinantwi abo bidie,” meaning the fofo plant wants the gyinantwi seed to turn black. This signifies that in life there are others who could wish others bad in their endeavors. It is the symbol of jealousy and hatred.

43 ESE NE TEKREMA- literally this is “the teeth and the tongue,” symbolizing friendship and interdependence. The teeth and the tongue are both located in the mouth but play different, interdependent roles. The teeth can bite the tongue, but they still live together. This signifies harmonious and interdependent relationships between people and nations. It advises married couples to complement each other in all aspects of marriage. It also encourages friendship and assistance.

44 PEMPAMSIE- translates “sew to preserve.” It shows the need to join together and the strength in unity. It is the symbol of steadfastness.

45 WAWA ABA- means Wawa seed. A Wawa is a tropical tree that is used for carving. The seed is also well known for being hard. This symbol means that mankind should be strong and pass through life.

46 DAME-DAME- “Draught-name of a board game.” Dame-dame is a symbol for intelligence and ingenuity. This is checkered board game for two players that is very mind tasking, and encourages the exercising of the brain. It also stresses the need to take sound and reasonable decisions. It is also associated with entertainment. Chase was a huge fan of this game, and we spent a many nights playing after dinner.

47 PAGYA- literally translates to “strike fire.” There is a traditional gun known by that name, and it is one of a few symbols of war.

48 NWEMUDUA- “measuring stick.” This is a symbol for examination and quality control, signifying the neck on mediocrity in quality and abilities. It encourages through examination of all aspects of human life and endeavors in order to achieve perfection. It also encourages manufactures to produce high quality goods. Literally it means “Hwe mu,” or “look in,” and “dua,” meaning measuring stick. It can also symbolize the check for quality in life.

49 NSOROMMA- means “child of the heavens” or “the child of God.” It signifies the absolute belief in God’s watchfulness over mankind and therefore man’s total dependence on him for guidance in all endeavors of life. It reminds us to regard God as the father. It also encourages good deeds and avoidance of evil, and should give a sense of confidence and reliability. It is a star, and the saying in Akan says, “Obo Nyankon soroma te Nyame na ontensehoso,” or “the star is located in the heavens and held by God to guard man.” It can also symbolize guardianship.

50 KODE MOWERE WA- “the talons of the eagle.” The eagle is the totem for the Oyoka clan, which is the royal clan for the Ashante chiefs. There is an Akan adage that can be explained to mean “the eagle takes a thing by force, showed it to you and takes it away.” The eagle’s talons can be destructive sometimes, and it is a fitting symbol for mightiness.


(Field Notes 51.1, Images found in Mid Semester Retreat pictures)


  1. I really liked the display of all the pictures and description of the meanings. It feels good to be able to learn from different cultures so easily and creatively.

  2. Awesome stuff, I love the designs that they came up with, thinking about getting a tattoo of one!

  3. Beautifully captured.As a Ghanaian i am proud to see my culture depicted perfectly.

  4. Owwwwww My God. I love them... I'm keenly inspired and planning on using some of them in a comic I'm coming up with... Thank you soon much for such positive insight

  5. Always inspired by their meanings. I have two # 6 and #7. Going for another one

  6. I really like these symbols of Ghana I'm wanting to get a new tattoo of one of them!!!

  7. Very interesting,This shows that our bath got wet before the rain of the white came

  8. You did really well. Kudos👍🏽

  9. Many thanks for this article which is is extremely readable from an international perspective. Also my deepest gratitude for an item that gives me a better understanding of my cultural heritage.

  10. Does anyone know the image kyekyera na wosoa?

  11. Very useful article indeed. Keep the good work up. Thank you