Culture and symbolism are very popular subjects in Ghana today. Unfortunately, this subject has time and time again been trivialized. Even so, no one can hide the fascinating clues behind both physical and spiritual meaning embedded underneath the Adinkra symbols.

Adinkra are symbols from Ghana that represent concepts and observations which have a general truth and they are used extensively in fabrics, logos, and pottery. There are many symbols with distinct meanings often linked with proverbs. In the words of philosopher and culture theorist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘they were one of the means for supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief’.

The adinkra cloths were and are still worn by royals and affluent people in societies.

Origin of the Adinkra symbols

Looking at how fascinating the symbols are, its origin is also an open secret. Adinkra symbols were originally created by the Bono people of Gyaman. The King of Gyaman Nana Kwadwo Agyemang Adinkra originally designed these symbols, naming it after himself.

The adinkra symbols were largely used on pottery, stools etc. by the people of Bono. Adinkra cloth was worn by the king of Gyaman and its usage spread from Bono to Asante and other Akan kingdoms.

After the defeat of Bono by the Asantes, it is said that the guild designers who designed the symbols in Bono were forced to teach the Asantes the craft. Gyaman King Nana Kwadwo Adinkra’s first son, Apau, who was said to be well versed in the craft, was forced to teach more about the Adinkra cloths. Oral accounts have attested to the fact that Apau taught the process to a man named Kwaku Dwaku in a town near Kumasi.

Over time, all Akan people including the Fantes, Akuapem and Akyem all made Adinkra symbols a major part of their culture as they all originated from the Bono kingdom.

How the Adinkra clothes are made

The Asante people have developed their unique art of adinkra printing. They use two traditional printing methods: the block-stamp technique, which involves the use of wooden or metal stamps and the screen printing. The adinkra cloth was originally printed from hand carved stamps from calabashes or gourds (apakyiwa).

Adinkra ‘aduro’ is an ink made by soaking the bark of the Badie tree in water to soften it and then boiling it with iron slag to form a thick printing paste used to stamp the symbols onto the cloth.

First the printer makes a grid pattern on the cloth using a comb-like tool. Then the symbol block is dipped into the paste ink and then stamped onto the cloth in linear designs, the cloth makers repeat the process. The dye dries to a glossy black finish. The designs printed on the cloth have different meanings related to wise sayings and spiritual beliefs.

Adinkra symbols were once printed on fabric in a grid pattern using a carved gourd. This special fabric was usually reserved for royalty or spiritual leaders. Today Adinkra cloth is widely available and commercially printed on ordinary fabric, t-shirt and jewelry for everyone to wear and enjoy.


The symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, historical events, human behaviour and attitudes, animal behaviour, plant life, forms and shapes of objects. There are many different symbols with distinct meanings, often linked with proverbial meaning since proverbs play an important role in Akan culture.

The use of Proverbs is considered as a mark of wisdom. Each symbol has a special meaning, so while Adinkra is widely valued for its link to art, outsiders of the Akan cultures have a hard time placing the appropriate measure of value on the symbols for what they visually communicate such as “proverbs, parables and maxims since they are also linked with understanding the language.

More importantly, Adinkra is a means of communication, particularly in the Akan languages (but the ideas can also be expressed in other languages) and are used to give advice or warnings. They are also a “translation of thoughts and ideas, expressing and symbolizing the values and beliefs of the people among whom they occur”.

Modernism and its effect on the art

Like everything else, there are influences which could be ideological and technological which render it into oblivion or relevance and Adinkra is no exception. The art of Adinkra which includes its making process have slowly been influenced by technological advances which have been adopted for their convenience and cost-effectiveness.

In some areas, the dye from the bark of the badie tree has been replaced with vat dyes and azoic dyes which are imported from Europe. These dyes are very fast acting as compared to the traditional ones used.

Also, the block printing techniques used have given way to more modern screen-printing techniques which in addition to the time – effectiveness has improved the accuracy and precision of printed designs. The iron slags and egg albumen which were added to the locally made dyes to give it a shiny effect has been influenced by the use of varnish.

The adinkra symbols which were used as motifs for adinkra fabric have been influenced by computer generated designs, natural and geometric shapes like flowers, leaves, circles, ovals shapes and many others. These are some of the modern influences that have affected the production of Adinkra in Ghana

You can look through the symbols and their meanings below and find one that represents your culture and values.

Some Adinkra symbols and their meanings