Kente cloth…the fabric of kings

Otumfuo Osei Tutu II Asantehene visits HRH Elizabeth II

Kente cloth is the cloth of West African kings, although it is now used by many at any important occaision. It is made by the Akan people of Ghana and Cote I’voire, including the Ashanti, of which Kumasi is the capital. Tradionally woven in silk and cotton, modern examples are mostly all cotton. It is a warp and weft weave, with intricate designs made in the weft. Long, narrow (10cm wide) strips of cloth are stitched together to make large pieces of cloth (stripweave). The colours and details of the patterns are stunning, with both symbolising different things. Gold symbolises royalty and wealth, while maroon represents mother earth and healing. Each pattern, of which there are over 350, have different meanings. Akan cluture is rich in proverbs, and many of these can be found in kente designs.

www.kentecloth.net is a great resource for patterns and their meanings, from which the following have been taken.

My favourites are:

OBI NKYE OBI KWAN MU SI – TO ERR IS HUMAN

Symbol of FORGIVENESS, CONCILIATION, TOLERANCE, PATIENCE, and FAIRNESS

From the maxim: Obi nkye obi kwan mu si.

Literal translation: Sooner or later one would stray into the path of the other.

To err is human, and therefore, one should be conciliatory
when one is offended. For sooner or later one may be the offender to
the other.

obinkye1.jpg (32296  bytes)

and this one:

AKOKOBAATAN – MOTHER HEN

Akokotan.jpg (12266 bytes)

Symbol of MOTHERLINESS, PARENTAL CARE, PARENTAL DISCIPLINE, and TENDERNESS

From the proverbs:  Akoko baatan tia ne ba so a, onku no. Also, Akoko baatan na onim dea ne mma bedi.

Literal translation: When the hen steps on the feet of her chicken, she does not mean to kill them. That is, parental admonition is not intended to harm the child, but to correct the child.

Also, the good mother knows what her children will eat. A good mother does not only feed her children food alone, she also feeds them with love, affection, warmth, tenderness and care.

Perhaps this one is best suited for Bill:

NANKA TIRE – PUFF ADDER’S HEAD

nankatre.jpg (12953 bytes)

Symbol of EXPLOITATION, BEING OVER-BURDENED WITH WORK

From the proverb:  Meso annini mentumi a, wose menkofa nanka tire mmo kahyire.

Literal translation: I cannot even carry the python, yet you are asking me to use the puff adder’s head as the carrying pad.

On the road between Konongo and Kumasi, are several villages which specialise in kente cloth weaving. And before the children started school this year, we headed out to one of these villages, Bonwire, for a home school excursion. Bonwire is an attractive town, with many old buildings preserved. The main streets are lined with stores whose display cases are a close packed sea of bright colours. The joy of visiting the village however, is to walk through the back streets, where looms are found, often out in the open adjacent to peoples houses, and one can watch the weaving (almost) undisturbed. I would also strongly recommend a trip to the Bonwire weaving co-operative, which is behind the main road (watch for the signs). Housed in an wooden warehouse, it is cool(-ish) and dim inside, the walls are covered in the artisans work, and the room is criss-crossed with the warp threads held in place by large sandstone blocks. The sounds of the looms shuttles puncuates the room, with the faint  hip-life pumping through the headphones of the weavers. Each of the weavers sells their wares separately, and there is very active competetion for a sale, so be prepared for the hard sell. Like most Ghanaians we have met, they are friendly and patient, allowing us all, including the children, to try their hand at the loom. There is really nothing like trying it yourself to make you appreciate the work involved in making this cloth. Particularly for Jock who struggled to reach the toe controls!

Bartering is totally acceptable and the sell can be quite intense, with several people attempting a sale simultaneously. But in this case, I would suggest you go easy with these guys. The time and skill need to make kente is formidable. In addition to the newly woven cloth, antique silk-cotton weaves are available, in more traditional colours.

5 responses to “Kente cloth…the fabric of kings

  1. Fascinating….Brian will gobble up all this information….knew you would love the colours and material etc. Well done children for ‘having a go’xxx

    Like

  2. Pingback: getting my (crafty) mojo back | six degrees north·

  3. Pingback: another trip to Kejetia market – the fabrics | six degrees north·

  4. Pingback: Leaving Kumasi: reflections, obervations and a list | six degrees north·

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