Kente Fabric: Origin and Meaning


AFRICAN NUBY Blog Author Sam Coumba, Blogger and Writer at AFRICAN NUBY

Kente is an African fabric originating from Ghana and woven by the Akan-Ashanti people. One of the main functions of the Kente is sacred, royal and the notables wear it for ceremonies.

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Its use has become widespread over time, it holds an important place in the culture and economy of several West African peoples, including the Ashantis, Akans and Ewes, in Ghana and Ivory Coast in particular. However, its importance has remained and it is held in high esteem by the Akans.

KENTE: Origin and Fabrication

The kita, Kente or Agbanmévoh loincloth, called 'nwentom in Akan, is a type of silk and cotton cloth made of strips of fabric intertwined to form brightly colored patterns and figures. Kente comes from the word kenten, which means basket in the Asante dialect of Akan. The Akans call kente "nwentoma", which means woven cloth.

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According to an Ashanti legend, the cloth was once made of raffia. Two farmers, Krugu Amoaya and Watah Kraban, from the village of Bonwire, came across a spider spinning a web. Amazed by the beauty of the spider's web, the farmers returned home, eager to try to replicate the web. They first wove a cloth from black and white raffia fibers. They then presented their clothes to the Ashanti king Osei Tutu who ruled from 1701 to 1717.

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Although the first, kente cloth was made from raffia fibers, kente cloth, associated with Ashanti royalty, was made from silk in the 17th and 18th centuries. Silk was extremely expensive, as this cloth was imported into the Ashanti kingdoms by the trade route, a route that crossed the Sahara Desert from the west coast of Africa to the Middle East and then from Europe to Asia. Traders used camel caravans, and all goods transported in this way were expensive. The silk brought in by these caravans was bought by Ashanti women, but was always woven only by men, because women's menstrual cycles were supposed to slow down production.

Kente cloth was also used for the development of the New World. While the Kente cloth was the product of a global trade route from Asia to Africa through Europe, the Kente cloth and its people were also associated with the slave trade. When Europeans came into contact with the Ashanti in the 16th century, they traded gold, ivory and slaves. Ashanti slaves were transported to the New World in large numbers. They created new communities that often maintained the traditions of the Old World.

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Today the Chestnuts of Suriname weave a cotton cloth called Pangi whose style and design is comparable to the Kente of their Ashanti ancestors. As with Kente fabric, Pangi has multicolored vertical and horizontal stripes. The strong similarities between Pangi and Kente fabrics reflect the fact that the Surinamese Maroons were runaway slaves who lived in their villages. Living far from Europeans, the Arawaks and other peoples of Suriname allowed these slaves to maintain many Ashanti traditions.

KENTE COLORS AND THEIR MEANINGS

Each color, as well as each shape and pattern of the Kente, has a specific meaning for the wearer of the fabric

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  • Black, the most significant and incorporated color of Kente, represents spiritual strength and maturity.
  • Red symbolizes political blood, passion and strength.
  • Blue represents peace, love and harmony.
  • Gold or yellow represents wealth and royalty.
  • Green means growth, harvest and renewal
  • White symbolizes purity, purification rites and festive occasions.
  • Purple or brown represents Mother Earth, healing and protection from evil.


The colors, patterns and shapes woven together on each Kente fabric combine to represent a story, theme or anecdote, or to symbolize the wearer's clan/tribe or a specific set of values.

KENTE SHAPES AND THEIR MEANINGS

To the symbolism of the colors, it is advisable to associate those of the forms and geometrical patterns. There are 5 of them: the square, the triangle, the diamond, the circle and the cross.

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The square

symbol of the earth and the cosmos, its four sides represent the junction and union of these two entities. It is associated with femininity, because the woman, beyond her life (birth-existence-death-elevation) gives life (creation-procreation). This figure is very present in the kente as a reminder that Akan society is matrilineal.

The triangle

With its three sides represents life. The base symbolizes birth (emergence to the world) and existence (self-realization and destiny). The apex symbolizes both death (physical) and spiritual elevation. The three sides of the triangle are also assimilated to the family. It is the masculine and the feminine principle that unite to give a third principle like the father and the mother giving birth to the child or like the intellect and the heart giving birth to the will. In short, the triangle is simple completeness.

It represents the life of man. The rhombus is composed of two juxtaposed triangles resting each on the base of the other, one upright and the other upside down, this figure is found in many kente worn by kings and chiefs during great ceremonies. It is a sign of the existential duality of the monarch (or chief), of his existence as a human being represented by a triangle (the one above) and of his existence as a chief (the triangle below). These two triangles have open bases, which means that the destiny of the human and that of the ruler are linked. All his actions as man and chief contribute to his prestige and that of the royal institution.

The circle

This geometric figure represents infinity. The closed circle has neither end nor beginning. It is assimilated to power as a concept of infinity, which transcends time. Just like timeless royalty, whose origins are often lost in the mists of time. The full circle represents the universe, the society, the community of men. This figure of divine essence can be found in almost every kente worn during the enthronement of a king to remind the people of his divinity.

The cross brings back to the movement of water and fire but especially to the four cardinal points. When one extends one's arms, it is a cross that symbolizes the vital force, the breath of life, the existential reference point. We find the cross in several forms in the kente but also in another Akan loincloth, the adinkra.