· preface
» introduction
· design glossary
· sample symbols

The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra by W. Bruce Willis


This is a book about African symbolism and African philosophy. It is about the Akan people of Ghana, one of the larger ethnic groups of West African people, who live in southern Ghana, speak dialects of the Akan language, and have a similar culture and tradition. There are also a small numbers of Akan people in southeastern Cote d’Ivoire.

Art is a very important part of Akan culture and tradition. In their funerary arts, the arts related to funerals, there is a special cloth called adinkra that is worn during the funeral and at other funeral activities. This cloth is hand-painted and hand-embroidered and is adorned with Akan, or adinkra symbols. These symbols are arranged on the cloth in a specific manner to convey a parting message to the deceased.

The transliteration of the word adinkra means, "a message one gives to another when departing." Adinkra is used by a grieving person to convey a message to the departing soul to take with him to the "afterlife". Adinkra symbols reflect traditional mores and specific communal values, philosophical concepts, codes of conduct, and the social standards of the Akan people. They are an expression of the Akan world view. Adinkra symbols have multilayered meanings and levels of interpretation. These Akan symbols are stamped on varied-colored cloths and symbolize parables, aphorisms, proverbs, popular sayings, historical events, hairstyles, traits of animal behavior or shapes of inanimate or man-made objects.

The adinkra symbols have what is referred to as multilayered meanings. This means that they may have a variety of meanings and many different levels of interpretation. They convey deep philosophical messages about Akan social values and concepts of social behavior. The symbols reflect Akan common wisdom relating to the notion of God, quality of human relations, the spirituality of life and the inevitability of death. They tend to represent uplifting, motivating and character building attributes of the individual.

An example of the messages on a cloth could be shown by examining a cloth that might be made for one grieving the death of someone in the government. This cloth might have symbols depicting diplomacy, wisdom, humility, leadership, government, authority and philosophy. For someone grieving a strong-willed relative, the symbols on the cloth might contain symbols depicting perseverance, strength, toughness, confidence and steadfastness.

Through social changes in the country over the last few generations, the concepts on these cloths have been popularized and commercial factory-made adinkra is widespread. The concept behind this adinkra has taken on a less formal status. Various cloths with adinkra symbols can now be seen worn as everyday wear.

The deep philosophical history and interpretation of adinkra has never before been assembled in a comprehensive document such as this one.

This book is just a humble attempt to analyze just one small part of Africa's larger rich and glorious past - and thus its present. The story of adinkra is ever-evolving and ever-unfolding. It is an insightful journey. I hope that you will enjoy the journey with me as your guide and continue the unfolding.