Kente, known as nwentom in Akan, is a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips made and native to the Akan ethnic group of Ghana. Kente is made in Akan lands such as the Ashanti Kingdom, including the towns of Bonwire, Adanwomase, Sakora Wonoo, and Ntonso in the Kwabre areas of the Ashanti Region. This fabric is worn by almost every Ghanaian tribe. Kente comes from the word kenten, which means basket in the Asante dialect of Akan. Akans refer to kente as nwentoma, meaning woven cloth. It is an Akan royal and sacred cloth worn only in times of extreme importance and was the cloth of kings. Over time, the use of kente became more widespread. However, its importance has remained and it is held in high esteem by Akans.
Kente cloth varies in complexity. Ahwepan refers to a simple design of warp stripes, created using plain weave and a single pair of heddles. In contrast, adweneasa, which translates to “my skill is exhausted”, is a highly decorated type of kente with weft-based patterns woven into every available block of plain weave. Because of the intricate patterns, adweneasa cloth requires three heddles to weave.
The Akan people choose kente cloths as much for their names as their colors and patterns. Although the cloths are identified primarily by the patterns found in the lengthwise (warp) threads, there is often little correlation between appearance and name. Names are derived from several sources, including proverbs, historical events, important chiefs, queen mothers, and plants. The cloth symbolizes high in value.
West Africa has had a cloth weaving culture for centuries via the stripweave method, but Akan history tells of the cloth being created independent of outsider influence. Kente cloth has its origin from the Akan-Ashanti kingdoms in Ghana. The origin of kente is in the Akan empire of Bonoman. Most Akans migrated out of the area that was Bonoman to create various states. The Ewe people of Ghana claim the weaving of Kente originates with them, although they are not claiming they invented the art of weaving. They suggest that the name is derived from Kete which relates to the two alternating rhythmic actions (ke and te, meaning open and press in the Ewe language) associated with the weaving of the loom. But the main creators are the Bonwire people of Asanteman in the Ashanti Region of Ghana.
Symbolic meanings of the colors
- black: maturation, intensified spiritual energy
- blue: peacefulness, harmony and love
- green: vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, spiritual renewal
- gold: royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity
- grey: healing and cleansing rituals; associated with ash
- maroon: the color of mother earth; associated with healing
- pink: assoc. with the female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
- purple: assoc. with feminine aspects of life; usually worn by women
- red: political and spiritual moods; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death.
- silver: serenity, purity, joy; associated with the moon
- white: purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
- yellow: preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility, beauty
A variety of kente patterns have been invented, each traditionally associated with a certain concept or set of concepts. For example, the Obaakofoo Mmu Man pattern symbolizes democratic rule; Emaa Da, novel creativity and knowledge from experience; and Sika Fre Mogya, responsibility to share monetary success with one’s relations.
Legend has it that kente was first made by two Akan friends who went hunting in an Asanteman forest and found a spider making its web. The friends stood and watched the spider for two days then returned home and implemented what they had seen.
Modern use of Kente
Kente academic stoles are often used by African Americans as a symbol of ethnic pride. This practice is also very popular with historically black Greek letter fraternities and sororities. African American students hold special ceremonies called “Donning of the Kente” where the stoles are presented to the graduates.