Kente: Not just any cloth

http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/kente-cloth-and-the-history-of-the-ashanti-people.html

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By JESSICA ACHBERGER

Kente cloth is deeply intertwined with the history of the Ashanti nation.  The Ashanti Empire or Confederacy, which was located in what is today Ghana, first emerged in West Africa during the seventeenth century.  The Ashanti are members of the Akan people who speak the Akan or Ashanti dialect.  The word “Kente” which means basket comes from the Akan or Ashanti dialect.  Akans also refer to Kente as nwentoma, which means woven cloth.

Kente cloth designs vary, with the different designs, colors, and patterns each having their own special meanings and stories. But Kente cloth also reflects the history of the Ashanti people, from the emergence of the various Ashanti kingdoms to the development of the slave trade up to and including contemporary life in Ghana.

According to Ashanti legend, two farmers, Krugu Amoaya and Watah Kraban, from the village of Bonwire, came across a spider, Ananse, spinning a web. Amazed by the web’s beauty, the farmers returned to their homes eager to try and recreate the web.  They wove a cloth first from white, and then black and white, fibers from a raffia tree.  They then presented their cloth to the Ashanti Asantehene, or king, Nana Osei Tutu (who reigned from 1701 to 1717).


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Although the first kente cloth was made of raffia fibers, Kente cloth, which was associated with Ashanti royalty, was made of silk during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Silk was extremely costly as this fabric was imported into the Ashanti kingdoms through the trans-Saharan trade route, a route that stretched across the Sahara Desert from the West Coast of Africa to the Middle East and from there to Europe and Asia.  This trade route which dated back to at least 300 BCE crossed some of the most barren and desolate land in the world.  The dangers of this crossing, even when traders used caravans of camels, were such that any and all goods transported this way came with a hefty price tag.

Ashanti women purchased the silk brought by these caravans but Kente cloth was woven only by men, as woman’s menstrual cycles were thought to interfere with the production of the cloth.

While Kente cloth was a product of a global trade route which stretched from Asia through Europe to Africa, this cloth and the people also came to be associated with another global trade route—the slave trade.  In fact, the history of the Ashanti people, who lived on the West Coast of Africa, is strongly tied to the history of the slave trade.


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Maroon men and child in Suriname. Man on right draped in what appears to be Pangi cloth, 1910-1935

As was true of many pre-modern societies in Africa, Asia and Europe, the Ashanti practiced slavery.  When Europeans, specifically the Portuguese, came into contact with the Ashanti during the sixteenth century, both Europeans and the Ashanti traded gold, ivory, and slaves.

Ashanti slaves were transported to the New World in large numbers.  There, they created new communities that often adapted and/or continued traditions from the old world. Today, for example, the Maroon people of Suriname weave a cotton cloth called Pangi that is comparable in style and design to the Kente cloth of their Ashanti ancestors.  As is true with Kente cloth, Pangi has multi-colored vertical and horizontal stripes.  The strong similarities between Pangi and Kente cloth undoubtedly reflect the fact that the Maroons in Suriname were escaped slaves who lived in their villages.  Living apart from Europeans, the Arawaks and the other peoples of Suriname may have allowed these slaves to retain many Ashanti traditions.

Although similar to many other kinds of West African weaving in its basic design, Kente cloth is unique in its intricacy and perfection, as well as the wide variety of colors used in the patterns. However, what is perhaps most unique, and most important for understanding the Ashanti people’s use of this cloth, are the proverbs and stories attached to individual designs.

Patterns are not only categorized by their association with a specific Ashanti proverb, they also have multiple meanings.  The proverb Dea emmaa da eno ne dea yennhunu na yennte bi da (Figure A) of the emaa da (novelty) print, for example, symbolizes knowledge, creativity, novelty, and innovation. Prints may also have an anecdotal background.  The Oyokoman na gya da mu (crisis in the Okoyo nation; Figure B) print, for example, symbolizes internal conflicts, the need for unity in diversity, and reconciliation.


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Ashanti Akan Cultural Adowa Dance Group, 2010, Public Domain

Today, the emphasis on symbolism remains, although the materials of the cloth and its uses have evolved. Rather than being made solely from silk, Kente is now made mostly of cotton, as well as rayon, making it affordable for a much wider reach of the population.

Kente cloth is now used to make clothes for all sorts of people, not only royalty and not along the Ashanti.  The cloth has become particularly popular among tourists who often buy Kente inspired bags and shoes when visiting  Ghana. Kente cloth fabric has also become popular internationally, as celebrities such as Gwen Stefani, Solange Knowles, and the hip hop group Salt-N-Pepa have all adopted and worn the cloth at different times.

From the ancient history of the Ashanti Kingdom, to the Pan-African spread of tradition during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to modern day interpretations and use of cultural heritage, the Kente cloth is both symbolic and representative of the history of the Ashanti people. Through tracing the origins, evolution, and spread of this unique cultural heritage, we are better able to understand a people and their history.


FIGURE A

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What is novel is what we have not seen and heard before.

FIGURE B

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Crisis in the Okoyo nation.

EVERY COLOR (AS SEEN IN THE TABLE BELOW) POSSESSES A SPECIFIC ATTRIBUTE. 

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Kente colors, Public Domain.

Color       Meaning

Black—-maturation, aging, intensified spiritual energy

Blue—–peacefulness, harmony, good fortune, love

Gold—–royalty, wealth, spiritual purity

Green—-vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, good health

Grey—–healing and cleansing rituals; associated with ash

Maroon–the color of mother earth; associated with healing and protection from evil

Pink—–associated with the female essence of life; calmness, sweetness, tenderness

Red——political and spiritual associations; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death

Silver—-serenity, purity, joy; associated with the moon

White—purification, sanctification rites, healing

Yellow—preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility (yolk of an egg)


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