Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Adinkra system was originally developed in the Gyaman and  Akan nations of West Africa, the members of which now belong to the states of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, respectively[1]. A number of claims exist as to primacy of the system between the Gyaman and the Akan, but none of these seems to be conclusive. The designs were originally used as designs for clothes worn at funerals. They have been described as expressing ideas about the meaning of life, dramatised in the visual display of the symbols on funeral garments at the threshold between life and death symbolised by the activities embodied in funeral rites. Adinkra could be understood as related both to the intelligence or message which each kra, as the eternal essence of the human being is understood in Akan thought, takes with it from the Supreme Being when it obtains leave to depart to earth, as well as to the distillation of understanding that emerges from the experience of living and which is consummated in the transmutation of death[2].



This understanding of life as a continuity from life on earth to life beyond death is suggested in the Adinkra symbol Owuo Atwedee which represents death as a ladder which the individual climbs to ascend into a further existence, thereby dramatising the undying existence of the immaterial essence of the human being. The ladder is  at times shown as silhouetted against an empty space which becomes evocative of the space before birth and the space after death, which are identical, since the kra experiences birth and death as aspects of the same process[3].

Kumorji visualises the ladder of Owuo Atwedee as hanging towards the sky, each of its four rungs representing the progression of human life in terms of the transitional stages of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. The last, invisible rung is death, its mysterious continuity with life evoked by the translucent blue of the sky against which the ladder is silhouetted[4].


The ladder of death is suggestive, therefore, of a cyclic conception  of human existence, understood in its totality as a dynamic reciprocity between life and death, a totality attested to by Adinkra symbols such as He Won Hye, “The Unburnable” or “That Which Cannot be Burnt”, its form evocative of a sliver of light between two embryos, themselves alcoved within a soaring structure seemingly poised for flight and robust with the fecundative possibilities embodied by the embryonic forms; the entire structure reminiscent of the  spaces flanking the central passageway of the fecundative portal of vaginal space; the total form  symbolising the dynamic timelessness of the self, which projects itself from to lifetime to lifetime through the portals of birth and death, actualising possibilities latent within the varied patterns of experience of each lifetime;  


or Nyame  Nwu Na M’awu  “Could  Nyame[the Supreme Being] die, I would die”, which bears a relationship to   the proverb from Twi, the central language of the Akan,  “Onyankopon nkuni wo na odasani kum wo a,wunwu da “Unless you die of Nyankapon [another name for the Supreme Being], let living man kill you, and you will not perish”.

                                                 NYAME  NWU NA M’AWU 

These symbols and the philosophic expressions with which they are related explicitly characterize the conception of the eternal nature of the self, a continuity, however, not suggestive of mere repetition, but of the opportunity to grow into a range of knowledge and skill through experience, a wisdom and active capacity evoked by the range of ideas evoked by the symbolism of Adinkra[5].

The paradoxical indestructibility of Benghalensis, “a small, inextirpable, trailing plant”, evoked in the name of the Adinkra symbol Nyame Nwu Na M’awu, is invoked to bear witness to the paradoxical continuity between the apparent mutability of the self and its undying nature[6].The relationship between apparent mutability and persistence of being emerges within a context evoked by the form and rhythms of the Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame.




Gye Nyame is enigmatic and abstract, its composite form  bearing no relationship to any form in nature, being at best a hybrid juxtaposition emerging from the depths of an unfettered imagination It is both amoeboid in its plasticity and muscular in its suggestion of the graceful but powerful thrusts of the horns of a rhino framing the liquid centre of the shape. 

The movement of lines within space that constitutes the visual form of the symbol could be seen as evocative of both inscrutability and cognitive dynamism. Inscrutability in that its abstract form could be understood as suggestive of the ontological conception represented by the notion of ultimate being embodied in the idea of Nyame. 

This abstraction could be perceived as being neither a distortion nor a contortion of known forms but as representative of a unique formal universe, suggestive of something outside the boundaries of human perception and fashioning; the   gyrations of its thrusting forms enclose liquid permutations, creating enigmatic, abstract rhythms that evoke sonic resonance through visual space.


The difference between the visual abstraction represented by Gye Nyame and conventional shapes could suggest the distance of identity, the ontological remoteness, between the divine subject the abstractions evoke and the total field of existence. The subject evoked by the abstractions is neither This nor That definite form[7], conceptual or visual, but, in a sense, demonstrates a protean plasticity of expression that enables it to become whatever the conceiver or perceiver wants It to be.

This notion of transcendence of being and cognitive possibility is correlative with the suggestion of a cognitive dynamism evoked by the  Classical Akan religious understanding of the Creator as the eternal witness of existence Who subsumes the transformations of being into Himself. Within this context the universe is conceived in terms of a transformative process perceived in its totality only from a central point of consciousness which constitutes its origin, as expressed in the Twi proverb “Abode santann yi firi tete;obi nte ase a onim ahyease, na obi ntena ae nkosi ne awie, Gye Nyame” “This great panorama of creation dates back to time immemorial; no one lives who saw its beginning and no one will live to see its end, except Nyame.”[8].

[1] Give and compare sources; particularly Idi Ankrah presentation of various hypothesis. Then state your own speculation and your rationale for it.

[2] Relate to Danquah source for first part, to Kunene on Zulu thought on the Gods learning from human beings. And to Fortune in Cosmic Doctrine.

[3] The characterisation of the empty space against which the ladder is silhouetted comes from my sister Ifuemi Adepoju in private conversation. Refer to Soyinka’s inspired reflections on this space and passage in Myth, Literature, and the African World  which he calls the abyss of transition and how it is referred to in the introduction of Death and the Kings Horseman.

[4] Give Ida Kumorji refrence


[6] Compare with Owen Burnham’s description of the significance of the Fonio plant to the Bambara and the Dogon: “The importance of plants for humanity began when Fonio, the smallest seed, fell to the earth and spread the consciousness of the creator to all. To the Bambara and Dogon peoples of Mali the value of Fonio is immense. It is at once both the smallest and the greatest. In Fonio we hear the echoes of the past, and sitting in a field of these fragile plants listening to the wind it is truly possible to understand the spirituality of plants. Fonio   ‘is all the wisdoms’ for the Balanta Kanja people. It is the embodiment of the creative spirit, the giver of life, the gentleness of being, the entwined fragility of life and death, for it is a weak, easily broken plant, yet strong enough to bend in the wind without breaking” in African Wisdom: A Practical and Inspirational Guide (London:Piatkus,2000)43-44.


[8] Give all sources for these characterisations. Plus note the manner in which your appreciation of the implications of the plant symbolism was amplified/facilitated by the wonderful characterisation of the plant in African Wisdom

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