The Kente, a royal handwoven fabric

Closely linked to the history of the Akan people, the Kente or Kita is a traditional African loincloth made of hand-woven cotton or silk strips sewn together to form colorful patterns and figures. Like many other African woven fabrics, the Kente, stemming from a long ancestral textile tradition, is a symbol of nobility and prestige. This royal fabric is the pride of the Ashanti and Ewe people.

KENTE is the name of this colorful and special fabric whose origins date back to the 12th century and which comes from the Ashanti people of Ghana (it is also found among the Ewe people of Togo). Kente takes its name from the term “kenten” which means “basket” in Ashanti dialectics, because its manufacture reminds us of the basket.
There are mainly two kinds of kente:

  • The Ashanti kente, which generally has geometric patterns in bright colors. 
  • The ewe kente, which has human or animal motifs.

The legend of the Kente, originally a spider

According to the Ashanti legend, two farmers Krugu Amoaya and Watah Kraban, from the village of Bonwire, stumbled upon a spider called “Anansi” (this spider will be found in all the traditional Ghanaian tales) weaving its web. Amazed by the beauty of the web, the farmers returned to their villages determined to try and recreate the spider’s web. They began to weave with different colored fibers and then presented their cloth to the “Ashanti Asantehene” or King Nana Osei Tutu (who ruled from 1701 to 1717). 

According to the legend, this is how the first kente was born and offered to the king. The king was amazed by the beauty of the present and immediately elevated the weavers to the rank of royalty. They became the exclusive costumers of the king. The fabrics woven for the king were unique and anyone who ventured to imitate them was punished. This legend demonstrates the value placed on Kenté by the Akan kings and nobility. 

Although according to legend, the first kente cloth was made from raffia fibers, it was later made from silk, perfect for the kings of the time! (XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries). Indeed, the extremely expensive silk was imported in the Ashanti kingdoms by way of the trans-Saharan trade.

Today, the Kente is no longer made only from silk, which has been replaced by cotton. It is also no longer reserved for kings but is accessible to all, although its history and philosophical significance remain.
It is easy to see many craftsmen throwing their shuttles from right to left making long strips of Kente cloth. These strips are then sewn together to make the large boubous worn by Ghanaians at great ceremonies. Only the men work on the Kente weaving. For a complete men’s outfit (a long cloth of about 6 meters) it takes about a month of work.

King Otumfuo Nana Prempeh I and his wife dressed in kente loincloth

The colors and patterns are carefully chosen by the weavers and their customers. Each symbol of the Kente cloth has a cultural meaning.

Symbolism of the Kente colors

The colors have particular meanings and convey messages. “The loincloth speaks louder than the mouth” is an expression-illustration of this.

White is the color of purity, innocence, spirituality and peace (psychic, collective and interior). Minority, sometimes in filigree in the kente, the white reminds the sacred and divine character.

The loincloth speaks louder than the mouth.

Ashanti proverb

Yellow, the color of gold, symbolizes opulence, wealth in all its expressions (financial, spiritual, intellectual etc.). Yellow is associated with the generosity of the earth. This color is strongly present in the kente because the king who wears it at the time of the public demonstrations, incarnates all the virtues.gold-royalty, wealth, high social status, glory, spiritual purity. Gold and bright yellow like rays of sunlight also recall the beneficent divinity.

Black is the color of mourning and darkness, of evil but also of secrecy and mystery. Black is especially used in initiation and purification ceremonies. Black is both the symbol of occultism and hidden knowledge. It represents an ambivalent color between obscurantism and spiritual elevation. Since it combines negativity and positivity, black is both feared and revered. Its discreet presence in the kente reminds us that the nobles are above all the guardians of the throne. Black is also the maturation and the spiritual energy.

Green is the symbol of life, growth and harmony. Green reminds us of the forest, the foliage of trees, birth and youth. Green is also a symbol of vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth and spiritual renewal. Associated with blue and yellow, it completes the meaning of the ceremonial dress expressing that wealth and nobility is based on humility, humanism and balance.

Blue evokes the vast spaces of the sky and the sea. It symbolizes elevation, communion but also humility, restraint, patience and wisdom. The king and all the nobles have a perfect mastery of their environment and their surroundings, we must not forget it! blue evokes peace, harmony and love. Blue is often associated with yellow, white and red to express that wealth and power are based on spirituality which provides tranquility and balance and is a guarantee of stability for the powers that be.

Other less common colors:

  • gray: healing and purification rituals, associated with ash.
  • brown the color of mother earth; associated with healing.
  • pink, worn more by women, the feminine essence of life.
  • purple is associated with feminine aspects of life, most often worn by women.
  • reds are political and spiritual symbols; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death.
  • silver is serenity, purity, joy, associated with the moon.

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

Symbolism of the shapes

The square is the symbol of the earth and the cosmos, its four sides represent the junction and the 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 to remind us that Akan society is matrilineal.

The triangle represents life with its three sides. The base symbolizes birth (the emergence into the world) and existence (the realization of oneself and one’s destiny), while the top symbolizes both death (physical) and spiritual elevation. The three sides of the triangle are also assimilated to the family. It is the masculine and feminine principles that unite to give birth to a third principle, just as the father and mother give birth to the child or as the intellect and the heart give birth to the will. In short, the triangle is simple wholeness. It represents the life of man.

Weaving of Kente fabric by a Ghanaian artisan.

The rhombus is composed of two juxtaposed triangles each resting on the base of the other, one right side up 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), his existence as a human being represented by a triangle (the upper one) and his existence as a chief (the lower one). These two triangles have open bases, which means that the destiny of the man and that of the chief are linked. All his actions as a man and as a leader contribute to his prestige and that of the royal institution.

The circle represents the infinite. The closed circle has no end and no beginning. It is equated with power as a concept of infinity, which transcends time. Just like the 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 is found in almost all kente worn during the enthronement of a king to remind the people of his divinity.

In a universal way, the cross brings back to the movement of water and fire but especially to the four cardinal points. When we extend our arms, it is a cross that symbolizes the vital force, the breath of life, the existential reference point. The cross can be found in several forms in the kente but also in another Akan loincloth, the adinkra.

This fabric is always made according to the traditional method. It is the men who weave it and from the age of 12 their boys start to learn the technique to later take over. The weavers work together from morning to evening in the open air, on their wooden machines and they transmit this art to their sons from generation to generation.
The kente today democratized can be read as a book of anthropology. It allows to grasp the philosophical, political and social conception of the Akan society.

Carried beyond the African borders, the Kente enjoys a real fashion effect. It is no longer destined to a single social class.
Proof of the interculturality between the African peoples, Kente or Kita is the historical memory of a whole people.

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