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Kente, known as nwentom in Akan, is a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips and is native to the Akan ethnic group of South Ghana. Kente is made in Akan lands such as Ashanti Kingdom, (Bonwire, Adanwomase, Sakora Wonoo, Ntonso in the Kwabre areas of the Ashanti Region) and by Akans in Ivory Coast. It is also worn by many other groups who have been influenced by Akans. It is the best known of all African textiles. Kente comes from the word kenten, which means basket in Akan dialect Asante. 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 with Akans. The Ewe people especially those from Agortime-Kpetoe of Ghana also claim that, Kente which they also refer to as Agbamevor has always been their traditional cloth. According to their history weaving was the skill they came with when they migrated from Egypt through Nigeria to their present location in Ghana. Per the oral history of the people, during the Ashante wars they captured some of their men who were skilled in the weaving of Agbamevor. These captured men were asked by their captors (Ashantes) to teach them how to weave Agbamevor; the Ewe kente experts instruct them to "Ke" meaning spread or open in the Ewe language, pass the waft through, and "Te" meaning tighten or press also in Ewe. For that reason, the Ewes believe that the name Kete originates from the method used to weave such cloths which is also the same name that has been corrupted into kente, as time goes on.
The icon of African cultural heritage around the world, Akan kente is identified by its dazzling, multicolored patterns of bright colors, geometric shapes, and bold designs. Kente characterized by weft designs woven into every available block of plain weave is called adweneasa. 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.
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 in the Ashanti kingdom, and was adopted by people in Ivory Coast and many other West African countries. 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 think 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.
The Maroon people of Suriname in South America are the descendants of people who were brought from Africa as slaves after the mid-17th century and who escaped to live in the forests of the interior, eventually obtaining the right of self-government from the colonial powers. The Pangi cloth made by the Maroons is a cotton fabric with multi-colored vertical and horizontal stripes, similar to West African kente cloth.
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 of which has a certain concept or concepts traditionally associated with it. 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 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 is now being used all over the world for special ceremonies. In the United States many African-American high school and college graduates wear kente cloth over their graduation gowns. 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.
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