They called him the Spider and I think I now understood why. I watched him as he weaved; his loom almost as old as the willowy wizened fingers that worked it. It was quite the marvel if you asked me. He of course, was totally in the zone as his hands pushed and pulled the heddle through the interstices of those cotton strands and his feet worked the treadles below; a symphony of clicks and taps. I watched as he slowly transformed the strands into a masterpiece worth the envy of Michelangelo himself! It was his superior skills at the loom that had earned him that interesting sobriquet. The old man, the Spider was from Adanwomase and it was the place I was on one Saturday morning, on a curious quest to learn more about the Kente cloth.
The Kente cloth although native to the Akan ethnic group has managed to earn its place as an object of royalty, diplomacy, and artistic beauty throughout the nation. Though there are evidence suggesting its existence as late back as the 11th Century, the true origins of the Kente cloth and the art of its weaving remain undecipherable as there are many folklores and myths regarding it. My inquisitiveness had gotten the better of me after reading several literatures on the fabric and with a piqued interest, I decided find out more. I ended up in Adanwomase, one of the leading towns in the Ashanti region renowned for the making of Kente, with a curious mind and a rather unsightly straw hat to shield against the sun’s fury.
I started off with a conversation with some of the idle locals. They divulged the history and myth concerning the artistic cloth—or better still their version of it. According to them, the name Kente was coined from the Twi word “kenten”. The eponym is the Twi translation for basket, and the name of the cloth was born out of the similar weaving technique it had with locally made baskets. As by their folktale, the first Kente was made by an Akan man named Ota Karaban and his friend Kwaku Ameyaw. The duo learned the art of weaving by observing a spider spin its web. Taking a cue from the adroit spider, they wove a strip of raffia fabric and later improved upon their skill until they captured the attention of the then Asantehene who would later declare the cloth as sacred and reserved for royalty and special occasions. The cloth has over the years, however become more accessible to the general public and even gone past the borders of Ghana. A number of the locals crowed over how the best Kente was made in Adanwomase but I was firmly sure the weavers of Bonwire, another prominent Kente weaving town in the region, would have had a thing or two to say about that appraisal.
I ventured into the core of the town, where I met the Kente weavers After watching for several minutes the old man who I would later learn to be the best weaver in the town work, I was granted a small tour around the weavers’ square by the renowned Spider, or more rightly Agya Ananse, the twi rewording of the arachnid after which he had been nicknamed. He took me through the making process. The Kente was weaved from cotton or silk yarns that in previous decades were locally produced by the women of the town until the role was taken over by modern factories. The weaving was mostly done by men, although women unlike before are now allowed to exhibit their prowess at the looms too. The loom was a horizontal frame with several appendages that was designed by the weavers themselves. The fabric is weaved into strips of about 10 centimeters width which are later joined together to achieve the required cloth size. As our dialogue deepened, I realized that there was more to a Kente cloth than a beautiful fabric. Not unlike most forms of the nation’s cultural art, the cloth was a representation of Akan
history, customs, philosophy and beliefs. Each type of Kente was a raconteur of its own tale and the stories were told through colors and peculiar intricate patterns. So for a bona fide Akan, choosing which type of Kente to wear wasn’t just based on a whim of fashion but on whatever unspoken words the person would like to convey. For example, wearing a gold colored Kente signified wealth and royalty, where as a blue Kente would signify harmony and peace. Pink and purple had feminine associations and red and black was worn to express sacrificial, spiritual and ancestral attributes. White as I guessed rightly, represented purity and sanctity. I moved further on with Agya Ananse as he showed me some of the common patterns and offered their interpretation. The first he showed me was made up of several different patterns and rightly so, its name “Adwinasa” literally meant all motifs are used up.
He explained that the first weaver of that type of Kente in his attempt to impress the Asantehene weaved together all the different patterns the then Asante weavers knew. The cloth is therefore regarded as one of the most prestigious, worn by chiefs and people of high social status. It signified excellence, perfection and superior craftsmanship. The next Kente was made up of two main motifs; a series of zigzag patterns and a pattern made up of nine squares, resembling a single Irish chain pattern. He called it “Obaakofo mmu man”—one man doesn’t rule a nation. The cloth represented the Akan system of governance where the ruling of a nation by a chief is aided by the advice and expertise of his elders and other functionaries. Another Kente which he called “Obi nkye obi kwan mu si” had stair-like patterns and its name is translated to mean that sooner than later one strays into another’s path. It expressed the importance of forgiveness, tolerance and patience in the Akan community.
The sun’s temper had assuaged by the time my tour with Agya Ananse ended and was setting behind the horizon. My curiosity was as well-fed as my soles were worn-out. Exhausted though I was, I felt a great pride swell in me as I left Adanwomase in the twilight. I was proud of the rich heritage our forefathers had bequeathed to us, and greater sense of appreciation for our often overlooked traditional arts had been instilled in me. Indeed, it was a fantastic trip down cultural memory lane!