Adinkra Symbols and Barbadian proverbs and How They Affect Society

Published Thursday, 05 February 2015
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Aaron Hill

Aaron Ifill


The Adinkra symbols are believed to have originated in what is now known as the Ivory Coast or Côte D’Iviore. According to a legend of the Asante, the word “Adinkra” comes from the name of the king of Gyaman, Nana Kofi Adinkra. In a battle against the Asante people for copying the “golden Stool”; which is a symbol of absolute power and ‘tribal cohesion’ in their ethnic group, Adinkra was defeated and captured. The king was killed and his kingdom became a part of the Asante Empire. The legend also states that the garment which Nana Adinkra wore was painted in these symbols. Somewhere around the 19th Century, the Asante people began painting traditional Gyaman symbols onto cloth. This became a common practice especially to be worn at funerals, as Adinkra was interpreted then to mean goodbye. In the photograph below, notice the symbols on the clothing of the first Elder to the left.



Proverbs were used in West Africa by its peoples before they were removed by force and brought to work on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The enslaved peoples from the Gold Coast made a successful attempt to combine their native Akan language and teachings to incorporate them in their new lives in the Caribbean. This also was used as a means of communication with one another without attracting the attention of the master.

Modern Sightings

The initiative of the Pan-Africanists in Barbados, called the “Mabalozi Programme”, includes the study of Adinkra Symbols in their African teachings. Also, if you were to visit the Cave Hill Campus, you would notice that many of these symbols are included in the design of the interior of the Golden Stool Administration building. In addition the sign in our very own Barbados Community College Library, in the Caribbean Heritage Collection section, is designed with various Adinkra symbols.

As we travel along the streets of Barbados, armed with knowledge of these symbols, one would notice that they are used on many wrought iron gates and decorative blocks, especially the sign sankofa which means “Go back and get it.” or Fawohodie which means “Independence”, like the ones in the illustration. There are many other symbols which are used for this purpose, but in this modern time, its usage has been often over looked and many people do not even know about Adinkra symbols.



According to my interview with a history teacher at one of our Secondary Schools, there has been a recent revival of the use of Barbadian proverbs. As young children growing up, most of us would have heard our parents or grandparents use such sayings. My own mother has taught me the saying which she learnt from her father “If blackbird fly wid pigeon he wuh get shoot”, which means, following the wrong crowd will land you in the same trouble that the crowd was in. I admit, these sayings do not have a massive influence in the society today, however, I believe that they should be. Many Barbadians (especially the younger generation) are losing an essential aspect of their heritage and Barbadian culture.



Each Adinkra symbol has a special proverb in its translation. For example one of the symbols we previously mentioned, Sankofa, means “Go back and Fetch it.” This proverb relates to returning to the past, studying one’s history, in order to successfully prepare for the future and maintain ones’ heritage.  As we grow, we would learn to appreciate what our ancestors have gone through so that we could attain a better life.


These symbols also have references to other things such as animals, emotions, marriage, social characteristics and even the supreme God. Today these symbols are widely used on African furniture, textiles, jewellry or building decorations.

During the early 1900’s, Barbadian proverbs had a massive impact on the society and were often used. They were used in social interaction, media and literature and were always very useful in bringing out the moral aspect of life, and offered a lot of deep wisdom.

One thing noticeable when we study the symbols and the proverbs is that there are similarities between them. They both use animals, aspects of nature and human characteristics, and share basic meanings. An example of this is with the use of two once-common sayings that are similar in meaning. “It does tek one hand to feel a lice, but two to tek it out,” and “one hand can’ clap.”   These two sayings mean that it takes a unified effort to achieve anything worthwhile.



The symbol “Funtunfunefu –Denyemfunefu,” that translates from the Akan language to mean “Siamese crocodiles”.   The image displayed is of two crocodiles which share the same stomach. The proverb behind this symbol is “they share the same stomach, yet they fight for food.” It signifies that unity is strength and that infighting is harmful to all who engage in it.




Another well-known saying, “Day does run ‘til night catch it,” which means that an individual’s wrong will eventually punish him. The Adinkra symbol, “Tamfo Bebre” translated from the Akan language to mean, “The enemy will stew in his own juice.” This also represents jealousy or envy, and teaches a similar concept to the Bajan proverb mentioned.


In concluding, we notice that many of our youth are going in a direction that will ultimately be their destruction. They have not benefited from the wisdom of the olden days and therefore have little guidance in charting their lives. I believe that it is a necessity to remain in touch with our heritage, and these proverbs and symbols should be taught in schools from early. We cannot continue as Barbadians to become like a tree without roots as there is much wisdom in these symbols and proverbs. Hopefully they will still help us to move forward as one people and one nation.

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