Monday, 18 March 2013

A Look into the Ghanaian Culture: Adinkra Symbols by Jacqalyn Butcher

As a part of our nursing experience it is imperative to consider the local culture; in fact, it is almost impossible to ignore the various cultural aspects with traditions and values prominently incorporated in every day life in Ghana. During our time in the hospital and traveling throughout Ghana, the presence of various intricate symbols caught my intrigue: these symbols are known as the Adinkra symbols. After many discussions with locals and through research I discovered that the significance and meanings of these symbols are deeply rooted into the culture of many Ghanaians, specifically the Ashanti (or, Asante) people.
The information provided on the history and significance of the Adinkra symbols has been retrieved from the Tetteh (n.d.) and Oxfam (n.d.). The origins of these symbols are said to be derived from an Ashanti legend.  According to this legend, a kingdom called Gyaman existed in the country now known as Côte D’Ivoire. King Adinkra, the chief of this kingdom, was known to wear clothing adorned with various symbols, often to express sorrow. When King Adinkra copied the symbol of the sacred “golden stool” onto his clothing (symbolic to the Ashanti people for “total power” and “tribal cohesion”) the Ashanti people were offended, and this eventually led to a battle resulting in the annexation of the territory and death of King Gyaman. The Ashanti people then claimed the symbols used in King Adinkra’s patterns as their own.
Through various generations, the philosophical concepts conveyed by the symbols have not changed, while the central values of some have been altered. Traditionally, the clothing with the symbols printed on it was worn exclusively at funerals: those grieving would wear a symbol the reflected a proverbial value or message that they wished to convey to the individual transitioning into the afterlife. In Twi (the language of the Akan people), Adinkra can be translated to mean “farewell” or “goodbye,” further emphasizing the role of the symbols in the grieving of the departed individual.
In today’s society, the proverbial meaning of the symbols act as subtle reminders of the fundamental virtues and values that should be inherent in every day life. Many Ghanaians wear the symbols on clothing and jewelry for various occasions. The symbols and the Akan names of the symbols often embellish numerous homes, vehicles, furniture, etc. Their ubiquitous presence within Ghana remains apparent, signifying the continuing importance of spirituality, humanity and character building to the Ghanaian people.
In discussion with a staff member at 37 Military, I was told that the Adinkra symbols have become progressively less prominent in the Ghanaia and are rarely discussed for the role they take in one’s life. This staff member explained that the multi-layered parables depicted by the symbols have historic importance to the Ghanaian people in subtle ways, and that the symbolic meanings can provide spiritual upliftment to downtrodden individuals in the hospital setting.
For this blog I have chosen to focus on a couple of the symbols that seem particularly meaningful in the Ghanaian hospital. For each I have provided the name, literal and symbolic meanings according to Tetteh (n.d.), and the ways in which each proverbial meaning may relate to health. The second is one that stood out for me personally, for two main reasons: first, it’s meaning (see below); and second, the symbol reminds me of a set of kidneys.
     Name: Gye Nyame
·      Literal meaning: Except God.
·      Symbolic meaning: Omnipotence and immortality of God
·      Meaning to health: Many of the people in Ghana believe that their health is in the hands of God; these individuals attribute ailments to an act of Divine Providence and believe that it is Him who can resolve that which ails them. In times of hardship that often coincide with health issues, people find comfort in believing that God will take the lead and will guide them in the direction that each person needs to go.  In some cases people even opt to going to Prayer Camps instead of seeking treatment at a hospital because of their strong belief in God’s will. Religion plays a large role in many aspects of many individual’s life, especially in regards to health and well-being.
      Name: Biribi wo soro
·      Literal meaning: There is something in the heavens. Hope.
·      Symbolic meaning: Reliance on God for inspiration.
·      Meaning in health: Hope is subjective and individualistic and, therefore, hard to define. In my opinion, the concept of hope has one of the strongest relationships with the health of an individual. We hope to remain healthy; we hope that our loved ones stay healthy; we hope that when we pass, it will be without suffering. Hope in an afterlife is also another crucial component of health. Everyone will die at some point, and believing in a heaven often makes the process of dying easier for the one passing and for loved ones. Life is full of uncertainties, and one’s ability to hope for good outcomes allows one to live a more active and positive life.
The Adinkra symbols are one small aspect of Ghanaian culture that influences the psychosocial components of one’s health. In trying to learn the culture of nursing in Ghana, it is necessary to incorporate the values and beliefs that form the backbone of the development of character and of spirituality in order to better understand our patients and their families.
Oxfam. (n.d.). On the line: the Adinkra story. Retrieved from coolplanet/ontheline/schools/adinkra/adinkrah.htm
Tetteh, V. A. (n.d.). Adinkra – Cultural Symbols of the Asante People. Retrieved from National Commission On Culture: t/File/Adinkra%20Cultural%20Symbols%20of%20the%20Asante%20People.pdf

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