Kente Cloth Origins

Kente is connected with the Ewe and Ashanti people of Ghana and arose first in West Africa during the 17th century.  Although most mainstream texts attribute Kente to the Ashanti, an alternate and credible view is that Kente originated with the Ewe people of Ghana who then passed it on to the Ashanti.

The Ashanti are the members of the Akan people who speak the Akan or the Ashanti dialect.  The word “Kente”, which means basket, is said to originate from their dialect.  However in their language they refer to the cloth as nwentoma, meaning woven cloth.

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The gold statue representing Ananse weaving the web is from the topmost staff held by the king’s advisor (okyeame).

According to legend, two farmers, Krugu Amoaya and Watah Kraban,
from the village of Bonwire, went hunting one afternoon and came across Ananse, a spider popular in Ghanaian mythology, spinning a web.  Astounded by the web’s magnificence, the farmers returned back to their village and tried to recreate what they saw.  The two brothers wove a cloth out of black and white fibers from a raffia tree.  They then presented their cloth to the Ashanti Asantehene, or king, Nana Osei Tutu, who reigned from 1701 to 1717.  During his reign, the King approved it as a royal cloth and accelerated Kente’s development as a cloth of standing reserved for very important events.

The accounts which purport that the Ashantis learned kente weaving from Ananse (the spider from Ghanaian mythology) is thought to be myth.  It would be more credible to say the Ashantis learned it from the Ewes.  The Ewe people are also located in Ghana (and Togo/Benin).  Historical accounts note that the Ewe people named the the cloth from how it was woven – “ke te”, which has now been corrupted into the word “kente”.  In the Ewe language “ke” means to spread or open and “te” means to tighten or press.  In the Ewe language “Ke na te” is the process of making the cloth. In the weaving process you open (“ke”) the weft, pass the waft through it, and press (“te”).  You repeat those actions hundreds and thousands of time to have the kete cloth.

If kente indeed originated from the Ashantis we should be able to get the meaning of the word from the Akan or Ashanti diction or language (they call it nwentoma).  In view of the traditional name of the cloth and the people/language it is derived from it is more plausible that the Kente cloth originated from the Ewe people.

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  1. Kente Cloth: History and Culture by E Asamoah-Yaw & Osei-Bonsu Safo-Kantanka
  2. Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian and African American Identity
  3. Ganyo Fumey

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