Saturday, 2 February 2008


Letter to the Wole Soyinka Society Yahoo Discussion Group

I had earlier drawn attention in this forum to what I have described as a breakthrough in Adinkra research. Adinkra is a system of graphic symbols created by the Akan of Ghana and developed in succeeding centuries to the present day. The symbols primarily represent social philosophy and metaphysical conceptions. They are used in both sacred and secular contexts, on clothing, in architecture and as variety of design roles beyond those. Google search would suggest that it is one of the most pervasive of African communication systems since it emerges in various countries and contexts in and outside Africa.

My earlier posts had presented claims by Kofi Abua-Iyen,a lecturer at the University of Legon to have developed a exploration of Adinkra symbolism that incorporates and extends significantly its symbolic potential. Certain paradoxes emerge, however, in relation to the information presented. Theses paradoxes relate to the question of the truth value of the email communication by myself. Theses questions emerge in the light of the understanding, emerging after the posting by me, that no information can be found on Kofi-Abua-Iyen and the magazine, Gye Nyame, where I had claimed I saw the information, is described as not existing in Ghana. What exists is a newspaper known as Gye Nyame Concord but not a Gye Nyame magazine.

As for Kofi Abua-Iyen’s book, since books no longer need exist in tactile form, but through electronic storage have moved closer to the primordial state of being of a book as a congruence of ideas, it might not be out of place to look for Kofi Abua-Iyen’s book in some form other than cold print. Hindu thought describes the primal sound through which the universe was created as reverberating throughout existence, sustaining and recreating it. Astronomers claim that they can detect echoes of the primal explosion through which the universe came into being. Camile-Griaule and Hampate respectively describe Dogon and Fulani conceptions of human speech as existing in relation to the primal world. These ideas suggest that sound, though non-tactile, is constitutive of material reality. Perhaps. This might indicate that the book which Kofi Abua-Iyen describes himself as having written might exist as the vibrations of sound from your voice when your waking dreams are at their purest, when you are not participating in the rat race represented by the conscription into the market economy, when you move beyond the veneration of intellectual power regardless of its moral value to a veneration of moral and spiritual genius, when you wonder why you are lost but had forgotten that you were lost. In short, when you are awake.


The depth at the centre of Kuntunkantan becomes for Atua Kofo the matrix where the splinters of this Face are encountered.The play of darkness in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks becomes an expression of the notion of Blasphemy at the heart of existence, but blasphemy, not as a defiance of the sacred but as an affirmation of a mode of being that is totally Other in terms of the criteria by which human understanding of order is organised. The lady at the extreme right of the painting, supposedly St.Anne, purportedly pointing at the Child Jesus, to Atua Kofo, has an angularity of posture that suggests that beneath the elegant folds of the exquisitely coloured drapery is hidden, not the body of a woman but the body of a centaur, having the body of an animal but the face of a human being, as attested by the animal crouch of the body, or at least something that only seems to be human but in reality is something that if we were to see in its true nature, would repel sight with an abhorrence at its strangeness, its fundamental difference from human expectation of what is expected exist in nature.

The dark space into which the creature with the face of a beautiful woman points, becomes, therefore, not the space between her and the Child Jesus, implying that she is not pointing at the Divine Child as is traditionally understood , but to a Blasphemy, an abomination, which in its obstruction of sight, its NonLight, its impenetrable darkness, is a Void to which the Divine Child himself does obeisance as He kneels with His hands cupped in front of Him in devotion, a space to which the other child, traditionally identified as St. John, also points , although he is traditionally understood as pointing to the Child Jesus, for whom he acted as a forerunner, an announcer of his coming. So, all these figures are in dynamic action around the dark, impenetrable space that is at the level of the waist of the figure traditionally identified with the Virgin Mary and whose hand hovers delicately over the same enigmatic space, a space impenetrable to the eye but pregnant with suggestive power/evocative possibility. The most unusual setting for what is supposed to a depiction of/an encounter between the Lord of Light, the Child Jesus, his forerunner, St. John, his mother, the Virgin Mary and St. Anne, the mother of St. John, in the depths of the earth, thereby placing an iconographic tableau central to the images of a faith that is not identified with nature, that, in its scriptures, identifies the depths of the earth with the abode of the devil to which Jesus later descends to liberate souls, is most unusual and succeeds in evoking undertones of the uncanny[1].

To Atua Kofo,the entire atmosphere generated by the cave, consisting mainly of thick darkness broken by shafts of light, the structure of the painting, leading the eye from the figures in partial light at the centre of a dark space to partial illumination beyond the thick rocked roof of the cave, drawing the sight of the viewer from the interior where the strange tableau is taking place, to cliffs and mountain ranges in the receding distance, is a chthonic habitation that is closer to evocations of earth goddesses than to the conventional associations of the Son of God in a religion whose scriptures are significantly nonmaterial in their understanding of ultimate value, which orient human life towards the otherworldly, a religion in which God is rigidly masculine and not identified with any aspect of nature but is understood as transcending nature.

It seems we are here in the realms of Baudelaire’s transgressive evocations of the feminine that is resistant to the taming efforts of humanity, or Rilke’s evocations of the angelic which inspires both terror and awe.

[1] See literature on the Uncanny,including todorov and Freud relate these realte to Otto'sonept of the numinous.


The womb of Iya Nla, the chthonic power which resonates in the cosmic force of the Odu, is the emptiness at the centre of the tray which is the physical template of Ifa divination and which represents the dialogue between various forms of being in Ifa. An Emptiness both physical and NonPhysical, seemingly void yet alive with intense fecundative power. This LivingVoid is the space at the centre of Kuntunkantan where the convergence of the dance of circles constitutes the play of the possibilities of being, where the movement of the sea, the rhythms of earth, sky, rain, sun and moon, the oscillation between Life and Death, the patterns shaped by the transformations of all beings, within and beyond life, human and animal, plants and spirits, and those enigmatic beings who are neither human, animal, plant, nor spirit, but who, at times, are related to them, resonate in tune with the drumming, dancing, and feasting going on in the rambling palace of Iya Nla.

Gbogbo ilu ni mbe l’okun, Olokun Seniade Ajifilupe,Oba Omi All kinds of drumming occur beneath the sea, Olokun Seniade, The one who wakes up to the rhythm of drums, lord of the waters”.

As the Mother of All, she receives and entertains visitors, all day, all night-the orisa, spirits of the newly dead, spirits of plants and animals, souls of thousands of children waiting to be born onto the earth, and souls of [the coming-and-going] Abiku[ceaseless navigators between death and life]all flock around her as she dances through her huge reception hall dressed in immaculate white cloth and decked in white coral beads, welcoming one group after another. Iya Nla likes music and dance so much that she can celebrate for weeks without caring for food[1].

Her dance is the dance of life and death, of the convergence of paradox and the mundane, of taboo and ordinary existence

Womb–of-all, home-of-all, hearse–of-all night[2]


Alapo ika.

Ari ikun gbe eniyan mi


A je Orangun ma bi

Odu yi gbiri gbiri ma fo o…

Earth, Ogere, who combs her hair with a hoe,

The owner of a bag full of evil

She has a stomach big enough to swallow human beings


She swallowed the Oragun without vomiting

The big pot that rolls on and on without breaking……

Iya oloyon oruba

Oni’run abe osiki

A b’obo fun ni l’orun bi egbe isu

The pot-breasted mother

With much hair on her private parts;

The owner of a vagina that suffocates like dry yam in the throat

Olokun Ajetiaye,Alagbalugbu omi

Ajawo okoto

Afailorogun pariwo

See see ni gbede

The inexhaustible sea, immense water

Roaring eddy of sea shells

Vibrations from the deep[3]

Her dance is the dance through which the shapes and combinations of being are realised, the transformative dynamism that makes possible the creative development of forms, whether organic or inorganic, whether perceptions or situations, the grasp of possibilities of existence through flights of the self and the mind, the powers through which life and death exist as aspects of the world. The Dance of Something, which, from one perspective, can be approached as Mother, but which, seen from another angle, from the view achieved through the overworld of reality where the body is not, where the traveller exists only as a thought making sense of the Nothingness of the universe, in the emptiness between stars where the self views reality through its essential form as a lacework of living force within the Emptiness, The face sketches itself on the mind, a face indescribable in any human words, beautiful beyond imagining, terrible past all conception, not evil as men in this life know it, but UnEarthly, outside the boundaries of human thought, a face damnable to the creature, who, inhabiting a speck in the universe, having been imbued with life through mysterious means, at the end of its sojourn must give back to the earth the matter of which it was formed, the insect who crawls the earth and calls itself man, who fears the power of the Sight of that Face to strip the self to its core of original Nakedness.[1]

[1] Adaptation from Sharra’s Exile by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests.

[1] From The Gelede Spectacle by Babatunde Lawal

[2] From “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” by Gerald Manley Hopkins

[3] From The Gelede Spectacle by Babatunde Lawal


The interlaced circles of Kuntunkantan, to Atua Kofo, represented a sublime home for the flexible and yet vast intersection of possibilities that is Ifa. The dance of circles emerges as the dialogue between the selves of the human being through the Odu. The entire structure of circular forms in unceasing motion around a centre that integrates them all evokes the play of meanings between the human self in its double but united selves and between these and the universe of possibility represented by the human world, and the world beyond the world immediately accessible to human beings but which shapes it, the world where dwell the Orisa, the underlying animating forms of the universe.

She also visualised the circles of Kuntunkantan as representing the actualisation of human possibility through the four basic lines from which all possibilities in the Ifa system are developed. Extrapolating from the traditional framework, Atua Kofo saw these four basic lines as evoking the divisions of existence in terms of mind, matter, space and time and the actualisation of existence through their interaction. Without matter, space and time, a material structure would not exist for conscious being to operate in, but without the existence of conscious being, who would perceive the play of matter, space and time?

The blank space beyond Kuntunkantan becomes the notion of unbounded possibility or the larger set of possibilities from which the particular structure of possibilities at play in a system are abstracted-the system ranging from the universe as a whole to particular human situations. The circles represent the structuring of the particular subset of possibilities at play within that system, whether perceptual or situational, or particular ontological or biological forms. The intersection of all the circles in the central circle symbolises the integration of these factors in terms of a central point of manifestation.

Atua Kofo also saw the space beyond the circles of Kuntunkantan as the primordial Wisdom in which the Ifa system is grounded, the Wisdom, which, coming before time, encapsulates all that could be and now is, and enables an understanding of what could be. To her, the circles evoked the organisation of this unstructured, unbounded, timeless Wisdom in terms of particular interpretive and integrative structures. The intersection of circles is the point of manifestation where the time bound, concrete manifestation of this Wisdom is actualised through the concrete particulars of existence. These particulars are subsumed in the Odu, who embody the speech of Ifa, a speech that incorporates the voices of humans, animals, plants and spirits, and, is therefore, the womb of Iya Nla, the earth, on which and through whose sustenance all terrestrial beings live.


Or Ifa could be understood as a book, which contains within it all possibilities of existence. Each chapter represents a particular structure of possibilities.

But what book is made up of chapters which are words developed from the symbolic significance of numbers along with being alive and conscious? The chapters are not simply an inert compilation of words but are themselves living forms, entities which have their own sense of direction, and whose origin and the larger part of their significance is unknown to their human collaborators, the Ifa priests.

How was she to represent, in a memorably simple but graphic manner, Ifa’s dialogue between various universes of being? Its symphony of voices speaking across various worlds of existence which speak to each other though the instruments of the system, the Odu, instruments which are wondrous in being both forms of the human mind and non-human forms?

How does one recall with graphic force the fact that in Ifa, the various selves of the human being are evoked into dialogue? The conscious everyday self and the immortal self, which encapsulates the destiny, the motive force of the individual’s existence? How does one represent the dialogue between these selves through the Odu who are spirits embodied through numbers and words?


A keen sensitivity to the architectonic power of Ifa, the sense it gives of a form extending into infinite space but which is shaped into intelligibility through numerical and verbal configurations, led Atua Kofo to interpret the Ifa system in terms of Kuntunkantan so as to integrate her understanding of Ifa through a simple but powerfully evocative symbol, a symbol recalled with ease but which would encapsulate Ifa’s vast universe of explicit and implicit meanings.

She had been pondering her experiences with Ifa and was amazed by the manner in which the system developed a complex architecture of meaning, like a building with an infinite number of rooms, but, which, paradoxically, can be viewed as a single building, whose outline could be discerned and its structure mapped and explored, if one looked at it from a particular angle.

What she also found particularly impressive was the development of vast complexity, of infinite possibility of meaning and interpretation, from a very simple base. A base constituted by four lines. No more.

It seemed to her like an infinite structure, made intelligible and accessible to navigation by being built up from four rooms which are progressively elaborated into an infinity of rooms, but which, looked at from a particular angle, have a finite number. Through studying the finite number, the infinite possibilities represented by that finitude could be accessed.

Various universes of being communicate with each other within these rooms and through the passages between them. The language they use is in communication is known as the Odu of Ifa.

That language itself represents in a nutshell the wondrous character of Ifa as a structure that integrates the panoply of the cosmos, a structure that folds the universe into itself and unfolds it to make possible by human beings a cognition of the wondrous interaction between various aspects of the cosmos.

Within this language all possibilities of existence can be discerned. Each word in that language is the name of a particular possibility of existence, already existing or yet to exist.


The Odu of Ifa encapsulates a conception of a relationship between Wisdom understood as both timeless and time bound. The Wisdom that exists in relation to the earth and the cosmos as developments within time, works in relation with the Wisdom of timelessness that precedes the creation of the cosmos when all secrets of existence were yet to be. The presence of this primordial Wisdom at the origin of being, of time and matter, enables a universal knowledge that is synchronised with the time based, materially focused knowledge of the Odu, which is cosmic but concrete, to create system that surveys and categorises all existence, from concrete forms to abstractions, from terrestrial forms to the stars. The primordial, timeless Wisdom is Ifa, Father, the primordial progenitor and anchor in the Before-Time, and the cosmic, time related wisdom, which enables the wisdom of timelessness to be correlated with the time structured framework of human existence is Odu, the Wife of Ifa, Mother, the Wisdom that lights people’s paths in this world of love and pain, joy and fear. The Wisdom that shows the way to the rectification of the insoluble. The Wisdom that speaks in a language that recognises all elements that populate the universe, from the squirrel to the spider, from the chicken to the Cotton Plant, from the Iroko tree to the hill, from Death to the divinities, from the moon and stars to human beings.


Nana Atuan, an Adinkrahen, was in the habit of addressing Kuntunkantan the way one addresses a an interlocutor to whom was one was grateful for precious time given. At the conclusion of her contemplation of Kuntunkantan she would address the Adinkra symbol mentally, from one mind to another mind, as it were, and say “Thank You”. She saw the symbol as representing a confluence of possibilities, and that her addressing it as an entity that was relating with her enabled her to express her gratitude at participating in the liberation of mind, the freedom from immediate concerns, from the energy sapping creepers of the mind, enabling the ease of body she enjoyed through the contemplation of the profoundly evocative design.

She claimed that this act of articulated gratitude, of addressing the symbol as if it were living, led to a sense of personality emerging from the symbol, a welling forth of a presence in relation to it that suggested a sense of warmth, a sense of being enclosed within a protective embrace, the way in which the centre of Kuntunkantan is surrounded in a protective embrace by the surrounding circles, a sense of the nurturing togetherness of a family, a sense of being at home in the world, with the universe as a region uniquely suited to the presence of herself, Nana Atuan. With all its fears, troubles, dangers, anxieties, she was at home, she felt at home.

She expressed her experience in the following lines:

Where will I find wisdom?

Wisdom that will free me from the prison of my mind?

In the centre of Kuntunkantan


Who holds me to herself

The influence of Nana Atuan’s relationship with Kuntunkantan as Mother eventually inspired a correlation between Kuntunkantan and the Odu of the Ifa system of knowledge and divination that was developed by the Yoruba of Nigeria. The Odu, like Kuntunkantan, also embodies the sense of empty but potent space, of a matrix within and through which an understanding of the possibilities of the universe may be assembled and reassembled, of the symbol as evocative of having a life and personality of its own, of a means of integrating the cosmos of the human mind and the cosmos of the world outside the mind, but, which, to some degree, is perceived by the mind. But along with these associations, which bring the Odu into line with the fundamental conceptions of Kuntunkantan as they emerged in the fifteenth century, the Odu also embodies certain ideas that made it possible to develop Kuntunkantan in terms of an elaboration of new ideas from Ifa.


Letter to the Wole Soyinka Society Yahoo Discussion Group

16 Nov 2007


In response to my drawing attention to the claims about a breakthrough in Adinkra research announced by Kofi Abua-Iyen ,a specialist in the ideational values of visual culture at the University of Legon in Ghana, in his book Adinkra as Integrative Hermeneutic which the author claims integrates Classical African systems of thought, as well as broad range of cognitive systems in different cultures in term of the Akan symbols of Adinkra, some correspondents have expressed their perplexity at not finding any information about Kofi Abua-Iyen at the University of Legon or any information about his book from any source.

Some, writing from Ghana, claim that the intellectual magazine, Gye Nyame, which I wrote I got the information about Abua-Iyen's book from, does not exist in Ghana.

I appreciate their perplexity but I wonder if the wrong questions are not being asked by these enquirers, and a change of approach needed in order to clarify the situation.

Has Kofi Abua-Iyen perhaps been a past member of staff of the university and a mistake is being made about temporal order in relation to his membership?

Could he perhaps be a potential or future member of staff? Perhaps his appointment is being considered and the reporter took its ratification for granted and described the appointment as substantive.

I really would not know. I have simply presented the information as it has been available to me. And I have learnt that the fact that something is not obviously true does not imply that is not true. Perhaps it is true, but in a manner different from conventional understanding would have it.

Along those lines, since the first question is about the existence of Kofi Abua-Iyen as a member of staff of the University of Legon, one could ask, "What ,really, is the University of Legon?"

One needs to establish the mode of being of a phenomenon, its intrinsic ontological status, as far as that is possible, along with its classification in relation to other phenomena, in order to ascertain what could belong to that phenomenon.

Is the university identical with the complex of physical structures that bears its name?

Is it correlative with the human beings who work in the buildings that bear that name?

Would it remain the University of Legon if either the physical structure did not exist or if it did exist and the workers and students normally gathered to work and study inside it as members of the university were not present?

Could the university exist without the administrative and social structures constituted by its workers and students?

Could these social structures exist without the physical existence of the students and workers?

Must we have physically embodied beings in order to have relational structures consisting in interactions between conscious entities, and the resultant sharing of ideas that is central to a scholarly community?

Could the university exist as the raison d'etre, the purpose for being that would normally bring its students and staff together in relation to the particular sense of direction represented by that university?

Can the university exist as an idea, an idea not realised in or represented by any particular physical structure, an idea not embodied by any group of people who constitute its workers and its students?

Can it exist as a pure, unembodied idea, an aspiration, a vision, a wish, an ideal?

Perhaps Kofi Abua-Iyen could be understood as existing as a member of the community represented by the University of Legon but not in the sense in which the notion of membership of a corporate community is normally understood.

Ali Mazrui dedicates a book to Makerere University, Uganda, along the following lines "You were built for the ages, but you must wait for the ages to rebuild you".

K. A. Busia in African Worlds describes the Classical conceptions of the Ashanti, a subgroup of the Akan, as including an understanding of the human person in which an aspect of the individual derives from a communal fellowship ultimately anchored in a non-human but [ ]materially realised mode of being.


In relation to this, Okrapon Bosomafi sees the origin of Adinkra as possibly the outcome of meditations on the imprint on the okara, of the “small bit of the Creator that lives in every person’s body”, as described by Busia,of the intelligence or message the person brings with them from Otweaduampon Nyame when taking leave of Nyame,to adapt Danquah’s words. Whatever the origins of Adinkra might be, Kuntunkantan can be used in evoking a sense of ultimate purpose, and the integration of the disparate endeavours of ones life into a unity, a unity related to the evocation of the totality of one’s possibilities as springing from the ground of ones being. This understanding of human possibility is correlated with the two hundred and fifty six Odu of the Yoruba Ifa and the Dahomean Fa,to represent an understanding of the variety of ways of organising one’s life in terms of a centre of purpose, one central concept being represented by one Odu. All the Odu representing not one unique possibility but a possibility of combination of various possibilities in one unique way. It is undtstood that these possibilities could be relevant for one stage of a persons life to give way fro another only to remerge at later stage, or constitute guiding centre fro an entire life time, with the other possibilities operating in relation to this central possibility.

In terms of the possibilities of the self, the Adinkra symbols could be meditated on as expressions of the potential of the self which are enfolded within its innermost embrace, in the manner in which the petals of a flower are folded within it before they are unfolded, or as the realisation of possibilities that emerge ion the course of living and which are not inherent to the self but constitute an informed choice from the realm of possibilities that open up to the individual in the existential context of their lives. Along those lines, contemplation of the Adinkra symbols could be understood as a means of entering into the presence of the Okara so as to experience the totality of its possibilities or as a means of integrating the totality of possibilities encountered or even envisaged in the course of one life or at a particular point of that life, a practice that could lead ultimately to an achievement which the Adinkrahene-the Adinkra community-correlated with Zulu thought, where, as described by Mazisi Kunene

After creation, man was endowed with two minds: the precision mind and the cosmic mind. While the precision mind analyses and reorganises the details of the material environment, the cosmic mind synthesizes fragments of information to create a universally significant body of knowledge. Man can live quite happily using the precision mind, but he can only attain knowledge through a balanced functioning of the two aspects of reason. At the highest point of reasoning, significant units of information merge with universal concepts pulled together y a unique form of intellectual power.

When the cosmic mind grinds its elements of experience into a totality of knowledge, it acquires a discipline which by its horrific power erases the boundaries between the past and the present, the living and the dead, the physical and the non-physical. The individual initiate acquires, like the chameleon’s all round vision, the capacity to conceptualise the totality of life at once. Such wisdom is enshrined in the rounded calabash of symbolic cosmic power.

Contemplation of Adinkra, therefore, enables one to range over entire universes of understanding, whether already encoded in relation to Adinkra symbolism or not. Such meditation, to adapt Kunene’s description of cognition, is milking the cow of experience, it is a distillation of understanding through the fire of effort and non-effort, through active thought and non-thought, the latter being the concentrated abstinence from thought that leads to understanding, guided by the evocative designs of Adinkra symbolism, as in Kuntunkantan which evokes the unity of the many in the one.


The understanding of Otweaduampon Nyame as the pivot of the cosmos is symbolised in Akan drum language by the expanse of the terrestrial and celestial worlds. Kwabenia Nkentia’s translation of Akan drum poetry illustrates this:

Otweaduampon Nyame, the Ancient God,

The Heavens are wide, exceedingly wide,

The Earth is wide, very, very wide.

We have lifted it and taken it away,

We have lifted it and brought it back,

From time immemorial.

Within the esoteric level of meaning often encoded in Akan drum language and not previously accessible to the uninitiated, the notion of lifting the earth, taking it away and bringing it back, evokes the process of combining various interpretive possibilities of phenomena, deconstructing and reconstructing them. The transformative processes made possible by human cognitive capacity become a lever for “lifting” the earth, taking it away and bringing it back, metaphorically speaking. The earth is conceived here as the cognitive image that constitutes each person’s understanding of the world. The act of lifting and taking it away is embodied in the process of examining its components, dismantling them, as it were, deconstructing them in order to examine their relative validity in relation to each other or to an overarching conception of truth or reality, or even as an demonstration of an understanding of the contingent character of human understanding as being contingent on factors that are incidental to environmental circumstances, and, which, in various environments, make possible diverse interpretive possibilities.

So the person who would lift and take away their own world examines its constituents in the light of that understanding, and possibly reconstitutes them so as to imagine what it could be to experience other perspectives on existence, in its specifics and particulars, that could be inspired by environmental possibilities different from those that have shaped their own conceptions. The person therefore opens a window into other possibilities of seeing the world within the otherwise significantly homogenous and endogenously grounded conceptions of the world that characterise human thought in various cultures.

The act of “bringing back the world” which had been “lifted and taken away” involves a process of reassembling the constituents of one’s view on the world, in relation to whatever modifications have occurred within it in relation to the exercise of re-examination of its constituents and general/overall structure, and or/of imaginative participation in other cognitive universes.

Within these cognitive exercises, the conception of Otweaduampon Nyame as the pivot of existence can be variously understood. It could be approached as a cognitive tool that facilitates efforts to develop a relational integrity in ones understanding of the universe, an integrity demonstrated in terms of a functional relationships between various aspects of consciousness where one they do not act at cross purposes, as well as in terms of the truth value of one’s conceptions, and in terms of a sensitivity to differing conceptions of the world in its particulars and as a whole, unity. Integrate ones understanding of the universe.


Kofi Abua-iyen argues that the impetus for the development of this symbol in terms of macrocosmic relationships with conceptions of the human person emerged from contacts between Akan traders and Fulani pastoralists. The pastoralists introduced to Akan traders their sophisticated methods for generating conceptions of integration between discrete units in their environment with increasingly larger units so as to arrive at an integrated conception of the universe. The genius of this integrative technique constituted, among other striking factors, in its use of classifications of the various patterns in the coats of their cattle. These patterns were elaborated in terms of a symbolic scheme where they served as templates for integrating a broad range of observations of and conceptions on the nature of the universe, from the materiel and non-material constitution of the human person to the metaphysical constitution of the cosmos.

Akan thinkers eventually developed in abstract terms this technique of using a prominent aspect of the environment as a template for the broadest generalisations. This prominent environmental feature is represented in the Fulani scheme by the Fulani’s relationship with their cattle, an exceptionally close bond which inspired the Fulani to interpret their cattle and their qualities in terms of the most magnificent symbolism, from the terrestrial to the cosmic.

Akan thinkers developed this cognitive strategy in abstract terms by using non-naturalistic Adinkra symbolism as their template for creating correlations between the particular and the general. The move into visual abstraction facilitated ready recall of symbolic values and the ability to expand or contract the range of associations evoked by the stark simplicity of the symbol.

The initial impulse for the development of this conception is attributed to Kewrewen Wenton in the fifteenth century, who, reflecting on the Akan conception of Otweaduampon Nyame, the ground of existence, understood in terms of the scope of the cosmos, laid the foundations for a method of articulating the notion of ontological unity represented by the conception of Otweaduampon Nyame.


Kuntunkantan came to represent the totality of possibilities in relation to a system.

This could imply the totality of knowledge within a system. This knowledge could be realised and actual or potential. In terms of potentiality, it refers to the totality of knowledge possible in relation to a system. In terms of actual or realised knowledge, it refers to various degrees of explicitness of knowledge in or in relation to that system.

Two major systems are posited.

The first is the individual.

The second is the totality of being.

In reference to the individual, the symbol refers to the individual’s knowledge or the totality of their potential for knowledge. What are the boundaries of this? What are its shaping factors? To what degree and through what methods can this potentiality for knowledge be fully realised? What is the relationship between this potentiality for knowledge understood in relation to the epistemological structures and processes that are dominant in terms of each individual’s cognition, cognitive processes, the manner in which this is structured by biology and society, and the absolute possibility of expansion of knowledge through a theoretical or hypothetical exposure to as expansive a potential for knowledge as possible?

Between the system constituted by the human being and the cosmos, there exist systems intermediate between them in terms of scope. The human society, the non-human world, the global world, both human and non-human.

Ultimately, Kuntunkantan /could represent the unity of the cosmos in its macrocosmic and microcosmic aspects. The interlaced rings are/ may be understood, in microcosmic terms, as representing the various aspects of the human being, symbolised by the five elements that constitute the human person in the Fulani creation story, the four basic lines of the Odu of Ifa from which its complete repertoire of two hundred and fifty six hermeneutic possibilities emerges, and the stages of development of the human being in Classical Dogon thought, among other correlations with Classical African conceptions of the human being.

The microcosmic correlations broaden out to integrate relationships with macrocosmic coordinates. These extra personal correlations begin from the particular spatial coordinates through which any individual navigates their material environment, moves into the social coordinates through which the social environment is navigated, and eventually radiates outward into a relationship with metaphysical conceptions that underlie the physical form of the cosmos and its character in relation to the emergence and development of consciousness.


A similar conception of relationships between circumscription that makes disciplined and productive activity possible and the freedom that enables creative development is represented by Aquinas’s conception of the ground of being as the end, agent and exemplar of existence and as the source of the “activity called freedom”. Along those lines, the social and material structures of individual life make that life possible as a biological and human development, but within or in relation to the circumscription created by biology, society, the limitations of space and time, a degree of free will is enabled through which the distinctive development of every human being is realised.

Encapsulating a similar conception as Aquinas, Pascal describes God as a circle with its circumference everywhere and its centre nowhere. The emptiness of the centre suggesting plenitude. Of opportunity suggested by empty space where possibilities are yet undefined. A plenitude of creative possibilities suggested by its associations with primal beginnings where the structuring forms of time, space and matter are yet to be. The Bindu of Hindu Yantra of out which everything emerges. The Ain Soph, the Unmanifest of the Kabalistic Tree of Life. A sense of freshness, of nascent, pregnant possibility evoked by what Achebe describeS as “Morning Yet on Creation Day”.



The design of the Adinkra symbol called Kuntunkantan represents significantly those qualities of Adinkra that make many of its designs uniquely suited for mediation. By meditation I refer to a process whereby the mind focuses on a particular subject to the exclusion of everything else. This subject could be an idea or a form which could appeal to any of the five senses or to more than one at the same time. This form could be a visual image, a smell, a sound, the feel or taste of something or even a feeling. This process of concentration facilitates a range of mental processes. One of them is that is facilitating the coordination of ideas already present in the mind in more effective than if the effort were carried out purely by ratiocinative effort working directly on the ideas themselves. It is a also claimed that the process could lead to an entry into levels of awareness that are not normally accessible to consciousness but which exist as the root of consciousness. These levels are understood to be inaccessible on account of their being blocked by normal activity of consciousness. The meditation exercise stops this activity and enables the untrammelled character of the mind to manifest itself.

The design of this particular Adinkra symbol makes it clear why Adinkra symbols are uniquely suited to meditation. In speaking of being uniquely suited to meditation, I am not describing Adinkra symbols as the best of all possible or extant symbols for meditation. I am arguing that Adinkra symbols demonstrate a unique of design motifs, which, on account of relationships between shapes, colours and the human visual perception and cognition, are particularly helpful as a means of concentrating the mind on a particular form, or even a subject which that from is understood to represent. Adinkra symbols are distinctive developments of particular shapes and colours which are particularly useful for this purpose and the usefulness of which is demonstrated by their recurrence and extensive and elaborate use in various cultures as symbol systems. This use is particularly striking in those cultures which have developed the discipline of meditation to high levels, such as the religious cultures of Hinduism and Buddhism.

The particular motifs in the Adinkra symbol of Kuntunkantan which represent its value as a contemplative aid and which evoke similar values in other Adinkra designs using similar or different motifs, are the use of circles, in this case circles of equal size, the organisation of the circles in terms of a concentric formation and the use of stark primary colours, in this example of Kuntunkantan, black and white.

The intersection of all four circles at one centre pulls the eye towards that centre, while the integration of the circles round a central point enables the gaze to hold both the central point and the radius and circumference of all for circles at once. The structuring of the gaze through the design of the symbol enables the eye to perceive at the same time, the integration of unity-the centre-through multiplicity-the four distinct but intersecting/conjoined circles. It also enables the structure to be seen simultaneously in terms of a dynamic movement from a multiplicity-the four circles-to a unity-the centre they all share. The development of dialectic of unity to multiplicity and back again, evokes possibilities of conceiving the symbol in terms of ideational or conceptual possibilities of various kinds where such a correlative movement between the multiple and the unitary is foregrounded.

The Buddhist iconographic form of the Mandala of the Two Realms, for example, develops a similar dialectic, but does this through the use of two images placed side by side, while the Adinkra design achieves this through the use of one image. The Buddhist image, however, is elaborated at much greater detail than the Adinkra symbol, but the question of elaboration of the symbol could be developed in relation to Adinkra in terms of individual taste. Its stark simplicity is central to its evocative power and its value as an instrument that liberates the associative powers of a person reflecting on it.


The design of the Adinkra symbol called Kuntunkantan represents significantly those qualities of Adinkra that make many of its designs uniquely suited for mediation. By meditation I refer to a process whereby the mind focuses on a particular subject to the exclusion of everything else. This subject could be an idea or a form which could appeal to any of the five senses or to more than one at the same time. This form could be a visual image, a smell, a sound, the feel or taste of something or even a feeling. This process of concentration facilitates a range of mental processes. One of them is that is facilitating the coordination of ideas already present in the mind in more effective than if the effort were carried out purely by ratiocinative effort working directly on the ideas themselves. It is a also claimed that the process could lead to an entry into levels of awareness that are not normally accessible to consciousness but which exist as the root of consciousness. These levels are understood to be inaccessible on account of their being blocked by normal activity of consciousness. The meditation exercise stops this activity and enables the untrammelled character of the mind to manifest itself.

The design of this particular Adinkra symbol makes it clear why Adinkra symbols are uniquely suited to meditation. In speaking of being uniquely suited to meditation, I am not describing Adinkra symbols as the best of all possible or extant symbols for meditation. I am arguing that Adinkra symbols demonstrate a unique of design motifs, which, on account of relationships between shapes, colours and the human visual perception and cognition, are particularly helpful as a means of concentrating the mind on a particular form, or even a subject which that from is understood to represent. Adinkra symbols are distinctive developments of particular shapes and colours which are particularly useful for this purpose and the usefulness of which is demonstrated by their recurrence and extensive and elaborate use in various cultures as symbol systems. This use is particularly striking in those cultures which have developed the discipline of meditation to high levels, such as the religious cultures of Hinduism and Buddhism.


Letter to the Wole Soyinka Society Yahoo Discussion Group

7 Nov 2007


From the 7th November 2007 edition of the Ghanaian intellectual magazine Gye Nyame:


Abua Kofi-Iyen,a specialist in the philosophical implications of visual forms at the University of Legon, announced yesterday at a lecture held to promote his new book, Adinkra Symbolism as Integrative Hermeneutic ,that his research project of twenty-nine years into Adinkra has uncovered conclusive evidence that this symbolic system represents a visual language that integrates a broad range of symbol systems in sub-Saharan Africa.

He claimed that his research demonstrates that the symbolism conventionally attributed to Adinkra, a famous system of visual symbols developed by the Akan, represents only a top layer of a complex network of associations to which the conventional meanings give access, but only if certain "keys of knowledge" as he called them, are available to the inquirer. He claims that Adinkra symbolism has often been studied in isolation from its origin in an esoteric framework of knowledge which enables access to its range of meaning because the custodians of this esoteric structure were not convinced that society was ripe for the transgressive character of the insights the symbols make possible.

Kofi-Iyen claims that he has always been intrigued by the description of the significance of the Adinkra motifs in J.B Danquah's The Akan Doctrine of God. Danquah describes them as representing the messages embodied by the individual soul as its own bequest as it takes leave of God to depart to earth. Danquah concludes that the motifs suggest a reflection on relationships between life before birth and life after death, between those on earth and those beyond, between time and non-time. Kofi-Iyen described himself as deeply intrigued by these pregnant comments. This led him to track down all research into Adinkra, to question as many Adinkra creators as possible, and to reflect at length upon the motifs. He says that this effort, after about eight years, at last led him to run into a particular corpus of Adinkra interpretations which differed from the conventional in that they represented a significant elaboration upon the conventionally understood significations. At times theses changes even involved an iconoclastic modification of the conventional understanding of the motifs, as if reflecting the development of a counter tradition to the conventional understanding.

He says that he traced the source of these interpretations and discovered them as occurring most frequently in an area around the Suhuma forest near Kumasi. The interpretations were the work of a group of Adinkra scholars, who working as the heirs of an endogenous tradition that had created the motifs in the first place, had developed them far beyond the meanings normally attributed to them. He says he won their trust after five years of dedicated effort and from them was able to gain the knowledge that constitutes the crowning glory of his work. His book describes what he learnt from them about the relationship of Adinkra symbolism to a continent wide knowledge system, which includes such systems as the Nigerian Ifa, Afa and Oguega, the Dahomean Fa, Dogon thought and Bambara philosophies, among others. He describes Adinkra as embodying the apex of a pyramid of interpretation which integrates these and other systems, a central matrix of knowledge that enables the unity of the others to be understood.

He argues that the design motifs of Adinkra, its mathematical forms which demonstrate aspects of fractal geometry, its use of particular colour schemes, its employment of non-representational iconography, demonstrate a complex network of associations that correlates the verbal, visual and mathematical forms of a broad range of systems of knowledge in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Response to Kofi-Iyen's research has been mixed. Some fellow scholars who have been following his work claim scepticism about his claims about a hidden tradition of Adinkra interpretation but some give credence to the logical validity of the interpretations of Adinkra in his book.The sceptics counter, however, that those interpretations do not need a story about hidden custodians of knowledge to validate them. The issue is complicated by the fact that, pressed to identify his sources, the proto-Adinkra community, as someone has described them, he claims that an inviolable condition of his learning from them was the promise not to divulge their identity. He claims, however, that they do not constitute a group different from other members of society but are simply ordinary people who have devoted themselves to a lifetime's exploration of the deeper possibilities of Adinkra that go beyond their conventional usage.

Can this story be true?

If it can be true, or cannot be, what factors make that the case?

If it can be true, would that make its truth factual?