The brilliantly colored textiles of the Akan people—commonly known as “kente”—are by far the most well-known type of African textile. The dramatic patterns in burgundy and golden orange on the black background are woven in a technique called frapenu, or “thrown twice.” This technique results in a weft overlay so dense that it obscures the black threads beneath.
The design of this cloth was named Fathia Fata Nkrumah, or “Fathia is befitting for Nkrumah,” to commemorate the 1957–1958 New Year’s Eve marriage of Kwame Nkrumah, who was then Prime Minister of Ghana. Nkrumah was a proponent of the Pan-African movement and his marriage to the Egyptian, Fathia Rizk, furthered that cause. A charismatic leader, he became the first president of the Republic of Ghana in 1960. However, his popularity soon waned in view of his increasingly autocratic rule, and in 1966 he was deposed in a coup d’etat. Reflecting this situation, the name of the pattern was changed to Obaakofo Mmu Man, “One man does not rule a nation,” and it has come to symbolize balanced government and participatory democracy. This revised interpretation pertains when the current political leaders wear the design for state occasions. The fascinating history of the pattern illustrates the cultural currency that “kente” cloth holds and how poignantly the weavings “speak” to the Akan.
Kente cloth is worn toga-style, wrapped around the body, covering the left shoulder and arm. Production of Akan royal cloths began in the seventeenth century and continued under exclusive royal patronage until the mid-twentieth century. In recent years, changes in government and economics have resulted in more widespread use of these elegant textiles by anyone who can afford to purchase them.