Akan Proverbs
as Message-Making Tools
in Graphic Design

Thesis by Michael Akuamoah-Boateng
June 6, 2013 |Arts


Among the many cultures in Africa, the people of Ghana (West Africa) also find visual images and ordinary objects as symbolic ways to communicate knowledge, feeling and values. One aspect that makes their message making unique is the use of proverbs within their communications. Through proverbs, the Ashante people of Ghana make meaning by studying the aesthetic and structural characteristics of nature found in plants, animals and their environment to evoke conceptual images.

Proverbs are used to educate, instruct, inform, announce, inspire, decorate and attract attention towards cultural values and morals. This manner of communication can be seen in the many forms of art which play major parts in their everyday lives.


The objective of this study is to explore West African approach to design in order to enhance the way color, shape, and form could be used with proverbs as a form of education in Graphic Design. This will help other designers to decipher the correct or appropriate usage of visual or verbal symbolism to explain the beliefs that meet the demands of both the social and business culture of new immigrants from Ghana.

Potential Application

The potential application of this thesis project is intended to promote cultural awareness and diversity around the city of cities of Rochester and Buffalo in Upstate New York. It will take the form of exterior and interior store signage, promotional messages and artifacts to be shared with customers while purchasing or visiting the business. Proverbs will serve as main message making tools within this thesis application.

Selected Key Questions

• What is a proverb?
• How do African designers use proverbs in their art work?
• Are there any existing designs solution that incorporate proverbs?
• How can proverbs be a visual tool for education?
• How do people respond to designs based on proverbs?
• Will there be any cultural misunderstanding?

• How can a proverb demonstrate universal ideas that can be applied to many cultures?

Problem Statement

New immigrants arrive in the United States with different cultural backgrounds and personal preferences. These differences could help individuals live together or set them apart from people within the community. Promoting cultural understanding is necessary to bring people together who otherwise might not be part of a unified group.
One way to effectively promote cultural understanding is through the use of proverbs. West Africans use proverbs as a communication tool to educate the general public about the beliefs, history and culture of its people. Proverbs are passed on from generation to generation as an effective communication tool to prepare people as they move along into the future. In short, a proverb is said to be "the horse that carries one swiftly to the discovery of ideas and understanding". Studying these important visual languages are essential for the designer to gain the required knowledge in making the right decision with proverbs as a message making tool.

This thesis will examine other options for promoting cultural diversity through the exploration and explanation of some Akan proverbs as message making tools in Graphic Design. Cultural differences are obstacles that separate people. Proverbs will be used to show how similar characteristics can be related to many cultural backgrounds. Research will use several West African shops and businesses in Western NY specifically from Buffalo and Rochester, NY owned by immigrants from Ghana as the local hot spots to educate the public, thus providing those exposed a better understanding of the Ghanaian culture.

Research and Analysis

Asafo Flags

The Asafo which means fighters in fante language pertains to military organizations of men in the Fante villages in Ghana who defended their villages against local enemies during the colonial era. The Fante people live along the coast of Ghana to the west of Accra in fishing villages such as Elmina, and in the town of Cape Coast. Elmina was the site of the first major European settlement in West Africa with the construction of St. George's Castle by the Portuguese in 1492. It is here where the Fantes adopted European-inspired regalia and gradually modified them for local use. These appliqued patchwork banners combine the tradition of communication by proverb with military pomp and display. Flags are created during the initiation of each new captain of a local militia company and are displayed at festivals and funerals. Each unique Asafo flag depicts either a historical event, identifies the company with an animal or image of power, or depicts a proverb to boast, taunt or threaten other companies. The British flag within the Asafo flag was used until 1957, when Ghana gained its independence from the British. Since then the flag of Ghana is often substituted at the left hand corner of the flag. The following are examples of traditional Asafo flags

Asafo dance  Asafo flag


Kente is a hand woven ceremonial cloth known among the Ashante people of Ghana, West Africa. It is woven on a horizontal treadle loom in narrow strips measuring about 4 inches wide which are sewn together into one large piece of fabric. This cloth comes in various colors and it is usually worn to social and religious gatherings. Kente has been the most popular and best known of all African textiles and was originally designed to be worn exclusively by the royal family during the eighteenth century. It is now used in the celebration of African American heritage, such as Black History Month. Kente cloth was designed to function not only as a cloth for covering ones body but also as a visual representation of its people's history, philosophy, ethics, oral literature, moral values, social code of conduct, religious beliefs, political thought and aesthetic principles. Through proverbs, kente cloth is able to express these ideas in different textile designs. It has been recorded that more than three hundred different kente designs have been made and each one carries a particular message.

Bonwire Kente weaver kente

Wood Carving

Wood carving is an old indigenous craft that still remains as an important cultural form of art among the Ashante people of Ghana. Wood is used to carve various artifacts which are used for either ceremonial occasions or as a household items. Among some of the household artifacts are Adwa (stool), Akuaba (doll), Dua afe ( wooden comb) and Poma (staff). In most carved artifacts, the local artist uses the proverb as a form of inspiration to create symbolic representation for political or household use. The Adwa (stool) is used to indicate status, power and the succession of chiefs and kings. It is carved from single blocks of wood. An Asante stool traditionally has crescent-shaped seats, flat bases and complex support structures which exist in many designs with symbolic meaning. Asante stools are spiritual as well as practical. They were understood to be the seat of the owner's soul and, when not in use, were leaned against a wall so that other souls passing by would not settle. Carved dolls, jewel boxes, and combs are used to express beauty, love and fertility. A man may carve and give a wooden comb to a woman to express his love for her. Men also use canes (walking sticks) that are carved to incorporate several expressive symbols to communicate personal status and beliefs.


The following are a few proverbs from different cultures around the world.

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.

This proverb from the Chinese culture is intended to teach the importance of respecting the views of the elderly.

One does not make the wind, but is blown by it.

This saying, found in many Asian cultures, suggests that people are guided by fate rather than by their own devices. A somewhat similar view about destiny and fate is found in the Spanish proverb that states, Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get. And for the Mexican culture, fate is affirmed in a proverb that notes, Man proposes and God disposes.

Fall seven times, stand up eight.

This Japanese proverb teaches the value of persistence and patience.

A man’s tongue is his sword.

With this saying, Arabs are taught to value words and use them in a powerful and forceful manner.

Those who know do not speak and those who speak do not know. This famous quote from the Analects of Confucius, stressing silence over talk, is very different from the advice given in the previous Arab proverb.

Even in paradise, it’s not good to be alone.

This Jewish proverb reaffirms the collective nature of that culture and the importance placed on interaction. Combining interaction with education and collectivism, yet another Jewish proverb offers the following truism: A table is not blessed if it has fed no scholars.

When spiderwebs unite, they can tie up a lion.

This Ethiopian proverb teaches the importance of collectivism and group solidarity. In the Japanese culture, the same idea is expressed with the following proverb: A single arrow is easily broken, but not a bunch. For the Yoruba of Africa, the same lesson is taught with the proverb A single hand cannot lift the calabash to the head.

A harsh word dropped from the tongue cannot be brought back by a coach and six horses. This Chinese proverb stresses the importance of monitoring your anger. The Japanese have a similar proverb regarding anger: The spit aimed at the sky comes back to one. The Koreans, who also believe that interpersonal anger should be kept in check, offer the following proverb: Kick a stone in anger and harm your own foot.

Sweep only in front of your own door.

This German proverb reflects the very private nature of the Germans and their strong dislike of gossip. There is a somewhat similar proverb found in the Swedish culture: He who stirs another’s porridge often burns his own.

Proverbs in Ashanti and their Meaning

Bofre a eye de na dua da asee
Translation: The pawpaw tree with the stick under it has the sweet fruit
Meaning: This is a very flexible proverb. It is generally used to mean that you can tell when someone or something is good, there are signs

Ahwenepa nkasa
Translation: Good waist beads do not make noise
Meaning: Similar to, "An empty barrel always makes the most noise."
You say this when someone is behaving badly. or To suggest the quality of an object or a place

Nsuo a eye de na eko wahina mu
Translation: The water that is sweet enters the inside of the pot
Meaning: This means that we search out that which will benefit us

Wo ben nsuo hua na wute se koto bo wa
Translation: The closer you are to the river the louder you hear the crab sneeze
Meaning: Learning and creativity is achieved through experience

Nsako na nsa aba.
Translation: Hand goes, hand comes
Meaning: If you help your neighbor in his work, he will help you in yours

Enne ye medea okyina nso ye wo dee
Translation: Today is mine, tomorrow is yours
Meaning: The situation I am in today may be the situation you are in tomorrow or vice versa. You can say this when someone is boasting or showing off

Tekerema ne esee ko.
Translation: Tongue and teeth fight
Meaning: The tongue and the teeth fight, yet both work together Means friendship and interdependence

adinkra adinkra


After an extensive research on the use of proverbs among the Akan-speaking group of Ghana, the next step was to find businesses that support this study. Below are the two shops chosen for this research. Concepts derived from these proverbs will use appropriate visual or verbal symbolism to address the many cultural aspects of the Ghanaian immigrants and other groups in the surrounding area through these shop.

Store location 1

About this location: The Lower West Side was historically a blue-collar Italian neighborhood in Buffalo,N.Y. In recent decades, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics have settled into this community. In more recent years, the area has become home to resettled refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, and other countries beset by conflict. Lake Erie is to the west, and to the northwest the Peace Bridge links western New York with Ontario, Canada. The architectural landmark of City Hall is to the south of this African shop. This business was selected in part due to the rich cultural diversity that surrounds the neighborhood and the fact that the owner is an African from Angola.

store 1

Store location 2

About this location: The Northeast Rochester of Upstate New York neighborhood known by its postal code (14621) is a diverse cultural mosaic. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Caribbeans and Eastern Europeans make this one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Rochester On the west edge of 14621 is historic Seneca Park and the Genesee River Gorge.

store 2


After an extensive research was conducted in the synthesis stage, several discoveries have been made affecting the overall application for this thesis. At this stage, a few proverbs from the synthesis stage have been chosen to be used in the designing of the storefront signage. These signs will be displayed on both the external and internal parts of the store. The chosen proverb will define the layout structure, choice of color to be used, the design concept and visual theme of the store.

The following are initial concept sketches made during the ideation stage. These sketches were made as part of the brainstorming stages to test which symbols and proverbs worked best.

ideation sketches ideation sketch


ideation ideation ideation

ideation ideation ideation

Proverb: One tree facing strong winds break easily.
Meaning: Wind resistant house symbol of fortitude and readiness to face life's vicissitudes
Purple: used to be worn only by the royal families.
Orange: Wisdom, healing & understanding.
White: For type readability.



With proverbs serving as the main message-making tool in Graphic Design, the designer will be open to many more posible design design-solving. Future dissemination ideas for this thesis approach will not only help the designer but the community as a whole. Through Proverbs, people will be able to know how to communicate and educate people of many cultures within a community. Also, this application is intended to promote cultural awareness and diversity around the cities of Western New York area such as Rochester and Buffalo. But in future, I hope this study can be applied to other parts of the world as well.

Image Credits

Michael akuamoah-Boateng