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The politics of Ghana's kente cloth

Will Obama wear Africa's iconic textile when he comes to Accra?

But Hinneh, 25, argued that a suit allows for greater mobility, which Kufuor needed.

“It’s not an easy piece of cloth to maneuver in,” he said of the 8-pound cloth, comprised of individual strips that are sewn together. “You inconvenience yourself. Every now and then you have to adjust the cloth. It’s falling off and so forth.”

Similarly, Hinneh said he didn’t wear a kente cloth to his graduation from Ashesi University, although his family members did.

The opinions highlight the debate about kente uses. One side says Ghana is a modern state and should dress in suits and ties.

“Others take the opposite approach, saying ‘we should be asserting our country’s own identity and shedding this colonial heritage,’” Ross said.

The Asante and Ewe (pronounced Ev-ay) ethnic groups have been weaving kente for centuries. Both groups claim to have originated the craft, but Ross said similar weaving took place north of Ghana, in Mali, 1,000 years ago.

Once the domain of chiefs and leaders, kente designs today can be seen in everything from neckties to umbrellas. The varied uses annoy traditionalists but Ross sees it as the democratization of the cloth.

Gilbert “Bobbo” Ahiagble, a master weaver from the Ewe region of Denu, has made kente tablecloths and kimonos for foreign clients. Ahiagble said he’s making a kente wall hanging for Obama at the request of the U.S. embassy in Accra. He calls it “a great honor.” He’s using red, white and blue fabric.

Each pattern has a special meaning. Clinton’s cloth is called “Adweneasa,” which translates to “my skill is exhausted,” indicating the weaver went all-out — a high honor.

“A lot of people buy that pattern,” said Eric Kwanteng, a weaver in Bonwire in the Ashanti region where Clinton’s kente was made. “Some people are in love with it.”

Kente’s international profile grew from African independence movements coinciding with the American civil rights and black power movements. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan state to win independence from a colonial power, in 1957 from Britain.