When artisans in the Ashanti Kingdom of Ghana first started weaving Kente cloth, they probably had no idea that centuries later, college and university graduates in the United States would proudly wear the cloth as a symbol of their achievement. Now, one social enterprise is serving as a bridge between the two groups, while simultaneously improving the economy of the communities where Kente is created and educating the world about the textile’s significance and origin.
The Story Behind Kente Master
The idea for Kente Master came after three students, who were studying abroad in Ghana through the University of Pennsylvania’s joint International Development Summer Institute with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, visited one of the first Kente weaving villages. They learned the history of the cloth, and saw its traditional production from thread to final product.
“The experience taught us that Kente is much more than a piece of cloth. Every color, pattern, and shape has a meaning and cultural significance,” said Rafiat Kasumu, Kente Master’s chief marketing and chief strategy officer. “With the influx of inauthentic and over-priced Kente textile merchandise coming from China and other non-traditional manufacturers abroad, local Ghanaian entrepreneurs are losing out on opportunities to sell their traditionally-made crafts. In addition to this, when consumers purchase from these inauthentic sources, they are also losing out on knowing the story behind the cloth’s creation and meaning. We wanted to help these weaving communities reach international markets to share the craft’s significance globally.”
As it turns out, there had been a niche market for the cloth in the United States for decades. “During the 1970s, colleges and universities in the U.S. began to have ‘donning of Kente stole’ ceremonies for their students of African descent to mark the achievement of gaining a higher education,” said Kasumu. “These Kente stoles had the traditional stripes, colors, and patterns of Kente seen in Ghana today. Over time, graduation stoles became customized to represent the colors and letters of diverse student clubs or multicultural Greek organizations minority students were a part of. Kente stoles have become a symbol of pride, unity and a greater collective heritage for minority graduating students.”
With what she called the historic and current demand for Kente cloth graduation stoles, Kasumu, along with Peter Paul Akanko (CEO) and Parag Bapna (COO), created Kente Master.
Doing Well and Doing Good
In a time where so many new businesses are focused only on the bottom line, Kente Master is more passionate about making a difference — “promoting African culture, entrepreneurship and economic self-empowerment.”
“We purposely designed Kente Master to have a positive social impact on the weaving community of Ghana and the local kente weaving associations we work with. We play a huge and active role in researching, finding and creating key contract opportunities between the local weaving associations and universities abroad,” bragged Kasumu. “By doing this, Kente Master is actively facilitating job creation, business growth and economic development in Ghana. Most importantly, the weavers we work with are able to secure long-lasting and sustainable partnerships with the universities they service, while still maintaining their traditional, hand-woven methods. It is a win-win for all parties.”
Currently, Kente Master has partnered with several universities in the U.S., including the University of Pennsylvania and its Perelman School of Medicine, Dartmouth College and Carnegie Mellon University.
“Our greatest satisfaction is seeing our clients’ faces light up when they wear their customized, authentic graduation stoles at their graduation and seeing our artisans ecstatic that their products are treasured and appreciated by a new client base abroad.”
New Era. Same Technique.
The technique used to create Kente Master’s stoles is the same technique that has been used to create the textile for centuries. It’s passed down through generations, artisan to apprentice.
“According to Ashanti legend, two weavers sewed the first piece of Kente and gave it as a gift from to the Ashanti king as a symbol of royalty and wealth,” said Kasumu “Weavers today still use traditional wooden weaving machines to create Kente. Even with all the advances in technology within the fabric industry, Kente still remains a craft the requires every muscle, from one’s head to one’s toes, to create. This is the beauty of Kente!”
She added, “an interesting fact is that men have traditionally woven Kente cloth for the past three centuries in Ghana. Though the Ashanti people live in a matrilineal society, it is very rare to find a woman as a kente weaving artisan.”
Every color and pattern within Kente cloth represents a particular meaning to the Ashanti people who originated this craft. Here are the meanings of some of the most common colors and patterns.
- Black: maturation, intensified spiritual energy
- Blue: peacefulness, harmony and love
- Green: vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, spiritual renewal
- Gold: royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity
- Grey: healing and cleansing rituals; associated with ash
- Maroon: the color of mother earth; associated with healing
- Pink: associated with the female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
- Purple: associated with feminine aspects of life; usually worn by women
- Red: political and spiritual moods; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death
- Silver: serenity, purity, joy; associated with the moon
- White: purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
- Yellow: preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility, beauty
- Golden Stool: represented the divine, royal stool of the Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana
- Circle: represents the concept to infinity and eternity
- Block/Square: symbol of earth, represent femininity and the matrilineal society of Ashanti culture
- Key: represents the key to unlock everyone’s inherent intelligence. Education is the key to success.
To learn more about Kente Master or order your own custom stole, visit KENTE MASTER.
Rae Oglesby is a freelance writer & journalist. Follow her on Twitter.