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Denkyem, meaning ‘crocodile’, is an Adinkra symbol and proverb of adaptability, ingenuity, and cleverness.
What is Denkyem?
Denkyem, is a West African symbol originating in Ghana. It depicts a crocodile and comes from the Akan proverb: ‘Ɔdɛnkyɛm da nsuo mu nanso ɔhome mframa’ which translates to ‘the crocodile lives in water, yet it breathes air.’
The Hare and the Crocodile
In African mythology, the crocodile is regarded as the most intelligent of all creatures. There are many African folk tales featuring this reptile, one of the most famous being the tale of ‘The Hare and the Crocodile’.
According to a Hambakushu legend, there was once a crocodile called ‘Ngando’ who lived in the Great Okavango swamps. He wanted to live with the zebras because he envied the freedom they had to roam about the grasslands as they pleased. The zebras invited him to join them but although he followed them, he was unable to keep up and soon fell behind.
Soon, a hare came by and Ngando asked for his help to return home, promising a favor in return. The hare agreed and ran off to find his mortal enemy, the hyena. He told the hyena that he needed his help to carry a dead crocodile back to the water so that the Rain Spirits would not be angered.
The hyena helped the hair to carry the crocodile to the water and suggested leaving Ngando to soak for a while so that he would be tender enough to eat. After a nice, long nap, the hyena returned to find that Ngando had was missing. He waded into the water to look for the crocodile when Ngando suddenly came up behind him and dragged him into the water, where he drowned.
Ngando thanked the hare for helping him find his way back to the pool. The hare replied that Ngando had already helped him back by ridding him of his enemy the hyena. From then on, Ngando was perfectly satisfied with his home and never wanted to leave it again.
Symbolism of Denkyem
Denkyem is a symbol of adaptability and cleverness, the purported qualities of the crocodile, which is a highly significant creature in West African culture. Crocodiles are known for their adaptability, formidability, ingenuity, and mystery, qualities that are highly valued in Ghanaian society.
Crocodiles demonstrate these qualities in how they can still breathe the air even though they can also live in water. Due to this, the Akans view the crocodile as a symbol that embodies the superhuman traits that the user of the symbol wishes to express about himself.
The Denkyem symbol is featured on the African Burial Ground National Monument, where it represents the difficulties that many Africans experienced when they were taken from their homes and forced into slavery in a new and unfamiliar environment.
Denkyem is an Adinkra symbol of adaptability and cleverness, from the African proverb ‘the crocodile lives in water but breathes air’.
Both Denkyem and Funtumfunefu-denkyemfunefu are symbols which depict crocodiles.
The crocodile is seen as the most intelligent creature.
What Are Adinkra Symbols?
Adinkra are a collection of West African symbols that are known for their symbolism, meaning and decorative features. They have decorative functions, but their primary use is to represent concepts related to traditional wisdom, aspects of life, or the environment.
Adinkra symbols are named after their original creator King Nana Kwadwo Agyemang Adinkra, from the Bono people of Gyaman, now Ghana. There are several types of Adinkra symbols with at least 121 known images, including additional symbols that have been adopted on top of the original ones.
Adinkra symbols are highly popular and used in contexts to represent African culture, such as artwork, decorative items, fashion, jewelry, and media.