Sankofa – What Does This Adinkra Symbol Mean?

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Adinkra symbols are images that convey concepts and can be used to tell stories, much like hieroglyphs. Of these, the Sankofa is one of the eight original akansha symbols from the Ghana and also one of the most meaningful and popular. Sankofa translates ‘to look to the past to inform the future.’ Another possible translation is ‘go back and get it.’

There are two commonly used images for this concept, among Akan symbols. The first is an image of a bird that is both moving forward and looking back. This is possibly the most popular version and the one that we immediately associate with the Sankofa. The second is similar to the symbol of a heart.  

Sankofa symbol

Sankofa is a reminder that the past must not be forgotten but should be acknowledged as we move into the future. In other words, Sankofa represents the importance of learning from the past and using that to inform our actions in the future.

The symbol relates to the proverb “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi” which means “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” 

In some contexts, the Sankofa is used as a reminder not to forget African culture nor the slavery faced by their ancestors. It is important to remember this history while moving forward in their efforts for positive progress. In fact, the heart-shaped representation of Sankofa is used on the website for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to symbolize this reconciliation of and connection between the past and the future.

Adinkra symbols are used on traditional clothing and artwork, as well as modern clothing, artwork, jewelry, tattoos, or, as noted above, in logos. The Sankofa symbol has also become a popular architectural feature, often depicted on fences. The concept of Sankofa has also inspired events, dances, songs, and films. The bird representation of Sankofa appears in the television show Taboo as an image carved into the floor of a slave ship.

The Sankofa remains one of the most symbolic of the Adinkra symbols. While it has great significance to the African people and modern African-Americans, it’s a universal symbol that anyone can relate to. This is part of its appeal and what makes it among the most popular and used of the Adinkra symbols.