A close up image of kente cloth being woven on a person’s lap.
Photo by Mensah Agbenou.

Preserving Tradition: Kente Weaving in Togo

The beloved fabric, deeply rooted in Ghanaian culture, finds its own vibrant presence in neighboring Togo.

Within the picturesque mountainous landscapes and lush forests of Kpalimé in the Plateaux Region of Togo, a wealth of raw materials gives rise to a flourishing artisanal scene. Artisans in this region, whether working individually, in groups, or within craft centers, engage in a diverse range of creative endeavours, from wood carving to macramé, batik, and ceramics. However, it is the intricate craft of kente weaving that takes center stage – its patterns laden with symbolism.

The rhythmic sounds of weaving tools echo through the air of a fabric studio, harmonizing with the tunes of artisans' songs. Some opt for an alternative source of inspiration, tuning in to the radio or music as they work. The weaving process demands a symphony of both hands and feet in action. Initially produced as long strips, often measuring tens of meters or yards in length and around ten to twenty centimeters (3-7 inches) in width, these fabric pieces are later expertly joined together by skilled tailors to create the wearable kente cloth.

A journey of heritage and skill

The Ewe rendition of kente is distinguished by its double-woven bands. According to the oral traditions of the Ewe people, the art of weaving dates back to the 16th century when skilled weavers were among the migrants who resettled in the regions of Togo and Ghana, having originated from the Benin Republic and Nigeria.

The Ewe people named the cloth based on the weaving process itself – "ke te," a term that has since evolved into the word "kente." In the Ewe language, "ke" signifies spreading or opening, while "te" denotes tightening or pressing. "Ke na te" in Ewe encapsulates the process of crafting the cloth, wherein the weaver opens ("ke") the weft (the horizontal part of the yarn), passes the warp (the vertical part) through, and presses ("te") it, repeating these actions countless times to create the distinctive Kente fabric.

A close up image of feet stretching kente cloth.Feet aid in the stretching process of making kente.Photo by Mensah Agbenou.

In Togo, the craft of kente cloth weaving is a deeply ingrained tradition, with artisans falling into two categories: heirs, who inherit the craft from their ancestors, and those who enter the profession through formal apprenticeship. This time-honored skill is officially recognized and regulated by Togo's Chambre des Métiers, which oversees various crafts and trades in the country. As a result, those who aspire to become kente cloth weavers must undergo a rigorous three-year training program before they can earn their stripes and receive a formal certification known as the CFA, which stands for Certificat de Fin d'Apprentissage.

The path to becoming a proficient kente cloth artisan is not taken lightly, and this formalized training period ensures that the craft is passed down with precision and expertise. During these three years, apprentices learn the intricate techniques, patterns, and cultural significance behind kente cloth. They also acquire essential skills in craftsmanship and design. The CFA diploma serves as both a symbol of accomplishment and a testament to their commitment to preserving this vibrant cultural heritage.

Gildas Amadoto, a skilled kente artisan, told OkayAfrica that he inherited the art of kente weaving from his father, who was himself an heir to this magnificent craft passed down through generations. Traditionally, the craft was predominantly practiced by males, but in the present day, women have also embraced it. As the sole male among his siblings, Amadoto received the mantle of this tradition during his primary school years, even weaving kente as part of his vacation jobs.

An image of a man weaving green and gold kente .Gildas Amadoto crafting a traditional green and gold kente cloth for a special occasion.Photo by Mensah Agbenou.

“Today, I practice kente weaving on a part-time basis,” he says. “I take on orders primarily from Togo and Ghana. When I face tight deadlines, I collaborate with fellow artisans across different regions, particularly in cities like Kpalimé, Atakpamé, and occasionally Sokodé, to fulfill the demand.”

Ogouwa Omo Folly, another artisan hailing from Atakpamé, Togo, told OkayAfrica that he underwent a rigorous apprenticeship in the Volta Region of Ghana before returning to Togo to further expand his skills and explore different weaving styles. "Upon my return, I delved into learning new weaving techniques from my fellow Togolese artisans,” he says. “It was an enlightening experience as I discovered that some tools I had used in Ghana were not part of the Togolese weaving tradition, and vice versa. Additionally, the narratives and stories associated with the designs exhibited variations. Nevertheless, despite these distinctions, there is a rich tapestry of similarities that bind our craft together.”

Togo's artisans thriving in Ghana's marketplace

As the country with the second largest population of Ewe people, after Ghana, Togo has artisans who thrive in Ghana's kente cloth markets. This is attributed to the widespread usage of kente cloth by the Ashanti people, and its popularity among foreigners who come to Ghana to purchase these vibrant fabrics for various celebrations worldwide. Kente has also been used in the design of academic stoles in graduation ceremonies.

When asked whether there are kente workshops in Togo that have garnered recognition for their craftsmanship, Kodjo (who goes by his last name), a seasoned kente artisan, responded affirmatively. Kente fabric, therefore, isn't a scarce find in the small stalls of local vendors across the country, especially at Lomé's bustling central market, Assigamé. Notwithstanding, he emphasized that it's the Ghanaian market that truly stands out. "From time to time, there are craft exhibitions where we showcase our creations in Togo,” he says. “But the Togolese market is relatively small. During my active periods, I often find myself in places like the Accra Arts Center or Kumasi.”

A close up image of kente cloth being tightened.The tightening process of making kente.Photo by Mensah Agbenou.

According to Kodjo, the Ghanaian market not only offers a faster turnover of sales but also commands higher prices for artisanal work. Nonetheless, artisans and cross-border traders sometimes face challenges when the Ghanaian cedi experiences significant depreciation.

Patterns and colors full of symbolism

Kente is known – and loved – for its diverse designs that are tailored for specific occasions and individuals. There are unique designs for women, men, chiefs, and newlyweds. Special patterns are woven for engagements, funerals, naming ceremonies, reunions, and more. Yet, anyone can personalize their kente with preferred designs and colors, making each piece a personalized work of art. It is well-known how potent the fabric can be in conveying a very specific message.

With its intricate designs and vibrant colors, kente has become a canvas rich with symbolism in the cultures of West Africa. These designs can encompass a wide range of elements, from drawings of stools, highly recommended for traditional chiefs, to symbols like the key, the moon and star, and even alphabets. Each pattern carries its significance, making Kente a visual language of its own.

An image of rolls of kente cloth on shelves of a store.Rolls of kente fill clothing shops like this one in Lomé, Togo.Photo by Mensah Agbenou.

Wearing kente to an event remains a deeply thoughtful and intentional practice. Colors play a pivotal role in conveying messages and emotions. When kente is predominantly black or red, it becomes a potent symbol tied to specific occasions. Black embodies themes of maturation, heightened spiritual energy, connections with ancestral spirits, rites of passage, and mourning. It speaks to the solemnity and reverence of such events. Red, on the other hand, speaks to a different spectrum of emotions and events, signifying both political and spiritual moods, alluding to bloodshed, sacrificial rites, and even death. Red is a color that stirs deep sentiments and signifies profound moments.

Beyond black and red, kente unfolds a palette of colors, each with its own story to tell. Through a variety of these colors and symbols, the cloth becomes its own narrative, telling stories of tradition, spirituality, and life's diverse tapestry in a visually captivating way. Whether woven in Kpalimé or Kumasi, the rich cultural significance and symbolism of kente transcends borders, connecting generations and cultures through the threads of tradition.