Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Sankofa, Return (Reach Back) and Fetch It—Adinkra Symbols Define Path in a Woman’s Life

Sankofa Adinkra Symbol, “Return and Fetch It”
Sankofa can mean either the word in the Akan language of Ghana that translates in English to "go back and take" (Sanko- go back, fa- take) or the Asante Adinkra symbol. A cloth supporting Adinkra symbols is termed an "Adinkra cloth" and has its own particular uses and meanings.

As a young woman in the mid-1970s, I left Ghana, that West African country tucked under the horn, to journey overland back to Botswana, cozied in-between large nations in Southern Africa. I carried a small rucksack that contained a pair of jeans (only to be worn in private) with Adinkra symbols I'd embroidered on the pockets.

One of these Adinkra symbols, and one of my favorites, is SANKOFA, RETURN AND FETCH IT or REACH BACK AND FETCH IT. This period of my life is a SANKOFA period.

My Sankofa period started when my sister died in August 2004 and I began a three-year period of commuting between my home in this rural County of Lake in Northern California to our homepace in the midwest to be with my family and assist my father in caring for my mother during her last time of life before her death in May 2006.

Moving back to the midwest this summer, but with a twist, continued my Sankofa period...as I relocated close to Forest Park in St. Louis where we used to picnic and sit in the free seats at the Muni Opera. So, now, with a sphere of my own, but within an hour's reach of my father, I reach back to fetch from the past as I create a new life for myself.

My annual trips back to New Mexico are SANKOFA. In 2006, I spoke at the Harwood Art Center on "Show Me the Way to Go Home." (See sidebar under "Sightlines" for complete text.) In 2007, I told my story "Big Butts Are Beautiful" at Mountainaire's Sunflower Festival. All the while, the blue sky, flat desert, mountains, and meetings with old pals do their secret work on me.

My trip to the Bay Area and Marin County this fall was SANKOFA as I journeyed back to old haunts in San Rafael (the place where my studio at the Writers Center was, when the Writers Center was), San Francisco, and Point Reyes beaches. But, this time, to read my story "WOW!" in the anthology "Hot Flashes 2: More Sexy Little Poems and Stories" at Book Passage in Corte Madera...a place I'd often heard of, but never been to.

Coming back to Lake County, now, five months after my move to St. Louis, five months after packing, moving vans, and good-byes...this is SANKOFA. Surprisingly, it's like slipping on a doeskin glove, it's such an easy and smooth return...and yet, there's no question I'll leave the gloves here until my return...next time. Here Clear Lake and Mount Konocti cup and contain us. I rejoin with the land and water.

Here I reconnect with longtime friends...and my sweetheart of yore, Daniel Holland. We resume an easy domesticity for the duration of the Rigpa Fall Retreat. Sweethearts of nine years who have gone through sickness and health, richer for poorer, good times and bad, happiness and sorrow...we continue our journey on criss-crossing paths as dear and deep friends...true buddies...ready to support and jolly each other along any way we know how.

I come newly into Daniel's home to enjoy the changes he's made and discuss his plans for the changes yet to come. The home is the same...only different. Different, only the same.

For 12 years we've held the Rigpa Fall Retreat at Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa. Each year, I come to the retreat from a different angle of my life and a different angle within the Rigpa world. This is SANKOFA. I return, reach back, and fetch the egg on my arched bird back...readying a suitable nest to hatch it in. It's been three years since we've seen Rinpoche in 2004...as he was forced to miss two of these fall retreats. He returns to us, and we fetch it. This is SANKOFA.

And, now, on my last day in Lake County...the last day of the three-day extension of the fall retreat...time to say "Good-bye for now" with a reunion dinner tonight at a newly christened restaurant down the hill from Daniel's. (From English pub food to Italian Risorante.)

Tomorrow I fly back to St. Louis, hop on the Metrolink to the Central West End Station, walk five blocks to my apartment complex, the West End Terrace, where Rae will have set out her bouquet of baloons, take out my set of midwest keys, turn the locks, and return to my newly created home, ready to reach back to this journey, this enriching time, and fetch it, weaving this past into a new cloth of the future. This is SANKOFA.

Wikipedia Note on Adinkra symbol for Sankofa

The Asante of Ghana use an Adinkra symbol to represent this same idea [of going back to the past to prepare for the future] and one version of it is similar to the eastern symbol of a heart, and another version is that of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back. It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.

Adinkra symbols are used by the Asante to express proverbs and other philosophical ideas. These ideas are numerous and are used throughout the world because of their aesthetic and spiritual beauty. Sankofa has since been adopted by other cultural groups in the area and around the world

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  1. Dear Janet,
    I feel so gifted reading your mothers words. She is my teacher even after her death. When I read her clarity of the assignment not being the only thing a teacher is working towards but the wholeness of the person. I felt up lifted. Thank you, for sharing your mothers words.
    Cheers,
    Meg

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