Fear & Gye Nyame

“What does this symbol mean to you?” I ask pointing at the Gye Nyame symbol.
“Accept God,” the artist says.
“But what does it mean to you?” I ask.
“Ahhh,” he pauses and thinks about it.” Gye Nyame (pronounced Gee-Nommie, rhymes with tsunami) is one of the symbols you see frequently around Accra. It is one of a collection of symbols that are used in the design of Adinkra Cloth.

Each of the Adinkra symbols means something and together they can be used to tell a story, but above all the others, I see the Gye Nyame most frequently. I am told this symbol came to prominence during the previous administration of Jerry Rallings after he had survived several coup attempts and boldly stated that no one could remove him from power except God…Gye Nyame.

[Fox wearing Gye Nyame]

Dorothy, a returning missionary, defined it differently. She was taking home with her large piece of artwork that featured the Gye Nyame symbol and I asked her what it meant. She has this look like I should know, but then remembers that I had not been here that long (it was our third week in country). She, and I am sure many of the expats., must marvel at how much we don’t know, or at least how many questions I ask. I know the taxi drivers do. Dorothy said Gye Nyame is a little boastful, or arrogant meaning “I fear no one but God.” But then thinks about it a second and adds that we might not fully understand it. I think she is talking about her definition, “I fear no one but God” but as I ask around, it seems that everyone has a different meaning, that is once you get past the easy answer Accept God, or is that Except God? So I have taken to asking people around me, and in the midst wonder what do I fear?

[Blue Building with Gye Nyame]

“Fear is a great motivator.” Some friends are over to our house for dinner, and because there are two professors, a school administrator and an educator around the table, the talk naturally turns toward students. “My students don’t complain to me” Suzanne says. I gather the other professor at the table has some rather persistent students, who try to wear him down by their complaints. The school administrator says “Don’t budge and inch on the work load that you demand.” What is it about mercy that breeds disrespect?

“We had had to let go help three or four times.” Now it is after church and we eating some very good Chinese food at the Palace. There are ten of us around the table and eight dishes, and the center of table moves around like a turn table. You want a different dish? just spin the platter. Paul and Ann talk about household help, something Suzanne and I have been half heartedly looking for. I’ve been be the househusband so far who sweeps, washes dishes, mops and cleans toilets and as the saying goes, “it is hard to get good help.” I don’t even work up to my standards. Paul and Ann have been through several who start well but later lose respect for their employers. “Once they get to know you, they don’t respect you, and you can’t get them to do anything.” They no longer fear you, I guess, fear being the great motivator… We talk about how others expats have kept their distance, or treated their help sternly, without dignity. Both of us have watched friends speak to their help in ways we would have trouble speaking to any person, employee or not.

[Ghana T-Shirt Gye Nyame]

Suzanne says it is a cultural thing, or at least did before we left the states. In one of her readings she learned it was difference between the white and the black cultures. White culture will insist that you ask politely, even when it isn’t really a question, such as, “Would you mind taking out the trash?” My kids will say, “Dad, that’s not really a question is it?” “No, not really,” I say, “Take out the trash.” But in black culture, the passive asking is understood as really a question and what is sometimes regarded as disrespect is really an honest answer: “No thank you, I would rather not.” But I wasn’t really asking if you wanted to do it. Even “I need you to take out the trash” is almost too passive. So can I learn to be direct to say “take out the trash” and still preserve dignity and respect in the relationship?

If that is indeed a difference between the cultures of white and black, then it is a difference to fear because how you treat someone changes who you become. Can I cross this cultural difference and not be changed by it? Maybe that is the reason I see the Gye Nyame symbol around on jewelry, shirts, chairs, painted on buildings and even in the concrete building blocks, it is to serve as a reminder to us all. My son says it means “accept God” and I’ve seen it in print that way. I’ve also seen it as “except God” and that fits better with Dorothy’s definition, “I fear no one but God” but maybe I remember it wrong, could she have said “I fear no one except God.” I wonder if in another language the words accept and except are different enough to not sound alike and how Gye Nyame would be translated.

[Chair Gye Nyame]

This week-end in Elmina, near Cape Coast, I saw a large Gye Nyame in the Catholic Church and I asked several street vendors what that symbol meant to them. Each answered “Except God” to which I asked “What does it mean to you?”

One said “It means that when you have done all you can do and it is still not enough, no one except God can help you.” It is good to remember that Adinkra Cloth was originally death cloth, that is the cloth that was worn at the funeral by the dead. Maybe this symbol stands as a reminder to the living that no one except God, can bring you into the next life.

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6 thoughts on “Fear & Gye Nyame

  1. Steve -I’d been curious about this Gye Nyame also, since the word Gye has been translated in the Twi dictionary as “accept” while I had heard it translated “except” in the context of Gye Nyame. Michael Mozley had told me that it was the Ashante-hene’s stool symbol, indicating a boast that he would bow to no one “Except God.” The Ghanaian Christians appropriated it with the meaning “I am nothing without God.” You do see the symbol all over.

  2. Hey Charlie – it is interesting to see it all around, and when I do, I wonder what it means in this context. I like what Michael had to say about it hoiw the king would not bow to anyone but God. That makes the most since to me of anything I’ve heard or read.

  3. Actually, anonymous, the word 'gye' is translated as 'take' or 'accept'. For example, a parent will offer food to a child and say "bra, gye" which translates to "come, take." So the adinkra symbol 'gye nyame' can really mean whatever a person chooses: 'accept god', 'except god', whatever.

  4. But where did the GOD come from? That word or concept is not indicative of African culture, but the Christianization of the African culture. African culture has been co-opted by the Christian translations of our languages and culture period.The true meaning of gye nyame is "Fear nothing for to fear anything is to fear yourself" At one time in African history we had no knowledge of religions and lived in harmony with nature. Living in harmony creates an environment where you can live without fear because you are a part of nature, meaning all things in nature are you so you had no reason to fear yourself. It wasn't until the Europeans came with religion that over time everything has taken on a submission to their GOD. We suffer from amnesia, but maybe one day we will remember who we are on the earth and know that we had a wonderful life and culture before the European.

  5. Stumbled across your blog. I have a gye nyame tattooed on my wrist. I got it after a trip to Ghana when it became to mean a great deal to me. To me it means; God's supremacy over all situations. Thank you for this post.

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