The Concept Of Sankofa

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Sankofa is an Akan (West African) word made up of three parts: san (“return”), ko (“go back”), and fa (“fetch/retrieve”). It is a symbol and principle that serves to remind us that the past is a “resource” and not merely a “reference.”

Different Interpretation

It is ripe with meaning for Africans. One interpretation, among several, is “Go back to the past and recover it.” Yet another one is “Return to the source.”

Similarly, sankofa may be interpreted as an injunction to “learn from the past” and finally as an order to “never forget the past and path you made when moving ahead.”


The typical visual form is a bird standing or walking forward while reaching back with its head into its feathers.

The bird is said tobe taking something off its tail, searching through its tail feathers, or grooming itself. There are at least five meanings associated with this representation of Sankofa.

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First, it suggests the value of reflecting on the past.

Second, it also suggests a person who self-consciously reflects before moving forward with a decision.

Third, it represents self-definition, identity, and vision. Fourth, it represents an understanding of personal destiny and collective vocation. Finally, fifth, Sankofa is said to represent the repossession of something forgotten, misplaced, or lost.

Description Of the Bird

In addition, the head of the bird appears to be picking up an egg, thus further suggesting that the path we have made holds the potential to understanding the present and the promise of the future.

It describes an ongoing process, principle, and value of historical and cultural recovery.

Although valuing the past is part of the general African tradition and heritage, going back to the Nile Valley, as part of a process of historical recovery, has particular relevance for Africans today, especially having undergone the holocaust and its subsequent mutations into other forms of oppression.

Sankofa Symbol
Sankofa Symbol

Many writers, leaders, and intellectuals see cultural and historical recovery as essential to the forward development based on the cultural integrity of Africans as a people. The term denotes historical recovery and is ripe with metaphors ready for one to decipher.

In an age when African descendants are told that their pasts are at best irrelevant to the present and at worst nonexistent, unworthy of discussion, or having no bearing on the present.

This profound concept serves the useful purpose of reminding African descendants of their moral obligation to remember and recognize the sacrifices of the past, the countless number of souls and ancestors who worked and suffered tremendously on plantations, so that we could live the lives we want and deserve to live.

Sankofa as a process and principle of recovering history functions as a reminder that the past is not merely a referential source of origins and artifacts, but a source of paradigms, that is, exemplary models of thought, reason, morality, and practice.

The past, then, offers us a model of excellence, whereas history provides us with many lessons that inform our current self-conception and social identity.

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