Today is the first day of the pan African and African American traditional holiday developed in 1966 by California State University professor and chair of Africana Studies Dr. Maulana Karenga.
Kwanzaa, which means “First Fruits of Harvest” in Swahili, a language spoken in many East African nations, is a seven-day holiday that celebrates 7 values, collectively called the Nguzo Saba, a Swahili word for Seven Principles.
These seven communitarian African values are: Umoja (Unity), Kuji-chagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).
Celebrants put a green tablecloth over a table they place in a central place in their home, and place a woven straw mat called a Mkeka on top of that table which symbolizes the historical foundation of African ancestry.
On top the mat is a Kinara (a candle holder) with 7 candles, called the Mishumaa Saba. From left to right:
- black candle
- far left red candle
- far right green candle
- second red candle
- second green candle
- last red candle
- last green candle
A candle is lit every day (like with Hanukkah). The table also should include Mazao, crops from the community including a bowl of fruit; Muhindi, an ear of corn for each child in the household; Zawadi, gifts for the children; and Kikombe cha Umoja, a cup to represent family and community. Celebrants also decorate their home in the pan African colors of red, green and black. They wear African clothes including those made of Kinte cloth, a design of clothes made of interwoven cloth strips worn by the Akan peoples of Ghana.
Starting on December 26, celebrants greet each other by saying “Habari Gani” which is a standard Swahili greeting that means “what is the news?”
The response is whatever day it is Ujoma, Nia etc.
On the sixth day, or New Year’s Eve, those who celebrate this tradition have a huge feast called Kwanzaa Karamu in a room decorated with green, black and green and have a program that includes welcoming, remembering, reassessment, recommitment and rejoicing, concluding with a farewell statement and a call for greater unity.
They exchange gifts on the seventh day.
The values are supposed to be building blocks for the African American community and to teach them a pan-African connection between people of African descent all over the world.
Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e., Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Bahai and Hindus as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc. Kwanzaa is not supposed to be an alternative to their religion or faith but a common ground of African culture. However, some people who reject the Christmas holiday season’s materialism elect to practice Kwanzaa as an alternative to interject meaning into their Holiday season.
Those not from African descent can celebrate it as well just as others celebrate Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year and Native American pow wows.
The holiday has been credited with helping African Americans stay bonded and avoid the trappings and failings of vices and other negative issues that sometimes plague their communities because it helps them realize their value beyond the here and now.
If you are celebrating Kwanza with your children this year, enjoy and Happy Kwanza to you!