Celebrating Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa - Celebrating the Rich Heritage and Varied Culture of Africa

This article gives an overview of this pan-African holiday celebrating family, community, and culture.
By Anastacia Mott Austin

Habari gani?

That would be, "What's the news?" in Swahili, the language used during the celebration of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is celebrated during the seven days between December 26th and January 1st.

Swahili was chosen as the language of Kwanzaa to reflect the commitment of honoring the whole of Africa by the African Americans. Swahili is the most commonly used African language.

Started in 1966 by founder Maulana Karenga, this holiday was designed to give African Americans an opportunity to celebrate their African roots, traditions, and history, "rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."

Kwanzaa takes its roots from the phrase "matunda ya kwanzaa," which means "first fruits" in Swahili. The first fruits, or first harvest is a very old ritual in African culture.

Founder Karenga explains on the official Kwanzaa website (http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org) that the philosophy of the seven principles of Kwanzaa are based on the values of Kawaida, which is "a communitarian African philosophy which is an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world."

The seven principles of Kwanzaa, reflected in its seven-day celebration and the seven-candle kinara at the center of the ritual table, are as follows:
  • Umoja (unity), to strive to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race;
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination) to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves;
  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility), to build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems, and to solve them together;
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics), to build and maintain our own stores, shops and businesses;
  • Nia (purpose), to make building and developing of our community our collective vocation;
  • Kuumba (creativity), to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to make our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it;
  • Imani (faith), to believe with all our heart in our people, parents, teachers, leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
The greeting, "Habari gani?" is asked each day to remind people of the seven principles.

The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red, and green. Black represents the people, red their struggle, and green their hope for the future.

During a Kwanzaa ritual, the symbols of the holiday, including a representation of crops and corn, the seven-candle kinara, a mat, a unity cup, and gifts are placed on a table or other central location. The black candle, in the center of the kinara, is lit on the first day, and the other candles on each successive day, in order of their color (to represent that the people come first, then the struggle, then the hope for the future). A drink or libation is poured into the unity cup in homage to the ancestors, and the cup is then sometimes passed around to the participants.

The gifts are varied, and usually given to any child present, but can be shared among the people present. Two gifts must always be given: a book, representing learning, and a symbol of African heritage, to stress the importance of a shared African history.

The final day of Kwanzaa, aptly falling on January 1st, is a day for meditation and quiet reflection.
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