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Kwanzaa Traditions

Kwanzaa Traditions

Every celebration comes with its given set of traditions. These traditions were designed keeping in mind certain symbolic events which changed the course of history, somewhere in the world. This article aims to tell you about the traditions that accompany the festival of Kwanzaa, that were created to spread the word of brotherhood among all Africans.
Ankana Dey Choudhury
"A mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one."―Thomas Carlyle.
No ceremonious event is ever complete without the observance of its traditional customs. In fact, the performance of certain specific rituals and actions make a day or a set of days special. Not only do they infuse the individual soul with a certain spiritual tranquility, but also make us feel like we belong to a group with other people doing the same things as us. The African cultural celebration of Kwanzaa, fêted from 26th December to 1st January every year, aims at establishing an enriched, rooted, and proud ethnic race of Africans. Kwanzaa traditions are based on the seven principles of the festival.
The first Kwanzaa celebration was started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, to expose the present generations to the rich ancient culture of Africa and the relentless, vigilant, and invaluable contributions of their ancestors for the development of the race as a whole. Not only do the various traditions of Kwanzaa venerate the abundant bounties of nature that the continent of Africa is blessed with, but it is also a celebration of all the benedictions showered upon every individual by the Almighty, irrespective of religion and belief. Most importantly, Kwanzaa traditions are a conglomeration of various rituals absorbed from different parts of Africa, and also African-American practices, which in itself is indicative of Kwanzaa's attempt to unify all African people, from every part of the world, instill African values and acculturate them, ultimately making them one big global family. Thus, the seven principles of Kwanzaa were coined, based on which the traditions were molded.
Nguzo Saba―The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
To build a common identity among all Africans, no matter which place they inhabit, Karenga formulated the seven principles of Kwanzaa or theNguzo Saba, 'a communitarian African philosophy'. Earlier christenedNguzu Saba implying 'the seven principles of blackness', these principles follow Kawaida, Swahili for rationality and logic. Each day of Kwanzaa is consecrated to one of the principles.
  • Umoja or 'unity'―This principle encourages Africans to work towards attaining unity, and thus, build a stronger ethnic community.
  • Kujichagulia or 'self-determination'―This precept aims at building a community which has its own delineated entity, empowering them to voice their opinions and stimulating them to become self-sufficient so that they are able to provide for themselves.
  • Ujima or 'collective work and responsibility'―This doctrine seeks to build a racial group which understands that the life of every member of the family is enmeshed and a healthy community can be only built when every one contributes to solving problems as a family unit.
  • Ujamaa or 'cooperative economics'―This enthuses people to adopt some constructive means of livelihood and at the same time share the resources and earnings for the development of the entire African community.
  • Nia or 'purpose'―As per this principle, every African should make it his primary goal in life to uplift and develop his community so as to reinstate the glorious cultural heritage of the African people.
  • Kuumba or 'creativity'―Kuumba tells African people to innovate and think out-of-the-box, which can actually add to the aesthetics of the African culture and render it richer than what was inherited.
  • Imani or 'faith'―The final value urges people to never let the light of faith extinguish as only belief on the teachings of their ancestors and unfaltering trust that they will triumph in their endeavors, can facilitate their success.
Traditions of Kwanzaa
The number 7 is inseparable from the celebrations of Kwanzaa and rears its head in possibly every facet of the fête. Kwanzaa rituals begin with choosing a cardinal location at home where the 7 Kwanzaa symbols can be laid out. Each of these symbols reverberate deep African values and important representations.
The first step includes spreading out the mkeka, the napery with African motifs, on the table representing the base or foundation garment for everything else that is placed on it, and indicates how deeply embedded they are in African culture. The table linen could actually have African batik, tie and dye or mud-cloth designs on it, or could simply be a formal woven kente material.

Next comes the placing of the kinara, or the traditional menorah with seven branches, generally made of wood, significative of the thick African forests. Seven candles called the Mishumaa Saba are then placed in the candelabrum in the Kwanzaa colors of black, green, and red, which stand for the community, the struggle, and future hope respectively, as assigned by Hon. Marcus Garvey. Standing tall in the center, the black candle signifies the first principle of umoja and is lighted on the first day. To the left of it are three red candles reflecting the values of kujichagulia, ujamaa, and kuumba. The three green ones to the right of the central candle represent ujima, nia, and imani. From the 2nd day onward, one candle is lighted each day from the left to right, the entire sequence suggestive of the journey from the struggle to future glory.

Next the mazao or agricultural products signifying a good harvest as a result of collective labor and a minimum of two ears of corn called muhindi are kept on the mat. The corn suggests the importance of children and the constructive changes that the new generation is potent enough to bring about. Even if an adult African has no biological kids, he is still supposed to place muhindi as African tradition makes every adult member a social parent of the children in the community.

Then the chalice of unity or the Kikombe cha Umoja is passed around, offering libations or tambiko to the ancestors usually accompanied by the chanting of the African Pledge or African music. Gifts or zawadi are usually given to children on the evening of 31st December, showing the responsibility of the parents towards the healthy life of their children and the children's promise to grow up as a responsible member of the African family. The Bendera or the Kwanzaa flag and the Nguzo Saba poster are two auxiliary symbols of Kwanzaa.
The use of the Eastern African language of Swahili is accentuated during Kwanzaa as it had become an emblem of the philosophy of Pan-Africanism in the 60s. Other than the African-American "Joyous Kwanzaa", the traditional Kwanzaa greeting is the question "habari gani?" meaning 'what's the news?' and the respective answer is 'umoja' or 'nia' depending upon the principle of the given day.
The clothes traditionally worn during Kwanzaa are as described.
  • Kaftan: This originally West African apparel is basically a long maxi-type pull over robe for women worn with a turban worn during Kwanzaa. It is called boubou in France.
  • Dashiki: It is a loose upper garment worn by men and is usually very colorful and gorgeous.
  • Kufi Cap: Again West African in origin, the brimless, flat-topped, round caps are worn by Africans widely during Kwanzaa.
The main feast of the Kwanzaa celebration is held on the evening of 31st December, and is called Karamu. The entire feast follows a set decorum, and is replete with decorations using the symbols of Kwanzaa. Guests are often encouraged to bring in their delicacies for the feast. The dinner follows the given pattern.
  • Kukaribisha or 'welcoming', where the host warmly receives his guests and then introduces each member with special emphasis on important and elderly members.
  • Kuumba, 'remembering', is the next step, and involves creative cultural activity and thus, the guests are encouraged to sing traditional African songs accompanied with percussion and drum beats using drums called ngoma. Kwanzaa songs for kids are sung and enlightening pieces of poetry and prose are read out.
  • Kuchunguza Tena Na Kutoa Ahadi Tena meaning 'reassessment and re-commitment' involves a sermon by the chief or most elderly and experienced guest followed by a discussion on future possibilities.
  • Kushangilla or 'rejoicing' involves reciting the Tamshi la Tambiko or the Libation Statement, passing around the Unity Cup.
  • Kutoa Majina or remembering the family ancestors and black champions by loudly calling out their names and then indulging in the traditional foods is the next step.
  • The feast ends with the closing speech or Tamshi la Tutaonana.
The last day of Kwanzaa involves the Odu Ifa meditation while chanting the following shibboleth, which has also been translated into English for your understanding.

Odu Ifa Shibboleth English Translation
K'a má fi kánjú j'aiyé.
K'a má fi wàrà-wàrà n'okùn orò.
Ohun à bâ if s'àgbà,
K'a má if se'binu.
Bi a bá de'bi t'o tútù,
K'a simi-simi,
K'a wò'wajú ojo lo titi;
K'a tun bò wá r'èhìn oràn wo;
Nitori àti sùn ara eni ni.
Let us not engage the world hurriedly.
Let us not grasp at the rope of wealth impatiently.
That which should be treated with mature judgment,
Let us not deal with, in a state of anger.
When we arrive at a cool place,
Let us rest fully;
Let us give continuous attention to the future;
and let us give deep consideration to the consequences of things.
And this because of our (eventual) passing.

This meditation day coincides with the first day of the year which for ages has been the time for calm rumination of Africans in an effort to perform self-evaluation, all the while asking the Kawaida questions of 'Who am I; am I really who I say I am; and am I all I ought to be?' This exercise is believed to help an individual reconnect with the highest African values and ideals.

The last of the Kwanzaa customs involve the gathering of the entire family and extinguishing all the candles together. With this remembering and reassertion of goals, Kwanzaa comes to a close. Being a relatively new festival, Kwanzaa has families incorporating their own local African customs to add to the richness of this festival of lights and reverence.