What is Kwanzaa?

DEFINITION OF KWANZAA

Kwanzaa is a unique African American celebration with focus on the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement.

Kwanzaa is neither political nor religious and despite some misconceptions, is not a substitute for Christmas. It is simply a time of reaffirming African-American people, their ancestors and culture. Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits of the harvest” in the African language Kiswahili, has gained tremendous acceptance.

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Since its founding in 1966, in the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965, by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa has come to be observed by more than15 million people worldwide. Dr. Karenga, Cal State professor of African-American history, feeling that the solution would require African-Americans to reconnect with their African heritage, created Kwanzaa. Many African-Americans desired a stronger sense of community as had once existed. Karenga sought to reinstill in the African-American community the principles that had allowed their ancestors to endure slavery, oppression and racism.
Celebrated from December 26th to January 1st, it is based on Nguzo Saba (seven guiding principles), one for each day of the observance:

Umoja (OO-MO-JAH) Unity stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, “I am We,” or “I am because We are.”

Kujichagulia (KOO-GEE-CHA-GOO-LEE-YAH) Self-Determination requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.

Ujima (OO-GEE-MAH) Collective Work and Responsibility reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.

Ujamaa (OO-JAH-MAH) Cooperative economics emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.

Nia (NEE-YAH) Purpose encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals that are beneficial to the community.

Kuumba (KOO-OOM-BAH) Creativity makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community.

Imani (EE-MAH-NEE) Faith focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind, by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.

CELEBRATING KWANZAA

As it is always better to get an early start, I suggest that you begin the first week in December by making a check list for the following items: A Kinara (candle holder); Mkeka (placemat preferably made of straw); Mazao (crops, i.e., fruits and vegetables); Vibunzi (ears of corn to reflect the number of children in the household); Kikombe cha umoja (communal unity cup); Mishumaa saba (seven candles, one black, three red, and three green); and Zawadi (gifts that are enriching).

It is important that the Kinara not be confused with the menorah. The Kinara holds seven candles to reflect the seven principles which are the foundation of Kwanzaa, while the menorah is a Jewish religious symbol that holds nine candles. If you don’t have a Kinara and don’t know where to get one, it is suggested that you use “kuumba” (creativity) and make one. A 2×4 or a piece of driftwood will do just fine, and screw-in candle holders can be purchased in most hardware stores. The Mkeka (place mat) shouldn’t present a problem. While straw is suggested because it is traditional, cloth makes an adequate substitute. If cloth is used, one with an African print is preferred. The other symbols are easy to come by and warrant no further discussion other than to caution against placing the Mazao (crops)in a cornucopia which is Western. A plain straw basket or a bowl will do just fine. One last note, even households without any children should place an ear of corn on the place mat to symbolize the African concept of social parenthood. All seven symbols are creatively placed on top of the place mat, i.e., the symbols should be attractively arranged as they form the Kwanzaa centerpiece.

DECORATING THE HOME

The Kinara along with the other symbols of Kwanzaa should dominate the room, which should be given an African motif. This is easily achieved and shouldn’t result in too much expense. The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red and green. This should be kept in mind when decorating the home. Black, red and green streamers, balloons, cloth, flowers, and African prints can be hung tastefully around the room. Original art and sculpture may be displayed as well.

GIFTS

Kuumba (creativity) is greatly encouraged. Not only is Kuumba one of the seven principles, it also brings a sense of personal satisfaction and puts one squarely into the spirit of Kwanzaa. Therefore, those symbols that can be made, should be made. The giving of gifts during Kwanzaa should be affordable and of an educational or artistic nature. Gifts are usually exchanged between parents and children and traditionally given on January 1st, the last day of Kwanzaa. However, gift giving during Kwanzaa may occur at any time.

THE KWANZAA FEAST OR KARAMU

The Kwanzaa Karumu is traditionally held on December 31st (participants celebrating New Year’s Eve, should plan their Karamu early in the evening). It is a very special event as it is the one Kwanzaa event that brings us closer to our African roots. The Karamu is a communal and cooperative effort. Ceremonies and cultural expressions are highly encouraged. It is important to decorate the place where the Karamu will be held, (e.g., home, community center, church) in an African motif that utilizes black, red, and green color scheme. A large Kwanzaa setting should dominate the room where the karamu will take place. A large Mkeka should be placed in the center of the floor where the food should be placed creatively and made accessible to all for self-service. Prior to and during the feast, an informative and entertaining program should be presented. Traditionally, the program involved welcoming, remembering, reassessment, recommitment and rejoicing, concluded by a farewell statement and a call for greater unity.

The Principle Symbols Associated with Kwanzaa

The Karamu

A ritual Kwanzaa feast, celebrating Umoja, or unity, is the highlight of the holiday. Usually held on December 31, families gather to share a meal, to pay homage to their ancestors, to celebrate African-American heroes, to exchange the Zawadi or gifts. During the meal a toast or tamshi la tambiko is made and a libation is drunk from the kikombe cha umoja (unity cup) to the ancestors.

The Kinara

A candle-holder which, like the menorah in the Jewish Hanukkah celebration, holds one candle for each of day of Kwanzaa. The seven Mishumaa Saba (candles), are placed left to right in the kinara as follows: three red candles (representing nia, kuumba and imani), one black candle (representing umoja – unity), and three green candles (representing kujichagulia, ujima and ujamaa). The black center candle is lit first, with the remaining six on each of the following days.

Mazao

Fruits and vegetables of the harvest, or the rewards for working together throughout the year, are placed on the mkeka (a straw mat symbolizing traditions of the past). At least two ears of corn, called mihindi, are included to symbolize the children (the kernels) of the father (the stalk), the hope for the future.

The Bandera

African-American flag created by Marcus Mosiah Garvey, founder of UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League) in the early 1900’s and adopted by Dr. Karenga as a symbol for Kwanzaa. The flag has three stripes: green representing freedom, black representing unity, and red representing the blood spilled in the name of the other two.

“Umoja is my favorite day because it means ‘unity’ and the best part of Kwanzaa is the gathering of the family.” Harambee – “Let’s all work together” or “Let’s pull together”.

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