AHF Board member offers insight on the Kwanzaa celebration

Habari gani, or “What is the news?” This welcoming greeting is Swahili, a non-tribal language spoken throughout most of East Africa. It is the primary greeting for each day of Kwanzaa (Swahili for First Fruits), an African-American secular celebration that was created by Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., in 1966.

Over the years, confusion has arisen over this holiday, some thinking it was an African holiday, some melding it with Christmas since it begins the day after. Truth is, Kwanzaa is based on broad-based African traditions–the sense of collective work, responsibility, collective economics, for instance–but there is no Kwanzaa per se anywhere in Africa.

Kwanzaa and Christmas are also different celebrations, though some elements of Kwanzaa are in Christmas–family, sharing of gifts–Zawadi. However, the gift-giving for Kwanzaa differs from that of Christmas. Kwanzaa gift-givers are encouraged to offer handmade gifts of cultural significance, an African batakari (tunic), for instance, books and puzzles, given over the seven days of Kwanzaa.

The Seven Days of Kwanzaa, the Nguzo Saba in Swahili, begins on December 26 and ends on January 1. Each day has a name, and they are:

  1. Umoja: unity
  2. Kujichagulia: self-determination
  3. Ujima: collective work and responsibility
  4. Ujamaa: cooperative Economics
  5. Nia: purpose
  6. Kuumba: creativity
  7. Imani: faith

Each day’s celebration is vibrant with family and friends coming together to share traditional food–hoppin’ johns, beans, jollof rice, fried plantain–stories from African-American history, family history, folklore, gifts. The biggest feast, however, occurs on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, Kuumba. The last day’s celebration ends with a shout of harambe–“Let’s work together”–seven times.

In a typical home where Kwanzaa is celebrated, a table will be set with an African cloth (usually kente.) At the center of the table will be the mkeka, the mat. Behind this mat would be set a kinara, seven-hole candle-holder, with themishumaa saba, seven candles–three red (for the struggle), three green (for the land), one black (for the people.)

A candle is lit for each day of Kwanzaa, until the last day when all seven are lit. On the mat is placed mazao–fruits, vegetables; vibunzi–ear of corn for each child in the household; and the kikombe cha umoja–unity cup from which all drink at the end of each ceremony.

Written by: Malík B.