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Kwanzaa, a celebration of Heritage

Photo Credit: RODNAE Productions

Kwanzaa is a celebration of life by Black People to pay homage to their heritage. Every year, the holiday is observed from December 26 to January 1, making it a seven-day celebration of dancing, poetry-reading, storytelling, drumming, and feasting on 31. Much African descent celebrates Kwanzaa, especially African Americans and other Africans in the diaspora.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga in the U.S. to bring African Americans together as a community and reconnect with their roots. Dr. Karenga formed the holiday by African Harvests celebrations, especially the Ashanti and the Zulu.

Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," meaning first fruits, following the first harvest celebration in Africa. Swahili language, an African language, was necessary for symbolizing Pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism is a worldwide movement that fought against slavery and colonialism among Africans, even in the diaspora, but has since evolved to unify Africans in many ways. Dr. Karenga created Kwanza as a way for Africans to establish and appreciate themselves away from other dominant norms in society.

Dr. Karenga also established seven principles to guide the celebration of Kwanza through the seven days of the holiday. These seven principles were African values guiding and strengthening Africans and African Americans as a black community.

Nguzu Saba: The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

Nguzu Saba is Swahili for Seven Principles. Each principle is represented by its own day of the seven days of the celebration. Family members gather around, and a candle-lighting ceremony reflects on the principles. On the first night, a black candle is lit and put at the center, and the first principle, Umoja (Unity), is observed. These principles are:

  1. Umoja (Unity): The unity of family, community, and race is declared.

  2. Kujichagulia (Self-determination): The ability to define ourselves, name, create and speak for ourselves.

  3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build the community, seek challenges and unite in problem-solving collectively

  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): Asked black people to establish themselves financially and support businesses there to create profits

  5. Nia (Purpose): Work together to build communities that will support African people

  6. Kuumba (Creativity): To seek new innovative ways to put African people in a much more beautiful and beneficial way

  7. Imani (Faith): Having great belief in your own people and the righteousness and victory of their struggle

Symbols of Kwanzaa

Symbols of Kwanzaa include:

Mazar (Crops): These fruits reward collaborative planning and labor.

Mkeka (Mat): it is a symbol of the foundation of the African historical and traditional heritage the current generation lives on

Kinara (Candleholder): the candleholder symbolizes African roots.

Muhindi (Corn): corn represents children and the future, which belongs to them.

Mishima Saba (Seven Candles): emblematic of Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. These candles embody the values of the African Diaspora.

Kikombe cha Umoja (Unity Cup): symbolizes the foundation, focus, and practice of unity.

Zawadi (Gifts): gifts are given to children by parents to show their love and encourage success.

Bendera (Flag): the colors of the Kwanzaa flag are black, red, and green. They were established as colors of freedom and unity by Marcus Mosiah Garvey. The black is for people; red, the struggles endured; and green, for life and hope.

Kwanzaa Customs

During Kwanzaa celebrations, friends and families sing, read poetry, drum, and dance. All this is done to honor ancestors. A candle-lighting ceremony is done with the African Pledge, and the Principle of Blackness is read aloud. This is then followed by performances and a great feast called Karamu. A Swahili greeting called "habari gani" is used throughout the celebrations. This means, "what's the news?" One should answer this greeting with the day's principle, i.e., respond with Umoja if it's the first day of the celebration.

What makes Kwanzaa so unique?

None-religious holiday: it may surprise you that Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday even though it passes intense messages and beliefs. It only celebrates life, unity, prosperity, and the traditional heritage of the black people.

Umoja (Unity): The Swahili language, to name the celebration, is a unifying factor in Africa. The Swahili language is one of the most known languages in Africa among the 2000 plus languages that exist in the continent.

The number seven: although not so severe, it is kind of unique how the number seven pops up at the mention of the story of Kwanzaa. There are seven days of celebration, seven guiding principles, and seven symbols. Do I also need to mention that there are seven letters to the word 'Kwanzaa'?

Theme colors: the theme colors of Kwanzaa represent the Pan-African movement symbol of unity among people of African descent across the globe: black represents the people, red the blood that unites us, and green the life and the rich land of Africa.

Stamps: Since 1997, the government of the United States has issued about five postage stamps designs to commemorate Kwanzaa.

Star power: several big celebrities celebrate Kwanzaa annually and show their support and love for the holiday. These celebrities include Oprah, Maya Angelou, Chuck D, Angelina Jolie, and Synthia Saint James.

Dr. Karenga's purpose for establishing Kwanzaa was to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." This message carries so much significance that it inspires the black community to appreciate their heritage and have a sense of pride in their cultures. Kwanzaa might have been established to encourage the black community in the world, but is it really absurd to think that its core principles may be a guide for the prosperity of any culture out there?

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