Kwanzaa – an introduction

From Ghana to Atlanta, Houston to South Africa, throughout the black diaspora, many African people have just finished celebrating the African cultural holiday Kwanzaa. And what a joyous time we all had! As some of you may know, Kwanzaa is celebrated over a seven-day period from December 26th to January 1st to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of people of African ancestry throughout the world. For those of you who may not have heard of Kwanzaa or for those of you who know about this blossoming cultural holiday but would like to find out more, the following is a selection of frequently asked questions about this significant African cultural holiday.

What is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is an internationally celebrated African cultural holiday that pays tribute to the rich cultural roots of African people throughout the African diaspora. Kwanzaa is based upon the Ancient Customs of African nations e.g. the Yorubas, Ibo, Ashanti, and Zulu.

What is the meaning of the word Kwanzaa? Kwanzaa means “the first” or “the first fruits of the harvest”, in the East African language of Kiswahili.

When was Kwanzaa first established as an African Holiday? Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga a Black Studies Professor who describes himself as a cultural nationalist founded Kwanzaa in 1966. Kwanzaa originated as a cultural idea and an expression of the nationalist US organization which was headed by Dr. Karenga. Dr. Karenga’s research stemmed from African harvest ceremonies “First Fruits” celebrations. The harvest festival was a means of rewarding tribe members for their teamwork during the year.

Is Kwanzaa a religious holiday?

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday; it is an African spiritual and cultural event.

What is Kwanzaa based on? Kwanzaa is based on seven fundamental principles, which are referred to as the Nguzo Saba

What are those principles?

Umoja (U-mo-ja) means Unity, Kujichagulia (Ku-ji-cha-gu-lia) means Self-determination Ujima (U-ji-ma) means Collective work and responsibility, Ujamaa (U-jam-a) means Co-operative economics, Nia, meaning purpose, Kuumba (Ku-um-ba) meaning Creativity, and Imani meaning Faith.

Is Kwanzaa a Christmas substitute? No, absolutely not! Dr. Karenga recognized the undue hardship that the over-commercialization of Christmas has for Black people and others who are at the lowest rung of the social strata. Therefore, those who find Kwanzaa to be more meaningful to them now have an option and can still be part of the holiday season.

How important is gift-giving during Kwanzaa?

Gifts may be exchanged during the Kwanzaa season though it is suggested that they not be given if they present an undue hardship. When gifts are given it is suggested that they be creative i.e. handmade or functional, like a book.

How is Kwanzaa celebrated?

Kwanzaa can be celebrated in a number of ways. At a bare minimum, a table should be prepared with the following items; A placemat (Mkeka) usually made of straw; A candle holder for seven candles (Kinara); seven candles (Mishumaa saba) one black, three green and three red; a variety of fruit (Mazao), ears of corn (Vibunzi) representing the number of children in the home; gifts if any (Zawadi); and a unity or communal cup (Kikombe cha umja) for pouring and Sharing libation.

Each day a Kwanzaa candle should be lit beginning with the black candle, which is placed in the center of the candle holder. Candles are then lit alternately from left to right. Three green candles should be placed on the left and three red candles on the right. Each day a principle should be recited when the candle is lit. The importance that each principle has for the person reciting it should be expounded upon.

If you decide to attend a Kwanzaa social event in your community, it is customary for everyone to bring with them some food to share with their fellow friends and guests (Its also a chance for you to show of your culinary skills!). Suggestions include fresh fruit, salads, vegetarian dishes such as rice and peas (classic!), seasoned couscous, rice or pasta, vegetarian curry, fried dumplings, fritters, and soup (remember its mid-December!). For the carnivores amongst us, fish and chicken dishes are suggested over red meat. And to drink, water, carrot juice, fruit juices or if lucky, that special Caribbean fruit punch that only your grandma knows how to make!

What’s next?

Well, you now have a head start for Kwanzaa 2022! So go ahead, and find out some more info by visiting these websites, and don’t forget to listen out for Kwanzaa events in your area during the Kwanzaa season later this year. Whatever you do, remember the essence of Kwanzaa is about sharing and celebrating your African heritage all year round. So go on, do yourself a favor and celebrate yourself and your African essence today!

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