Today is the 4th day of Kwanzaa, a holiday created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga a professor of Africana Studies at California State University--Long Beach. In the wake of the civil rights movement, black people were getting in touch with their heritage and feeling a renewed sense of pride. Black history departments were burgeoning in American universities like UCLA and African states like Kenya and Botswana had gained their independence. The time was ripe for a celebration of Pan- Africanism.
According to Dr. Karena:
“Kwanzaa is rooted in and developing out of the ancient origins of African first-fruit harvest celebrations and the modern origins of the Black Freedom Movement, Kwanzaa teaches and cultivates cultural grounding and ethical principles and practices dedicated to the cooperative creation and sharing of good in the world.”
Kwanzaa is a Swahili word that means first fruits of the harvest. Karenga chose Swahili as the language of Kwanzaa because of its status as a sort of lingua franca in Africa. The holiday was intended as a celebration of history and a way for Africans in the Diaspora to celebrate their commonalities and come together in the spirit of brotherhood.
Kwanzaa begins the day after Christmas and lasts until New Year’s Day. The seven days of Kwanzaa are called Nguzo Sbaba (seven principles). The ceremony of Kwanzaa involves a kinara (candleholder), Mkeka (mat), Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup) and Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles - three green, three red and one black) which symbolize the seven principles. The colors of the candles are also symbolic: black for the people, red for their struggles, and green for hope arising from their struggles.The implements of Kwanzaa have a central place in the home. The kinara goes on top of the Mkeka (mat) as does the Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) Mazao (crops), and two ears of corn to symbolize the children in the community. Books on African culture and objects of African art are also placed next to the mat to reinforce the commitment to culture and education.
1. Umoja (unity) symbolized by the black center candle on the kinara
2. Kujichagulia (self-determination) symbolized by one of three red candles on the left
3. Ujima (collective work and responsibility) symbolized by one of three red candles on the left
4. Ujamaa (cooperative economics) symbolized by one of three red candles on the left
5. Nia (purpose) symbolized by one of three black candles on the right
6. Kuumba (creativity) symbolized by one of three black candles on the right
7. Imani (faith) symbolized by one of three black candles on the right
The Kwanzaa CeremonyOn each day of Kwanzaa celebrates greet one another with: "Habari gani?" (What is the Word?) and answered with the corresponding Kwanzaa principle for that day, e.g., "Umoja", on the first day, "Kujichagulia", on the second, etc.
A candle is lit and a libation is poured to the ancestors in reverence and remembrance of those who taught us the good (Tamshi) in life. Then a passage is read from a book that illustrates the principle of the day. The celebration culminates in a feast (Karamu) and an exchange of gifts. Generally, gifts are reserved for children and linked to education or cultural heritage.
For more information about Kwanzaa and its history, visit Dr. Karenga’s website. There’s also a cool film about Kwanzaa called The Black Candle. Here's the trailer: