Kwanzaa is seven days of Pan-African celebrations of family, community and culture. Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder, Maulana Karenga, called "The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa," or Nguzo Saba. Maulana Karenga said that Kwanzaa "is a communitarian African philosophy" … “the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world." These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the principles of family, community and culture. Celebrated for seven days at the end of the old year and the start of the new, that is, from 26 December to 1 January, Kwanzaa origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza" which means "first fruits" in Swahili, a Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken African language.
In Africa, there are many customs that are common among the various ethnic groups found on the continent. One of these is the celebration of the harvest. At this time of the year, friends, family and community come together to celebrate and give thanks for their good fortune. Working towards a successful harvest is a communal effort, as is the celebration. Kwanzaa is a Swahili word that means "first" and signifies the first fruits of the harvest. Many people of African descent across the globe celebrate Kwanzaa, not instead of the Christian holiday but as well as. The basic principles of the harvest celebrations in Africa are to create the observance of Kwanzaa. Africans today do not live in an agricultural setting. Nonetheless, these basic principles found in producing the harvest are vital to building and maintaining strong and wholesome communities. Kwanzaa is that time when we reflect on our use of the basic principles, share and enjoy the fruits of our labour, and recommit ourselves to the collective achievement of a better life for our family, our community, and our people.
The first-fruits celebrations are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia and appear in ancient and modern times in other classical African civilizations, such as Ashantiland and Yorubaland. These celebrations are also found in ancient and modern times among societies as large as empires (the Zulu or kingdoms (Swaziland) or smaller societies and groups like the Matabele, Thonga and Lovedu, all of south-eastern Africa. Kwanzaa builds on the five fundamental activities of Continental African "first fruit" celebrations: ingathering; reverence; commemoration; recommitment; & celebration. It is
1. a time of ingathering of the people to reaffirm the bonds between them;
2. a time of special reverence for the creator and creation in thanks and respect for the blessings, bountifulness and beauty of creation;
3. a time for commemoration of the past in pursuit of its lessons and in honour of its models of human excellence, our ancestors;
4. a time of recommitment to our highest cultural ideals in our ongoing effort to always bring forth the best of African cultural thought and practice; and
5. a time for celebration of the Good, the good of life and of existence itself, the good of family, community and culture, the good of the awesome and the ordinary, in a word the good of the divine, natural and social.
African British Kwanzaa
Rooted in this ancient history and culture, Kwanzaa develops as a flourishing branch of the African British life and struggle as a recreated and expanded ancient tradition. Kwanzaa in Britain, unlike the USA, is not celebrated as a public holiday but nevertheless the celebrations if vibrant in the African-centred families and communities. Kwanzaa draws from the cultures of various African peoples, and is celebrated by millions of Africans throughout the world African community. Moreover, these various African peoples celebrate Kwanzaa because it speaks not only to African Britons in a special way, but also to Africans as a whole, in its stress on history, values, family, community and culture.
Kwanzaa in the African British context was established in 1966 in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement and thus reflects its concern for cultural groundedness in thought and practice, and the unity and self-determination associated with this. It was conceived and established to serve several functions, such as:
Reaffirming and Restoring Culture
First, Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture. It is, therefore, an expression of recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the '60's. Secondly, Kwanzaa was created to serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people. Kwanzaa was established as a means to help Africans across the globe reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of "African traditions" and "common humanist principles. It was designed to be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose and direction as a people and a world community. Thirdly, Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles):
Umoja (Unity) To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose) To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity) To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Imani (Faith) To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
This stress on the Nguzo Saba was at the same time an emphasis on the importance of African communitarian values in general, which stress family, community and culture and speak to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. And Kwanzaa was conceived as a fundamental and important way to introduce and reinforce these values and cultivate appreciation for them.
Black History Month
October is Black History Month in the UK and this is a good time to start preparations for the ‘first fruits’ of Kwanzaa seven days of celebrations which is only thirteen weeks away. This is the time to start the ‘ingathering’ process - an opportunity to look into your self and reflect on
Symbols of Kwanzaa
There are symbols which have a special meaning to the celebration of Kwanzaa:
1. The mkeka is a straw mat which symbolizes the tradition as the foundation on which all else rests.
2. The kinara is a seven-space candle holder, representing the original stalk from which the African people originated.
3. The mishumaa saba (seven candles) stand for the Seven Principles.
4. The muhindi are the ears of corn which represent the offspring (children) of the stalk (parents of the house).
5. The zawadi (gifts) represent the fruits of the labour of the parents and the rewards of seeds sown by the children.
During the celebration of Kwanzaa, it is customary to greet friends and family with the Swahili phrase, "Habari gani", meaning, "What is the news?" To respond, answer with the principle of the day. (Umoja, for example, is the response given on December 26th).
Fasting, or abstaining from food, is often done during Kwanzaa, as a means of cleansing of the mind, soul, and spirit.
The Candle-lighting Ceremony
The candle-lighting ceremony, central to the celebration of Kwanzaa, takes place at a time when all members of the family are present. Children are encouraged to take an active role in all activities.
1. The ceremony begins with the TAMBIKO (libation), an African form of praise which pays homage to personal and collective ancestors. To begin, the elder of the household pours wine, juice or distilled spirits from the KIKOMBE CHA UMOJA (unity cup) into the earth or an earth-filled vessel. While pouring, the elder makes a statement honouring departed family members for the inspiration and values they have left with descendants. Friends are also remembered.
2. After the TAMBIKO, as a gesture of unity, the elder drinks from the KIKOMBE CHA UMOJA and then passes it for all to share. The elder leads the call, "HARAMBEE" (Let's pull together), and everyone participates in repeating the phrase seven times.
3. Candle-lighting, central to the ceremony, reinforces the meaning of the principles. The placement of the mishumaa saba (candles) in the kinara is as follows:
Black, for the colour of African peoples everywhere, is located in the centre. Three red candles, represents the blood of the ancestors, are placed to the left. Three green candles that symbolize the earth, life, and the ideas and promise of the future, are placed to the right.
Kwanzaa starts on the 26 December by lighting the first of the seven candles or mushumaa, the black candle in the middle of the kinara. A different candle is lit for each day, alternating from left to right. After the candle-lighting, the principle of the day is discussed.
The evening of December 31 (Day 6) is the KARAMU, a joyous celebration with food, drink, dance, and music for the collective family and friends. It is a time of rejoicing, reassessment and recommitment.
The ZAWADI, handmade or similarly meaningful gifts for children, may be opened at the KARAMU, or on the final day of Kwanzaa, when Imani is observed.