The history of Kwanzaa

The history of Kwanzaa

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Kwanzaa is a seven-day festival celebrated by African-Americans of all religious faiths and backgrounds. Marked by the colors of the Bendera (African flag), it is a week meant for honoring the African-American race as well as a time to enforce a connectedness to our cultural heritage. Most importantly, it is a pause to ponder the seven principles (the Nguzo Saba) that have sustained Africans and should continue to be carried out in our every day lives.

Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in the nineteen-sixties - a decade that saw many social and political changes throughout America and a time in which African-Americans struggled for freedom and our own self-identity. Inspired by the harvest festivals in Africa, Karenga sought to re-create a similar festival in America. He called it Kwanzaa, derived from the Kiswahili (Swahili) phrase, "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits" and the first celebration occured on December 26, 1966. It is believed that this timing was selected to avoid the commercial shopping period, but to take advantage of the vibrant holiday spirit.

At the start of Kwanzaa, families or community groups will set up a table or alter decorated with the following representative items:

  • The Mkeka is a straw mat onto which all of the other objects will be placed. The Mkeka symbolizes the experiences and traditions of our ancestors, which forms the foundation on which our own lives are built.

  • The Kinara is a candleholder that represents the original stalk from which we all sprang and holds the Mishumaa Saba.

  • The Mishumaa Saba are the seven candles which represent the seven principles (Nguzo Saba) and are held by the Kinara. The colors of the candles are, again, those of the African flag: red, green and black and sit in the Kinara in the following order from left to right: three red, one black and three green. One candle is lit each night of Kwanzaa starting with the black, and then alternating from the outside in between the red and green candles, beginning with the red.

  • The Mazoa are the fruits and vegetables placed in a bowl and set up on the table to be shared. They are eaten in honor of the people who work so hard to grow them.

  • One ear of Muhindi, or corn, is placed on the table for each child in the household. If there are no children in the household, one Muhindi is still added to represent the children of the community.

  • The Kikombe cha Umoja is the unity cup and represents family and community unity. Once filled, a dash is first poured out in honor and remembrance of our ancestors and then each person at the gathering will take a sip from the cup.

  • The Zawadi are educational gifts given to the children to help make them better people by committing themselves to good thoughts, acts, etc. which will, in turn, benefit their community. Also included should be one "heritage symbol" reminding the children of the past and the future.

Each night during Kwanzaa, the family or community will gather to light a candle, pray, sing, drink from the unity cup and discuss the highlighted principle for that day. The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, are:

  • Umoja means unity. It is a principle that should be strived for in the family, community and beyond.

  • Kujichagulia means self-determination. It represents the responsibility to create our own destiny.

  • Ujima means collective work and responsibility. It is the commitment to building the community together and to solving one another's problems together.

  • Nia means purpose. It is the goal of restoring African-American people to our original greatness, being responsible to both our ancestors and our descendants.

  • Ujamaa means collective economics. It is the idea of building and maintaining our own businesses and profiting from them.

  • Kuumba means creativity. Creativity must be used to constantly improve one's community and leave it better than it was in the past.

  • Imani means faith. It is believing in ourselves, our families, our educators and, the righteousness of the African-American struggle.

Closing out Kwanzaa is the Karamu, a feast held on the sixth night (December 31), that brings families and communities together to give thanks to the Creator for their accomplishments during the year. This feast includes a meaningful ceremony followed by lots of eating, drinking, dancing and, in some cases, gift giving.

Although the holiday is marked by seven specific days in the year, it is the intention of Kwanzaa to become a way of life, not just a change in thought that occurs on those seven days. The seven principles should be woven into the every day lives of African-Americans of all ages in order to help us understand the significance of our past and build towards the future, united in the strength of our people and our mission.

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