The Kwanzaa holiday was established in America in 1965, by activist and educator Dr. Maulana Karenga. His intent was to educate generations of indoctrinated peoples of their African culture and traditions as a means of self-empowerment. Karenga taught principles and traditions inherent in Africa to African-Americans in an effort to instill purpose and self-worth.
Explorers from many nations invaded the African continent and deceptively transported millions of its citizens to other continents to be enslaved. They were forbidden to speak their language or practice their cultural beliefs and traditions. Their friends, family members, spouses and children were separated. A practice that continued for over 400 years.
Kwanza in KiSwahili means “first” and in America, Kwanzaa refers to “first fruits” as in the phrase matunda ya kwanza. In the African diaspora, kwanza is a daily practice of seven humanitarian African principles of common (Kawaida), while in the U.S., Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration of those principles.
The second “a” was added to distinguish the African-American holiday from the African kwanza value system. The concepts and symbols of Kwanzaa are derived from traditions and practices that are foundational in the African diaspora.
The seven principles are to reaffirm and restore African heritage and culture. Kwanzaa celebrates a specific principle each day as follows:
Day 1, December 26th, Umoja (Unity): The center black candle is lit followed by a libation poured from the Kikombe cha Umoja cup of unity into attendees’ cups to sip in remembrance of and to honor the ancestors. To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Day 2, December 27th, Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): A green candle is lit, calling out or raising the names of ancestral heroes, heroines and departed relatives in a meaningful and spiritually uplifting ritual. Define and name ourselves, as well as create and speak for ourselves.
Day 3: December 28th, Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): A red candle is lit to collectively build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.
Day 4, December 29th, Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Day 5, December 30th, Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Day 6, December 31st, 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.
Day 7, January 1st, Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Symbols used to celebrate Kwanzaa include:
Mkeka, a mat where first fruits dedications will be placed
Kinara, a seven-stick candle holder, or Mishumaa Saba seven candles in holders.
Mazao, (crops), Mahindi (corn), a Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) for commemorating and giving shukrani (thanks) to African Ancestors, and Zawadi (gifts).
Additional representations used include a Nguzo Saba poster, to display the red, black, and green bendera (flag), and African books and artworks – that represent values and concepts reflective of African culture and contributions to community building and reinforcement. Ears of corn represent the children celebrating and corn may be part of the holiday meal.
In 1965 Maulana Karenga could see that African-Americans needed a cultural reaffirmation. He looked to East Africa for inspiration for a new celebration.
Kwanzaa, a time of fasting, feasting, and self-examination, is annually from December 26 to January 1. The celebration is guided by the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles of practiced in the African diaspora for centuries. Each day of the week-long festival is devoted to the celebration of one of the building blocks of self-awareness.