Kwanzaa 101: How to observe this annual holiday

By Ann Hill-Bond

Kwanzaa, a yearlong celebration that focuses on seven life principles called Nguzo Saba, was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Black Studies, in 1966 during a time of profound social change for African Americans.

What Kwanzaa has become today is the actualization of Karenga’s vision of a celebration that would honor the values of African cultures and inspire African Americans who were working for/towards progress.

Each of the seven days observed for Kwanzaa is a mark of distinction of a different life principle. The Nguzo Saba, are principles that are believed to be the foundation of building resilient, prolific families and communities on the content of Africa as well as in the Diaspora.

The Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa) comes from the native language Swahili of the Bantu people in East Africa.

Kwanzaa is observed during the last seven days (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) of the year with a hope that communities intertwine the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles) into the fabric of their lives:

Knowing that without the foundation of unity, being committed to self-determination, understanding that with collective work and responsibility bring forth cooperative economics, therein as a movement we can gain our purpose, explore our creativity, all while standing together in faith throughout the next 365 days of the year.

During Kwanzaa, celebrants greet each other using the Swahili greeting — “Habari gani,” meaning “What’s the news?” The principles of Kwanzaa (Nguzo Saba) form the answers.

Celebrants also adorn their homes with red, black, and green as well as African-style textiles and art. It is also encouraged to display the seven symbols to joins the community of people of color together.

Nguzo Saba: The Principles of Kwanzaa

Umoja (oo-MOH-ja)
• Meaning: unity
• Action: building a community that holds together

Kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-yah)
• Meaning: self-determination
• Action: speaking for yourself and making choices that benefit the community

Ujima (oo-JEE-mah)
• Meaning: collective work and responsibility
• Action: helping others within the community

Ujamaa (oo-JAH-ma)
• Meaning: cooperative economics
• Action: supporting businesses that care about the community

Nia (nee-AH)
• Meaning: a sense of purpose
• Action: setting goals that benefit the community

Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah)
• Meaning: creativity
• Action: making the community better and more beautiful

Imani (ee-MAH-nee)
• Meaning: faith.

  • Action: believing that a better world can be created for communities now and in the future

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa

kikombe cha umoja
• Meaning: the unity cup
• Action: Celebrants drink from this cup in honor of their African ancestors. Before drinking, each person says, “Harambee!” or “let’s pull together.”

kinara
• Meaning: the candleholder, which holds seven candles
• Action: It said to symbolize stalks of corn that branch off to form new stalks, much as the human family is created.

mazao
• Meaning: fruits, nuts, and vegetables
• Action: These remind celebrants of the harvest fruits that nourished the people of Africa.

mishumaa saba
• Meaning: the seven candles that represent the seven principles
• Action: A different candle is lit each day. Three candles on the left are green; three on the right are red; and, in the middle, is a black candle.

mkeka
• Meaning: mat
• Action: The symbols of Kwanzaa are arranged on the mkeka, which may be made of straw or African cloth. It symbolizes the foundation upon which communities are built.

vibunzi (plural, muhindi)
• Meaning: ear of corn
• Action: Traditionally, one ear of corn is placed on the mkeka for each child present.

zawadi
• Meaning: gifts
• Action: Traditionally, educational and cultural gifts are given to children on January 1, the last day of Kwanzaa.

The Great Fest

Dec. 31, is the day of Kuumba (Creativity). It is also the day that families/communities gather for the great feast of “karamu.”

During, karamu enjoying traditional African dishes as well as those featuring ingredients our ancestors brought to the U.S., including sesame seeds (benne), peanuts (groundnuts), sweet potatoes, collard greens, and spicy sauces.

This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Voice.

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