Kwanzaa a Celebration of Life


Get ready, Kwanzaa is on its way. African-Americans throughout the United States are poised to celebrate Kwanzaa, the annual and ever growing festival that founder Dr. Maulana Karenga called a “celebration of life.” The week-long celebration will run from December 26 to January 1 and will culminate in a well-appointed feast and the giving of gifts.

Founded in 1966 to “welcome the first harvests to the home” Kwanzaa is an opportunity for African-Americans to reconnect with their cultural and family roots and otherwise reaffirm their collective and individual sense of purpose, meaning and dignity. The message is one that articulates and celebrates the beauty and majesty of what it means to be a part of the African community and its cultural heritage. While originally instituted as a vehicle for African-Americans to connect back to their historical and cultural roots, many celebrants continue to observe Christmas as well.

The word Kwanzaa is a Swahili term that means “first” and is suggestive of the first fruits of a harvest that is inclusive of a range of seven qualities that when harvested, ennoble and strengthen individuals, families, communities and the broader culture. The festival redounds in positive, self-affirming ritual that focuses on the inherent dignity of the person of African-origin as fully human and worthy of the dignity it has been endowed with by birth. There is the recognition and celebration that the self is a wondrous creation with a deep sense of purpose and meaning and the responsibilities that come with such noble stature. Family bonds, relationships and an appreciation of history and respect for progenitors is all wrapped up in a season of thanks, reaffirmation and re-commitment.

Not just an African-American but Pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa is founded in the celebration of seven life affirming and ennobling principles known in the Swahili tongue as Nguzo Saba or, as translated, The Seven Principles. These include first, the concept of Umoja, or unity as it relates to family and community. The idea comes from the African notion that the “one” is best understood in terms of the “we.”

The second principle is known as Kujichagulia or self-determination. It is the suggestion that one defines oneself or community on one’s own terms in conjunction with the whole and with respect to the best interests of the whole whether family or community.

Thirdly is Ujima or responsibility. Each celebrant is reminded of the great chain of life and the responsibility one has to it. As one finds oneself in the broader context of past, present and future, one sees that one has a role to play in the fluid and appropriate passage of time. One is thus expected to leave a better world for those who follow.

And fourth is Ujamaa, the idea of cooperation in economic enterprise. That is, one has an obligation to help those engaged in a common cause with common needs.

The fifth principle is Nia, or purpose. Each individual is tasked with the responsibility to grow oneself in a community-friendly manner. Each person is to seek to become of benefit to others.

And sixth we have Kuumba or creativity. Each person is to seek to discover the creative impulse within so that one can find new and unique ways to serve the community.

And finally, Imani or faith. Imani is about honoring and seeing the best in the community, its traditions and culture. It serves to remind oneself of one’s ability to overcome and continue the struggle to overtake and rise above any impediments to the realization of excellence in self, in living and in service. By so affirming the future becomes bright, purposeful and happy.

Like Christmas and Hanukah, Kwanzaa has its own set of symbols and iconography. There are crops symbolic of agricultural roots and collective labor. The mkeka or mat is the foundation of self-realization/actualization. The kinara, or candle holder is meant to call to reminder one’s ancestral and genealogic origins in Africa. The corn, or mehndi is symbolic of children and the hope of and for the future. Zawadi, or gifts is symbolic of the covenant relationship and responsibilities parents have with the children they bring into the world. The Kkimbe cha Umoja, or unity cup contains libations that are poured in honor of progenitors. And lastly, mishumaa saba or the seven candles. These are meant to call to remembrance the seven principles and the colors of the flags used in African liberation movements, red, black and green.

Participants find themselves enjoying not only the association of loving family and community but come away with a renewed sense of responsibility to live with dignity, purpose and community service. In the end, as Kwanzaa devotees engage in the celebration of life, they clearly model service-orientation as the life well lived.

By: Matthew R. Fellows


The Official Kwanzaa Website

The Black Candle

University of Pennsylvania

Photo By: Alesa Dam Flickr License

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