Dear Everyone: ‘Kwanzaa’

Few have heard the term Kwanzaa but of those few, many are unsure as to what the meaning of the Kwanzaa really is or more importantly what it represents. It is especially important now as this year 2016 marks fifty years of Kwanzaa.

What is Kwanzaa?

Is it the Black Christmas? Or possibly the Black Hanukkah? A holiday maybe?

Kwanzaa is a Pan-African secular holiday celebrated from the 26th of December to the 1st of January, it was created in order for African Americans to celebrate their cultural identity and heritage particularly as Africans in the diaspora as well as to encourage unity and growth in the Black and Pan-African communities.

The term “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili language and means “first” and is taken from the Swahili phrase ‘mutunda ya kwanza’ meaning the first fruits of the harvest. Swahili was chosen as the language to represent the holiday by its founder who did so based on the fact many Africans in various nations speak Swahili on the continent. Kwanzaa is modelled after harvest celebrations observed in Africa. With its creation having been in order for African-Americans as well as all Africans at home and across the globe to be able to connect with their roots, culture and heritage as well as to one another, in a celebration that was focused on Pan-African ideals focusing largely on black empowerment and progression. The aim of the festivity is for all Africans both at home and in the Diaspora to examine what it truly means to be an African as well as what connects us all as human beings and how this ought to shape the way we live our lives and perceive ourselves as individuals within a wider society.

Kwanzaa was created by Dr Maulana Karenga in 1966, in a time where there was great social and political change, whereby attitudes were vastly changing regarding what it meant to be African-American or indeed simply African and was done to celebrate blackness in a society and world where being black was considered more of a curse than a blessing, due to the discrimination and unequal treatment faced by black people. For this reason, it could be argued that Kwanzaa was created as a revolutionary response to western Eurocentric holidays that are already in existence. Kwanzaa is not religious and can be celebrated regardless of your faith, religious persuasion and individual cultural awareness. It was not created as a replacement of Christmas or Hanukkah but more a rejection of the westernisation and commercialisation of the various existing holidays.

Kwanzaa in Action

During Kwanzaa, celebrants greet each other with “Habari gani,” or “What’s the news?” The principles of Kwanzaa form the answers.

Kwanzaa is often depicted by a candlestick holder, this is called the Kinara. The Kinara has seven candles the first three are red, the middle one is black and the last three are green it is important to note the candles are the very colours that are represented in the Pan-African flag. The red candles represent the struggle; the black represents the people and the green the future and hope that has come as a result of the struggle. Each of the seven candles is symbolic of a principle of Kwanzaa, with one lit each day as a representation of each principle.

The seven principles known as Nguzo saba are:

Umoja – unity

Kujichagulia – self-determination

Ujima – collective work and determination

Ujamaa – cooperative economics

Nia– having a sense of purpose

Kuumba– creativity

Imani – faith


In the same way that there are seven principles of Kwanzaa, there are also seven symbols:

  • Kinara – the candlestick holder
  • Mushimaa Saba – the candlesticks
  • Mkeka – the mat
  • Mazao – the crops placed on the Mkeka (representing the collective harvest and the hard work of our people)
  • Muhindi – corn, which is placed alongside the Mazao (representing the children)

Kwanzaa reinforces the idea of family; in families where there are no children, two pieces of corn are placed on the Mkeka, as children are for the whole community to raise.

  • Kikombe cha Umoja – unity cup, symbolic of the foundational principle of unity and the principle of unity that should transcend national, cultural, religious and social backgrounds in order to make all the other principles of Nguzo saba possible.
  • Zawadi – gifts are given to children, in particular, on the last day of Kwanzaa to symbolise the love and commitment parents and children make to one another.



Let the games begin!

  • On the first day of Kwanzaa an African print cloth is spread on a table then a mat called a “Mkeka” this is placed on top of the mat and is placed on the top. This is used to symbolise one’s rootedness in their heritage.
  • Then the Kinara is placed upon the mat and the Mishumaa saba (Candlesticks) is placed within the Kinara. The black candle is lit on the first day and then from day two onwards the candles are lit from left to right this indicates the unity of the Black and Pan-African peoples began in the struggle but continues to grow in hope and progression.
  • The Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) is filled with drink and it represents the ancestors that have gone before us, during the days of Kwanzaa the unity cup is drank from by every family member but when and how this happens varies in every individual household and community.

On each day of Kwanzaa, depending on the principle that is for the day, the families/communities will collectively do an activity that represents the quality and principle in question. Objects of African art and culture are also placed on the Mkeka and around the house to signify learning more about the heritage and culture of the African people. Drums are also associated with Kwanzaa as African style music is also heavily endorsed and used at this time, there are many songs sang to celebrate Kwanzaa and it is a time to reflect on how far the Pan-African people have progressed and so people may even focus on looking at notable Pan-Africanists/Black nationalists who have progressed the movement.

Kwanzaa is rooted in African traditions but welcome people of all heritages to partake.

On that note, Heri za Kwanzaa everybody! Happy Holidays everyone and a blessed New Year.


Author: Tiri

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Twitter: @ourblackchronic




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