Kwanza, meaning, Umoja, unity, Dr. Maulana Karenga, seven principles,

The seven-day festival was founded in 1966 as a way for African-Americans to celebrate the holiday through community building and honors seven principles, beginning with ‘unity’ (Umoja)

Today, December 26, marks the first Day of Kwanzaa, a Kiswahili word representing the festival of “first fruits”

The seven-day festival was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a pushback on the commercialism of Christmas and a way for African-Americans to celebrate the holiday through community building practices shared across the continent of Africa. In fact, one might say that Kwanzaa has similarities with Thanksgiving in the United States or the Yam Festival in Ghana and Nigeria.

Five common sets of values are central to the activities of the week: ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration. Seven principles (the nguzo saba), that represent the cornerstone of Kwanzaa, are celebrated across seven days:

December 26: Unity (umoja)

December 27: Self-determination (kujichagulia)

December 28: Collective Work and Responsibility (ujima)

December 29: Cooperative economics (ujamaa)

December 30: Purpose (nia)

December 31: Creativity (kuumba)

January 1: Faith (imani).

Like the Jewish Hannukah, candles are used to represent concepts of the holiday and during the Kwanzaa ceremony, there are seven symbols displayed, representing the seven principles.

Symbols of Kwanzaa — Image by © Corbis

The symbols of Kwanzaa include crops (mzao) which represents the historical roots of African-Americans in agriculture and also the reward for collective labor. The mat (mkeka) lays the foundation for self- actualization.

The candle holder (kinara) reminds believers in the ancestral origins in one of 55 African countries; they also hold the seven candles (mishumaa saba) that are lit each day of Kwanzaa.

Corn/maize (muhindi) signifies children and the hope associated in the younger generation. Gifts (Zawadi) represent commitments of the parents for the children. The unity cup (Kkimbe cha Umoja) is used to pour libations to the ancestors. On December 31, participants celebrate with a banquet of food (karamu) which often entails cuisine from various African countries. Gifts are also exchanged.

Today, on the first day of Kwanzaa, observers of the holiday honor Umoja (Unity).

“The principle of Umoja (unity) speaks to our need to develop and sustain a sense of oneness, righteous and rightful togetherness in the small and large circles and significant relations of our lives, from family and friendship to community and the cosmos. It urges us to practice a principled and peaceful togetherness rooted in mutual respect; justice; care and concern; security of person; and equitably shared goods. And it calls on us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, suffering and struggling peoples of the world in the cooperative achievement of these goods.”

During Kwanzaa, participants greet one another with “Habari gani” which is Kiswahili for “how are you/ how’s the news with you?” The response is “Umoja, habari gani.”


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