The Christmas holiday has come and gone on the Christian calendar, however for a small sector of world’s global population there exists another major celebration — Kwanzaa. Immediately after Christmas Day, from 26 December to 1 January, the annual week-long celebration begins.
Dr Maulana Karenga, Professor and Chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, California USA, created Kwanzaa in 1966. The name stems from the Swahili phrase ‘Matunda ya Kwanza,’ which means ‘first fruits.’
In his 2017 annual founder’s message, published in the Los Angeles Sentinel (and reproduced below from his official site), Karenga wrote that Kwanzaa has 2 origins: ancient and modern. ‘In its origins in agriculture celebrations, Kwanzaa is as old as agriculture itself and the celebrations of the first fruits.’ The modern origin is ‘rooted in the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s.’
The celebration is not widely known in Grenada, but a group of conscious individuals celebrates the 7-day festival, focusing on the 7 principles — the ‘Nguzo Saba’ — a set of ideals created by Karenga. Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle.
Karenga’s message in part, stated: ‘And how do each and all of us participate in building the good community, society, and world we all want and deserve to live in? And again, the solution Kwanzaa offers is serious and sustained practice of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith).’
Karenga’s message speaks to the practice of the 7 principles, where, for example, ‘the principle and practice of Umoja, unity, commits us to strive for and maintain a harmonious togetherness in life, love, work and struggle.’
There are 7 candles: 3 red, 3 green, and 1 black which symbolize the 7 principles. The black candle symbolizing Umoja (unity), is lit on December 26. The 3 green candles, representing Nia, Ujima, and Imani, are placed to the right of the Umoja candle, and the 3 red candles, representing Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba, are placed to the left. Drumming, singing and gift sharing are also features of Kwanzaa.
It is widely believed that Kwanzaa is a religious festival, but artist Andrea McLeod, who is the art tutor at the TA Marryshow Community College (TAMCC), has refuted those claims saying that it is a nonreligious holiday for people of African descent. She said, “Principles come from a bigger theory of social mobility and community building, nation building so everybody plays a part in that; everybody has a contribution to make to their global black family — so the fact [is] that it doesn’t matter where you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim, Buddhist, Rastafarian. If you do identify with any religion it neither’s here nor there, you are still able to observe the Kwanzaa.”
The 5th day of the Kwanzaa celebration recognises the principle of Nia, Purpose. This past Saturday, a group, including members of the Rastafarian community, gathered in Old Westerhall, St David to celebrate.
Despite the heavy rainfall, I attended on Saturday to witness the celebration, the drumming and chanting. A unique tradition that is a staple of the event, is the variety of healthy ‘Ital’ foods served in calabash bowls and eaten with wooden spoons. Ital is a term used largely within the Rastafarian community, and describes the healthy, mostly plant-based ingredients used when cooking, and how the food is prepared. Celebrants and visitors are encouraged to wear traditional African garments in keeping with the authentic African experience that Kwanzaa seeks to promote in the Western hemisphere.
Organiser of the event Iris Stephen, who celebrates Kwanzaa every year, believes Kwanzaa is more than just a celebration. She reflected on her childhood memories of celebrating with her family after returning to Grenada from the USA.
“I have been celebrating Kwanzaa through my parents since I was little. All my life we have been celebrating Kwanzaa. We moved back to Grenada in the 1980s; I was a little girl so my first memories of Kwanzaa really started around 1984, and we have celebrating every year since then.”
Stephen spoke of the necessity for people of African Decent to reconnect with their own heritage. “It is a way to remain grounded to your ancestors, and celebrating it at the end of the year is a way to reflect on what you have done throughout the entire year and what it is you want to do for the upcoming year. For the community I think it is raising wider awareness; there are people looking for different things to celebrate besides the generic holidays that are commercialised.”
TAMCC lecturer, Paul Sylvester together with Ako Sylvester both agree these principles act as a guide towards liberation from colonial traditions. Paul Sylvester said, “Years now I have been keeping the tradition of Kwanzaa alive which is a celebration for all black people all over the world. It brings us closer to the family, because it is all about unity away from the commercial Christmas.”
Ako Sylvester, whose first name translates as ‘firstborn son’ said, “I see it as something black to celebrate. It hardly has any black celebration that originates from Africa, the richest continent, so it is something to hold on to in recognition of the fact that we are all Africans.”
This year’s celebration marks Kwanzaa’s 51 years in existence as a celebration. The organisers have admitted that participation dwindles each year and that in order to ensure the continuation of the festival, special emphasis must be placed on raising more awareness in 2018.
According to Karenga, “Of all the rich, instructive, uplifting and expansive ways to express the central meaning and message of Kwanzaa, none is more vital or valuable than our seeing and embracing it as a season and celebration of creating and sharing good in the world.”