Just last month, the world’s population reached an astounding 7,000,000,000. It’s mind-blowing to think that, despite the long chain of zeroes in that number, each and every individual is unique with their own distinct personality and characteristics. Regardless of this variety, the world is undoubtedly becoming culturally homogenized. We know that we can strut our Chanel bags anywhere in the world and it will almost certainly be recognized. We can count on people from different continents to know the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s latest hit, and we know we can go to almost any country in the world with the comfort of knowing that the familiar golden arches of McDonald’s will be there to greet us. With so many people conforming to so few ideas, it becomes difficult to find your own inner self and explore what you’re all about, independent of external influences.
That’s exactly what Kwanzaa is about. This celebration of uniqueness and unity was born during a time of social and political upheaval in Los Angeles. It was a time of fighting for African American freedom and identity. It was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, now a professor of Africana studies, who was disturbed by the Watts riots of LA and the racial and social tensions surrounding that event. The riot lasted five days and resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and over 3,000 arrests. It was one of the most severe riots in the city’s history. Karenga’s goal in creating Kwanzaa was to give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than following the holidays of the dominant society. However, its roots actually go back to the first harvest celebrations of various African cultures. “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili matunda ya kwanzaa, which translates to “first fruits of the harvest”. Kwanzaa is about sending a cultural message about what it means to be African, and human, in the fullest sense.
Kwanzaa is a celebration of the oneness and goodness of life. After the holiday began to become popular, Dr. Karenga said it was not a religious holiday, but rather a cultural one that would unite people of similar cultural descent. He defined certain symbols and concepts for the ceremony. In particular, the number seven has a crucial significance. It is celebrated from December 26 to January 1, a duration of seven days. There are also seven guiding principles—principles that are believed to have been integral to the construction of strong and productive families and communities in Africa.
There are also seven symbols used in the celebration of the event. One is the crops (mazao in Swahili), which represent African harvest celebrations and their collective labour. Another is the straw mat (mkeka), which represents the tradition and history of Africans, a foundation on which they build. The candleholder (kinara) symbolizes the roots and ancestors of the African people. The corn (muhindi) symbolizes the children and the future. The seven candles (mishuma saba) represent the seven principles and the set of values that Africans are encouraged to live by to reconstruct their lives according to their own needs and wants, an important element of the holiday when it was created. The unity cup (kikombe cha umoja) symbolizes the foundational principles and practice of unity. Gifts (zawadi) symbolize labour and love for parents and the commitments made and kept by the children. In all of this, Kwanzaa is to be celebrated with only the best and most beautiful art objects, colourful cloth, and colourful decorations, to reflect one’s commitment to the holiday. Throughout the seven days, the celebration focusses on family, friends, and food.
Just as important as the symbols are the guiding principles. A new candle is lit each day to represent each of the doctrines of Kwanzaa. On the first day, the guiding principle is unity (umoja). This reminds Africans that although they come from various ethnicities and tribes, they are all united. The unity cup is filled with fruit juice and passed to all the members in that household. The first candle, a black one, is lit and placed in the centre of the kinara. The second day is about self-determination (kugichagulia). The leftmost candle, which must be red, is lit. The one who lights the candle is also responsible for reciting a passage or a poem on self-determination and explain how it relates to their lives. The unity cup is again shared between the members and then the candles are extinguished. The third day is about collective labour and responsibility (ujima). On this day, the lighting begins again with the black one, then the leftmost (red) one, and then the rightmost (green) one is lit. The fourth day is about building cooperative economies (ujamaa). The principle guiding the fifth day is purpose (nia). Once again, the one who lights the candle must talk about the meaning of purpose in their lives. Other household members also contribute. On this day the black candle, then the leftmost (red) candle, then the rightmost (green) candle, then the second red candle at the left side and finally the next green candle are lit. The sixth day is about creativity (kuumba). Plays are performed and family members recite passage and poems related to the seven principles of Kwanzaa. On this day, there is also a great feast, or karamu; some of the usual dishes are rice and peas, fried chicken, baked potato pie, corn bread and calaloo, jaloff rice, and vegetable stew. Finally, January 1 is all about faith (imani). This last day is also known as the “Day of Meditation”, whereon Africans are encouraged to consider themselves and their lives, engage in quiet reflection, and be calm.
This year, December 26 will mark the 45th annual celebration of Kwanzaa. Whether you are white, black, brown, yellow, or orange, African, Chinese, Vietnamese, American, German, French, Indian, or Pakistani, we can all follow the principles of Kwanzaa in our lives to better understand ourselves and our place in the world. As the saying goes, “You may be one person to the world, but to one person you may be the world.” Amid all that’s occurring so rapidly around the world and in our own lives, don’t forget your own importance and uniqueness, or where you came from. You have a unique role to play in the world and a unique impact, and that should never be forgotten.