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What is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa (meaning “first in Swahili) was created in 1966 by professor Mualana Karenga, born in Maryland, US, who was a prominent member of the Black Panthers movement during the 1960’s and 1970’s, fighting for the self-determination and civil rights of African American’s. It was created as a holiday – celebrated annually from December 26th to January 1st – as a cultural holiday, to reclaim African culture, heritage and art lost during what is known as the African Holocaust, known as “Maafa” to the African diaspora. “Maafa” is a Kiswahili word meaning tragedy or disaster, and refers to the 500 years of European colonialism in Africa, which lead to the horrors of the slave trade, systematic genocide, apartheid and the destruction of African culture and spirit. These effects still last to this day.
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Why is Kwanzaa celebrated?
Quite simply, Kwanzaa is celebrated because it is a reclamation of the heritage, culture and African spirit lost in the holocaust. It is both a commemoration of the darkest period of history for African’s, but also a celebration and revival of the African culture and identity lost during this period. But it is also a reaction against the ongoing problems – such as endemic racism and social exclusion – that still plague the African diaspora across the world today.
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Why is this holiday so important to celebrate?
It is incredibly important to celebrate for the global African community because it acts as a connection to sustain African identity and heritage on a global scale. Some people have been slow to accept it as a ‘real’ holiday: But the fact is, it is very real and celebrated by millions in the African diaspora worldwide every year. The claims that the holiday is not “genuine” is countered by some by pointing out that Christmas is actually a holiday that was constructed by blending various Pagan beliefs and rituals over time. All holidays have their roots somewhere in history, and just because a holiday is a relatively new creation, it does not make it any more or less authentic or genuine than other holidays. What matters is that Kwanzaa has its roots in a powerful Black Power movement but also is an indigenous African American creation, and it has now evolved into a holiday that has become a firm tradition amongst the global African community.
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How is Kwanzaa celebrated?
Professor Karenga set out 7 principles he thought best reflects the “communitarian African philosophy” and “the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.” These principles are known as “Kawaida”; a Swahili word meaning “common”. Each principle is celebrated on one of the 7 days, in the following order: Umoja (Unity): Unity of family, race, nation and community. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define African identity and create a voice for oneself. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To maintain a community together and help solve each others problems and solve them together. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build ones own businesses and profit from them together through cooperation rather than compete. Nia (Purpose): Work as a collective to build and develop the African community and work to restore African traditions and culture. Kuumba (Creativity): To fulfil one’s potential and strive as best as one can, to make the community more beautiful, more beneficial and more sustainable than when one inherited it. Imani (Faith): To believe in the African community and diaspora, in parents, teachers leaders and the victory of the ongoing African struggle.
What type of gifts are given and ceremonies performed?
Seven candles symbolises various meanings for each day, with candle holders, and are probably the most significant celebratory symbols: The most important one is black, representing the colour of African people, and is located in the centre of the 7. 3 red candles are placed to the left of the central black candle, and represent the blood of ancestors, while the final 3 are green candles that symbolise the earth, life and hope for the future. Each candle is lit on each of the 7 days individually, one by one, starting with the central black candle, then alternating between red and green (left and right). The rituals performed around candlelight begin with Tambiko (libation), which pays homage to departed ancestors. Then the eldest person in the house pours wine, juice or distilled spirits such as rum from a ‘unity cup’ known as Kikombe Cha Umoja into an earth-filled vessel. While this pouring takes place, ‘toasts’ are made to honour the departed (both family and friends) for the values and inspirations they left behind. Everyone then shares the drink. The elder then leads the call, saying “Harambee”, meaning “Let’s pull together”. Everything repeats this phrase several times. Day 6 – Karamu, as well as the final day, Zawadi is where most of the joyous celebrations take place. Karamu involves great meals, drink, dancing and music for family and friends in communities. It is a time of joy, but also reassessment and reflection, much like New Years Day. Finally, Zawadi is the final day, when gifts are exchanged (often handmade) for children.