Kwanzaa: Celebrating the spirit of African unity


KWANZAA is an African-American-based celebration traditionally observed in America and other countries from December 26 through January 1.
It was first created by Dr Maulana Karenga in 1966, when he was chairman of the Black Studies Department at the University of California at Long Beach.
During that time there was a strong longing by the African-American people for cultural and religious freedom and liberations.
Africans outside of Africa within the Diaspora were forced to celebrate holidays and traditions from a Western system that devalues our identity and does not recognise that before Christianity, we had our own spiritual celebrations. Missionaries called them pagan.
Kwanza helped Africans in the Diaspora to observe the festive spirit of Christmas and New Year period in an African way that was different from the Western Christian dominated churches and religious practices.
The idea of Kwanzaa was derived from the African first fruits harvest celebrations. Kwanzaa in Swahili means ‘the first fruits that are collected during harvest time’. 
In creating Kwanza, Karenga’s aim was to promote African-centred humanism among African-Americans.
He was one of the leaders of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and he formed an organisation called US which meant ‘Us Black People’.
He also helped establish the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilisations (ASCAC), an organisation committed to promoting the knowledge about great African civilisations.
Karenga strongly opposed the American values of Eurocentric Christianity, consumerism, white racism and inequality.
He openly objected to images of a White Christ and Virgin Mary and white angel figures.
The Kwanzaa celebration are accomplished through the Nguzo Saba which means represent the seven principles of Kawaida or a humanist African philosophy.
These principles lie at the heart of Kwanzaa.
The Nguzo Saba is the main centre of African moral and social consciousness.
The seven principles are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). Each day of Kwanzaa is devoted to the observance and practice of each one of the principle.
Kwanzaa remains controversial in black America churches.
Some Christians believe it to be an anti-Christ movement which does not recognise the cleansing of sin by Jesus Christ.
They call Kwanzaa a rival ‘pagan holiday’, with unchristian practices.
They attack Kwanzaa and see this as a way of preserving biblical faith against the unbiblical principles of Kwanzaa.
Among the critics of Kwanzaa is the black preacher, The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, who calls it ‘godless’, ‘pagan’, ‘separatist’ ‘Marxist’ and ‘racist’.
Black scholars like Gerald Early critic Kwanzaa for its black nationalistic ideology.
And yet, when you look closely at Christianity, the same questions levelled at Kwanzaa’s origins are relevant in asking the origins of Christianity.
Christmas festivities did not originate from the humble story of a Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus in a manger.
The Christmas holiday is a recreated tradition to celebrate the Christian religion. Christmas Day originated from the Roman holiday that celebrated the Winter solstice.
In addition, the American celebration of Christmas featuring Santa Claus, lighted trees, shopping rituals, plenty of food and gift giving resemble the original festivals that were carried out during the days of Imperial Rome when they honoured the power of Julius Caesar.
Kwanzaa does not have the same global attention as Christianity, but, it is significant in helping Africans in the Diaspora connect and know where they came from.
Kwanzaa helps us to reminisce on the ongoing struggles and aspirations buried in the slavery and colonial past.
During Kwanzaa, people give each other gifts referred to as ‘zawaida’.
These gifts are handmade and inexpensive.
They sit on grass place mats and display a bendea, or red, black and green flag. This tripartite flag was first introduced by the black civil rights leader Marcus Garvey in the 1920s.
The colours represent the blood, colour and the wealth of our African land.
The people also use red, black and green candles placed in a holder known as a ‘kinara’.
Then they share a drink from a ‘kikombe’, or communal unity cup.
In Shona we would call this ‘mukombe’.
They greet each other using Swahili expressions like, ‘Harbari gani’, or ‘what’s happening’.
It has been argued that Kwanzaa is beginning to lose its African identity focus because of commercialism to market and sell Kwanzaa images.
For example, in 1997, the United States Postal Service (USPS) issued a postage stamp in honour of the celebration.
Since then, many businesses, including companies in China, now use the image to promote products to African Americans during Kwanzaa.      
It is unclear how many black people globally celebrate Kwanzaa.
According to estimates, as many as 13 million African-Americans celebrate the holiday.
During Christmas and New Year, you hear black people all over the United States and all throughout the mainstream media greeting each other by saying, “Happy Kwanzaa.”
Kwanzaa is a celebration for Africans outside of Africa.
It is a significant tradition to help unify and honour Africans everywhere.
Its objective is to inspire, motivate, honour and educate our nation towards a more constructive future.
Kwanzaa also promotes a self awareness that is combined with an African consciousness.
It offers an African alternative to the European or Western dominated values of Christmas.
During the celebration of Kwanzaa, Africans rescue and reconstruct African history and culture, cultivate humanistic African values to enrich and expand freedom.
Kwanzaa helps to recreate an African-orientated value system to celebrate and honour our past and present.
Kwanzaa is therefore an observance of our past, own creation designed from components of our African heritage.
It holds sacred the memory of our rich ancestry.
In an article titled: ‘Kwanzaa, A Matter of Principles and Black African History’, a black poet called Usiku wrote the following stanza in a long poem:
“We are a creative people,
Putting mud to cloth to stay,
Rituals of proud display,
Beware of the civilised way,
And listen to what Mama say.
We are grains of spirit,
Precious as one, powerful in sum,
Resolute and esteemed we come,
to restore elder knowledge in the prodigal young,
And to listen as we hear it.


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