What is Kwanzaa? Three Swahili Phrases That Uncover the Holiday's Origins

December 23, 2016 / by Britta Wilhelmsen

Kwanzaa candles.Let’s take a moment to discover a little more about the week-long celebration of Kwanzaa, and the language that makes it so colorful — Swahili.

The end of December brings a whole lot of joy to many different cultures and religions around the globe — some people light candles, some decorate trees, some perform intricate dances. As for Kwanzaa, a cultural holiday, it’s all about history, heritage, and and bringing African people together.  

1. The meaning of Kwanzaa: Matunda ya kwanza

Meaning 'first fruits' or 'first fruits of the harvest,' this Swahili phrase is where it all began. Because Swahili is an East African language, the fact that this phrase was chosen as the basis for Kwanzaa signifies its connection to Pan-Africanism. Instead of focusing just on those from West Africa (where the slave trade originated from), Kwanzaa seeks to bring together all people with African roots.

Although Kwanzaa as a holiday was created in 1966, matunda ya kwanza also means the inspiration goes back much farther than that — all the way back to ancient Egypt and other classical African civilizations. The 'first fruit' celebrations of these groups were based on five main activities: ingathering (bonding of the people), recommitment (to African cultures), commemoration (of the past), reverence (for the creator), and celebration (of all that is good). These ancient ideas remain the central focus of Kwanzaa to this day.

2. The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: Nguzo Saba

If you want to get at the true heart of Kwanzaa, you have to understand the seven key principles. While the overall purpose of Kwanzaa is to instill a sense of cultural grounding and appreciation, the principles provide a more specific focus for each day of the holiday.

  1. Umoja [Unity]: based on interpersonal relationships and the strong relationship between the family and the community.

  2. Kujichagulia [Self-determination]: based on the ability of all Africans and members of the African diaspora to define, create, and speak for themselves.

  3. Ujima [Collective Work and Responsibility]: based on the idea that the life and overall well-being of an individual is based on that of the community.

  4. Ujamaa [Cooperative Economics]: based on communities coming together to further their own economic prosperity.

  5. Nia [Purpose]: based on the idea that an individual should be tied to the larger concerns of humanity rather than their own individuality.

  6. Kuumba [Creativity]: based on constant improvement in personal, family, and social issues.

  7. Imani [Faith]: based on having faith in oneself and the community.

Altogether, these seven principles are known as nguzo sabathe community building blocks that form the central meaning of Kwanzaa.

3. Kwanzaa greetings and symbols: Habari gani?

Meaning ‘What’s the news?’ or ‘How are you?’ To greet someone properly on each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, just ask this simple question. They’ll reply back with one of the seven principles that corresponds to the day you asked. For example, ask 'Habari gani?' on the third day of Kwanzaa and you’ll hear 'ujima' in response.

Swahili greetings are just one way people honor the traditions of Kwanzaa. Families decorate their homes with colorful art, fruits, and kente (African cloth), and many women wear kaftans (a colorful, draped garment). Like Hanukkah and Christmas, gifts are given to children. 

For Kwanzaa, though, they must include a book (to emphasize the African tradition of learning) and a heritage symbol (to reinforce a connection to their history).

During celebrations, a special mat called mkeka is used to hold other important Kwanzaa items: corn [muhindi], seven candles in colors that hold a special meaning [mishumaa saba], a candle holder [kinara], and a unity cup [kikombe cha umoja] used for giving thanks. These items are chosen carefully, as each one represents a value of great importance to African cultures.

Kwanzaa ceremonies are full of life and typically include music, especially drumming, along with a large feast, Karamu Ya Imani. If you’re lucky enough to attend one, you’ll probably hear excerpts read aloud from the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness — or perhaps a discussion of one of the seven principles.

Today, many families celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa together, displaying their kinaras alongside bedazzled Christmas trees. 

No matter which holiday you celebrate this season, Kwanzaa offers yet another great excuse to explore Swahili through the holiday's traditional language.

Click the button below to create a profile and start learning for free — it’s that simple. Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri! [May your Kwanzaa be blessed!]

 

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 Have you ever taken part in a Kwanzaa celebration? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Britta Wilhelmsen

Written by Britta Wilhelmsen

Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she's not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires' beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

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