It’s not often that four major world holidays overlap, but when they do, it’s cause for four times the celebration. 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 holiday with origins in the black nationalist movement, it’s all about reconnecting with roots and celebrating the power of unity. We took a moment to discover a little more about Kwanzaa, and the language that makes it so colorful, in honor of its upcoming celebration from December 26th to January 1st.
Matunda ya kwanza (First fruits).
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 5 main activities: ingathering (bonding of the people), recommitment (to African culture), 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.
Nguzo Saba (The seven principles).
If you want to get at the true heart of Kwanzaa, you have to understand the seven key principles identified by the founder of the holiday, Maulana Karenga. 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.
- Umoja (Unity): based on interpersonal relationships and the strong relationship between the family and the community.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): based on cultivating shared cultural values for all African-Americans.
- 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.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): based on communities coming together to further their own economic prosperity.
- Nia (Purpose): based on the idea that an individual should be tied to the larger concerns of humanity rather than their own individuality.
- Kuumba (Creativity): based on constant improvement in personal, family and social issues.
- Imani (Faith): based on having faith in oneself and the community.
Altogether, these 7 principles are known as nguzo saba - the community building blocks that form the central meaning of Kwanzaa.
Habari Gani? (How are you?)
To greet someone properly on each of the 7 days of Kwanzaa, just ask this simple question. They’ll reply back with one of the 7 principles that corresponds to the day you asked. For example, ask “Habari Gani?” on the 3rd 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, kente (African cloth) and many women wear kaftans (a colorful draped garment used mainly in West Africa). 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 (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 culture.
Kwanzaa ceremonies are full of life and typically include music, especially drumming, along with a large feast. 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 7 principles. Today, many families celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa together, displaying their kinaras alongside bedazzled Christmas trees.
Now that you’re an expert on these 3 Swahili phrases that are so important to Kwanzaa, why not keep the momentum going by trying your hand at a full Swahili course? By building specific language skills around subjects like family and shopping, haggling, and asking for directions, you’ll be buying your plane ticket to Africa before you know it. No matter which holiday you celebrate this season, Kwanzaa offers yet another great excuse to add a little language and culture spice to your plans. Head over to your local library and start learning a language for free - it’s that easy. Happy holidays!