Principles of Kwanzaa blend African traditions


December 18, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

I n a time when traditions are being lost, slowly being absorbed into commercial homogeneity, Kwanzaa stands out as exception.

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of Kwanzaa and in the years since its inception, it has grown stronger and become increasingly more meaningful to the millions of African-Amerians who celebrate this holiday.

"Kwanzaa is a time for those of African descent, when we celebrate ourselves, when we celebrate our ingenuity, our tenacity and our strength," says Eric V. Copage, author of the recently published "Kwanzaa: An African American Celebration of Culture and Cooking" (Morrow, hardcover, $25), the first complete guide to Kwanzaa's history, principles and foods.

"It's a time when we rededicate ourselves to the value principles which have sustained us through these years," he says.

Although Kwanzaa is an American-born holiday, it is based on African traditions.

Kwanzaa means "first fruits" in Swahili. The holiday was created in 1966 by anthropologist Maulana (Ron) Karenga, chairman of black studies at California State University of Long Beach. Dr. Karenga had previously traveled throughout Africa studying the annual first fruits harvest festivals and then created Kwanzaa as a distillation of the common elements of those festivals.

The Kwanzaa celebration begins the day after Christmas and lasts for seven days, ending on New Year's Day. Each of the seven days is associated with a different principle: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamma (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

"When I heard these principles, they resonated with me," says Mr. Copage, who is an editor at the New York Times Magazine. "And they resonated with me because these principles I grew up with. They are essentially what my grandmother and what other people -- parents, teachers, aunts and uncles -- had told me while I was a youngster."

Dr. Karenga defined seven items that can be used to create a Kwanzaa table or display: a kinara, or seven-branched candleholder; mishumaa saba, the seven candles that represent the seven principles; mazao, fruits and vegetables; mkeka, the straw mat which represents the foundation of tradition; vibunzi, an ear of corn for each child in the family (if there are no children, one representing all children); kikombe cha umoja, the communal cup; and zawadi, simple gifts.

On each day, a member of the family lights a candle in the kinara and discusses the principle it represents. A special meal can follow, but the main feast, the Kwanzaa Karamu, is held Dec. 31.

Kwanzaa is a holiday of values, Baltimore performance artist Nzinga Ama stresses, and is not meant to replace Christmas or any other religious holiday. "It's an African-American non-heroic, non-religious cultural celebration," she says.

"African-Americans practice Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Bahai. We have all these different religions which are a dividing factor. But Kwanzaa is another effort to bring us together culturally."

Ms. Ama says that many people are still confused about exactly how to celebrate Kwanzaa: "It's important to realize there is no wrong way."

When Mr. Copage first became aware of Kwanzaa, he was attracted to many of its values but put off by some of the ritual. "I just saw all these rituals and everything that seemed very complicated and very cumbersome, given my lifestyle," he says. But when he and his wife were anticipating the birth of their first child, he started thinking about ways to share his African-American heritage and gradually his thoughts focused on Kwanzaa.

He began talking to friends about his discomfort with the holiday and they began to share with him their variations. "People started telling me, 'Well, this is how we do it, this is how we've adapted it to our lives. We do this, but we don't do that. We do that but we don't do this.' "

For some of his friends it became an elaborate cocktail party with an African motif.

Others, he found, enjoyed following the entire ritual set up by Dr. Karenga.

"So what I started doing was adapting it to my life. You could say we are developing a tradition within our household."

The Kwanzaa celebration includes all the traditional foods prepared by people of African descent, Ms. Ama says. They can be dishes from Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and the American South.

"Yam, fu-fu, rice dishes, Jolof rice, jambalaya, cous-cous, spicy baked African chicken, lots of vegetable and fruit dishes. There are many traditional fish and chicken dishes and some people use lamb and goat," she says.

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