Extending Kwanzaa's reach Celebration: Sandi Mallory enlists people to join in the Africa-related festival at Mondawmin Mall. She was so moved the first time she participated that she has made it an annual ritual.

December 27, 1997|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Sandi Mallory was a college freshman in 1972 when she attended her first Kwanzaa ceremony, and she found the experience so moving that she has celebrated the festival every year since. Yesterday, Mallory sought to teach others about the African-American cultural observation by staging a Kwanzaa celebration at Mondawmin Mall.

"My first Kwanzaa celebration made such an impression on me because of the energy and the principles Kwanzaa represents," said Mallory, who organized the event with her husband, Joe Cooper. "We wanted to reach those people who may have never attended a Kwanzaa ceremony or who don't really understand what Kwanzaa is about."

For two hours yesterday afternoon, while shoppers bustled through the crowded West Baltimore mall, Mallory performed poetry while Cooper's band played reggae-style music. Dozens stopped to listen or danced to the music. Later Mallory distributed fliers explaining the symbols of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, a Swahili word meaning first fruits of the harvest, is a weeklong celebration that runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Based on African harvest festivals, it was founded by Maulana Karenga in 1966 to instill a sense of racial pride and unity in the black community after the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

Over the years, the ceremony has come to be observed in millions of African-American homes, in cultural centers and in places of worship. The event celebrates seven principles -- umoja (unity,) kujichagulia (self-determination,) ujima (collective work and responsibility,) ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity ) and imani (faith).

Although not identified with a religion, those who observe Kwanzaa say it has an element of spirituality.

"It puts an emphasis on bringing the community together," said former Annapolis Alderman Carl Snowden. "It's nondenominational, and yet there is a spiritual feel to it. It just underscores the right values."

Snowden said he and his sons, 20-year-old Abayomi (which is Nigerian and means "born to bring me joy") and Kojo, 12, observe Kwanzaa and each night discuss how they can implement its principles in their lives. Snowden said they also exchange gifts such as books and other items related to African-American culture.

"My children have come to accept Kwanzaa as not an alternative to Christmas, but as a complement to it," Snowden said. "We all come around the table together and discuss what Kwanzaa is and how we can adhere to it as a family and as a nation."

On each evening during Kwanzaa, participants gather around a table decorated with African cloth, a Mkeka, which is a mat that represents the foundation of African-American culture, a candleholder called a Kinara containing seven candles representing the principles, and a unity cup known as a KiKombe Cha Umoja.

Yesterday afternoon, Mallory decorated a table in the center court of Mondawmin Mall with all of those items, along with ears of corn, handmade gifts, a red, green and black flag, a basket of fruits and vegetable and black figurines wearing African garb.

As Cooper's band -- joined by Jamaican drummer Winston Grennan -- played, Mallory greeted shoppers with the cry "Habari gani."

" 'Habari gani' means, 'What's the word?' " said Mallory, a disc jockey with WLIF-FM radio station. "I want you to yell back 'Umoja,' which is today, the first day of Kwanzaa."

Jacques Hall, 37, who watched with his 5-year-old daughter Shaniqua. Hall, said he and his family began celebrating Kwanzaa four years ago in response to what he saw as the increasing commercialization of Christmas.

"Where does it say that celebrating the birth of Jesus means you have to buy a whole bunch of toys," Hall said. "We do still observe Christmas, but this is more about going back to our heritage and trying to do something to uplift our community."

Shalonda Habeebulah, 25, said she does not celebrate Kwanzaa but respects her family's observance of it. Habeebulah said she believes that as awareness of the holiday spreads, more blacks will observe it.

"A lot of people don't celebrate it because they either don't know about it or they don't understand it," she said. "I think that's changing though."

As Mallory stood over the Kinara holding three green candles, three red candles and a black candle in the center, she explained the significance of the first day as a day of unity. She poured a libation and had shoppers call out the names of ancestors and great blacks in history before she lighted the black candle.

"If we took those seven principles and instituted them every day, 365 days a year, we'd have a better community and a better nation," Mallory said.

Pub Date: 12/27/97

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