Kwanzaa: A Family Affair

Kwanzaa: A Family Affair

by Mildred Pitts Walter

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780380727353
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/01/1996
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.47(h) x 0.25(d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

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WHAT IS KWANZAA?

Kwanzaa! A time for looking backward, for looking forward, and for having fun. For seven days many African-American homes are decorated in red, green, and black, and filled with the sounds of music, lively talk, and laughter. Family members and friends dress up in African garb, children dramatize historical characters, and everyone gets ready to have a great time remembering, singing, dancing, and sharing traditional foods.

Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration that begins on December 26 and lasts through January 1. Many African-American customs have their origins in the rich cultures of Africa, and the arts, rituals, and rites of those cultures offer uniquely appropriate ideas for Kwanzaa activities and ceremonies.

The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili word kwanza. Swahili is a language spoken in many areas of the African continent, but especially in East Africa. Kwanza means "first." It is part of the phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means "first fruits."

The African-American festival of Kwanzaa was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, executive director of the Institute of Pan-African Studies in Los Angeles and the leader of US, the black nationalist organization. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966.

Because the holiday is so new, and because we African-Americans are such a varied people, there is no one way to celebrate the occasion. However, because all of us share a strong bond in struggle, the seven principles of Kwanzaa, called the nguzo saba, can provide common themes on which to base our celebrations. These seven principles are:

Unity
Self-determination
Collective work
Cooperativeeconomics
Purpose
Creativity
Faith

Dr. Karenga says the concept of Kwanzaa "is derived from and inspired by the harvest celebrations of agricultural African peoples.... 'First fruits' celebrations were traditional throughout Africa...." People gave thanks for the first fruits of their harvests and for their achievement through working together. Even though African-Americans are now mostly an urban people, with no crops to harvest, Kwanzaa was founded to provide an opportunity for us to celebrate a season's yield of personal and group achievements and to stress our cultural roots in Africa. The celebration is a rededication of our efforts toward even greater achievements and more meaningful lives in the future. In many parts of Africa, people hold special ceremonies before planting or harvesting their crops. Jomo Kenyatta, in his book Facing Mt. Kenya, tells of a planting ritual that takes place in Kenya, East Africa:


The Gikuyu elders arrange for a planting ceremony immediately after the rain falls. Seeds from maize, millet, and a variety of beans are selected. These seeds along with the stomach of a lamb that has been sacrificed are placed into seed-calabashes. They are then handed over to a woman chosen from women who qualify for the position of "Mother" of the community. This woman takes the seeds to her hut to keep them overnight.

The sticks from a sacred tree, sharpened with the sacrificial knife and least affected by the fire that roasted the lamb, are given to two children who had taken part in a sacrifice for rain. These two children along with the elders who will participate in the planting ceremony will also sleep in the hut.

Early the next morning the children are called to go out and reenter the hut. This custom of choosing who will first go out to enter a house is a very important one to the Gikuyu people. It is believed that if the one chosen goes out or enters first, then the household will have good luck. If one who is not chosen enters, that can bring ill luck. After the early morning ceremony the elders, woman and children go out to a special field to perform the ritual of planting the seeds. On the way no one is allowed to speak to or touch the people participating in the ceremony. When they arrive in the field, the leading elder takes the calabashes. Holding the calabash of maize seeds and facing Mt. Kenya (Kere Nyaga, the mountain of mystery), the elder offers a prayer. Then the maize seeds are given to the woman. She, in turn, gives them to the children, who plant them with the special digging sticks. The ritual is repeated with all the other seed-calabashes until all the seeds have been planted. When the elders, the woman, and the children return to the homestead, a planting horn is then sounded to tell the people of the community that the ceremony is now over. They can go about planting their own fields.


In West Africa--in parts of Mali and Senegal, and all over The Gambia--there are celebrations for planting and harvesting. When I visited The Gambia, I learned a special dance and song used at harvest time to celebrate the strongest man--the one who has worked hardest in the fields. To decide who this is, the men perform a dance, during which they make their muscles so taut that a very hard knife stab will not go through the muscle.

During the harvest, the women go into the fields to help collect the produce and bring it back to the compounds. Then all the people in the village come out to celebrate the harvest and the strongest man. While everyone dances a special dance, the name of the strongest man is called in a special song.

The dances and songs that I learned in The Gambia reminded me of some dances we African-Americans do. For example, African-American circle and line dances, in which one person or couple performs alone, creating improvised movements while the people forming the line or circle urge them on, are similar to many African dances. Of course, we don't have African drums, nor do we have the planting and harvesting rituals. We do, however, have the music and rhythms that originated in the drumbeats of West Africa.

We also have the idea of the extended family, reverence for our elders, and an abiding religious faith--all of which are important in Africa. Remember this heritage and use it to make your Kwanzaa celebrations meaningful and happy.

Copyright ) 1995 by Mildred Pitts Walter Kwanzaa. Copyright © by Mildred Walter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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