I frequently get questions about Kwanzaa and whether or not people in Africa celebrate it. Strictly speaking, Kwanzaa is not an African holiday. Generally, this time of year is when various rites of passage ceremonies take place – including circumcisions, and/or Christmas celebrations, and/or Family Day, and/or Ramadan (if it falls in December). Harvest celebrations fall during various times of the year depending on the country and when their harvest takes place. This is all dependent on the patterns of the dry and rainy seasons which vary from region to region.
Kwanzaa is a secular seven day holiday beginning on December 26th. This holiday was developed by Dr. Maulana Karenga and is observed by African-Americans. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966.
Many elements of Kwanzaa come from African harvest celebrations. The word Kwanzaa is taken from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza meaning first fruits. Each day of the Kwanzaa celebration is dedicated to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamma (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), Imani (Faith). These words along with mkeka, muhindi, kinara, mishumaa saba, kikombe cha umoja, zawadi, and karamu and many others used in the Kwanzaa celebrations are Swahili words. Interestingly, the word Kwanzaa is not a Swahili word, kwanza is.
The majority of Africans who were enslaved in the United States came from the west coast, or French speaking coast, of Africa. The Swahili language is primarily spoken on the east coast of Africa (Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) and the Swahili people make their home in Kenya and Tanzania, thus Swahili (language or people) really has nothing to do with the west coast of Africa.
When I first heard about Kwanzaa, one thing that struck me was the mishumaa saba (seven candles) and how similar that tradition was to the Jewish Hanukkah tradition of lighting the Hanukkah menorah or Hanukiyah which has seven or nine candles. I’ve often wondered if the mishumaa saba was borrowed from Jewish tradition. I have no proof of this. Although this isn’t necessarily a problem. The Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, Ethiopia has a strong Jewish and Christian history, and Black Jews have been recently recognized by Israel as being Jewish.
African-Americans celebrate this holiday instead of Christmas to recognize their African roots or they feel Christmas is a white man’s holiday. Although, this is not what Dr. Karenga intended. Kwanzaa is to be celebrated along with your religious celebrations. However, if you are an African-American descended from slavery you are celebrating traditions from the east coast of Africa, instead of the west coast.
Kwanzaa appears to be a melting pot of African traditions and perhaps this is the intent for a celebration for African-Americans who live in a melting pot society.