Habari Gani: Happy Kwanzaa

You’ve heard of Kwanzaa?

I hadn’t until I moved to Philadelphia. Even then, what I thought I knew has turned out to be mistaken. So, what better opportunity might there be to learn about this rapidly growing American-founded holiday than to write a blog post?

I loved what I discovered and I hope you will too.


Thanks to HolidaysCalendar.com for the image.
I’ve used two sources for this post:
  1. The Official Kwanzaa Website and
  2. The History, Principles and Symbols of Kwanzaa by Signe Knutson, writing for the Interexchange.org blog. Interexchange is an international exchange program not specifically tied to schools, now in their 50th year. Check it out here. 

Here’s what I now know.

Kwanzaa is new

First of all, as far as holidays go, Kwanzaa is quite new. Its beginnings go back to 1966 and the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. 

Dr. Maulana Karenga, now a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach and an author and scholar-activist with now over 50 years’ experience, saw the need to preserve, revitalize, and promote African-American culture.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Kwanzaa has survived its founder who spent a few years in prison in the early ’70s for assault.) 

From its beginnings, Kwanzaa — whose name is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza which means first fruits, or harvest — has been aimed at unity, inclusion, and community.


Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday; it’s a celebration

Kwanzaa is open to everyone, of all faiths. It is not meant as an alternative to Christmas. 

Celebrations include singing and dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, drumming, and feasting.

They also light candles which to my eye, look a lot like the menorah we pull out at Christmas time Hanukkah in a nod to Woody’s Jewish identity.


Thanks to ABCNews4.com for this image.


The black one in the center is lit on the first night, then on each of the following nights, an additional candle is lit, alternating sides. The three official colors — green, red, and black –are taken from the work of Marcus Garvey and symbolize the fertile land, the blood shed in their fight for justice, and the color of their skin.


Kwanzaa lasts seven days

Kwanzaa lasts a full week, from December 26 to January 1. Seven Days.  In fact, seven seems to be significant in the Kwanzaa celebration, just as I found it to be significant when I was in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs know their ancestry back seven generations and, well, here’s an excerpt from At Home on the Kazakh Steppe on that.

[learn_more caption=”The Significance of Seven”] Throughout the world and through the ages, seven is a significant number. We have seven days of creation, seven days of the week, seven deadly sins, Seven Wonders of the World, seven notes on our musical scale, and seven chakras of the body. In Islam there are seven heavens; in Kazakh lore, seven parts of the world, seven waters, seven saints, and seven treasures. And during our last full week in Zhezkazgan, there were seven farewell parties for Woody and me, each one filled with memories. I chose to believe this was a mere coincidence. [/learn_more]


Beyond their seven days, they have seven principles. Each evening conversation focuses on one of them, in the following order:

Kwanzaa has seven core principles:

  1. Umoja: Unity. To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  2. Kujichagulia: Self-Determination. To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  3. Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility. To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and solve them together.
  4. Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics. To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  5. Nia: Purpose. To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  6. Kuumba: Creativity. To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  7. Imani: Faith. To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
[learn_more caption=”Kwanzaa also has seven core symbols, as follows:”] Mazao: Crops. Mazao symbolizes the fruits of collective planning and work, and the resulting joy, sharing, unity and thanksgiving part of African harvest festivals. To demonstrate mazao, people place nuts, fruits, and vegetables, representing work, on the mkeka.

Mkeka: Place Mat. Just as the crops stand on the mkeka, the present day stands on the past. The mkeka symbolizes the historical and traditional foundation for people to stand on and build their lives.

Muhindi: Ears of Corn. The stalk of corn represents fertility and the idea that through children, the future hopes of the family are brought to life. One ear, called a vibunzi, is placed on the mat for every child in the family.

Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles. Candles are ceremonial objects that serve to symbolically re-create the sun’s power, as well as to provide light. There are three red candles, three green candles, and one black candle that are placed on the kinara.

Kinara: The Candleholder. The kinara represents our ancestry, and the original stalk from which we came.

Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup. On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, the libation ritual is performed to honor the ancestors. Every family member and guest will take a drink together as a sign of unity and remembrance.

Zawadi: Gifts. On the seventh day of Kwanzaa, gifts are given to encourage growth, achievement, and success. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity.[/learn_more]

I particularly liked this paragraph from The Official Kwanzaa Website:
The last day of Kwanzaa is the first day of the new year, January 1. Historically this has been for African people a time of sober assessment of things done and things to do, of self-reflection and reflection on the life and future of the people and of recommitment to their highest cultural values in a special way.
Following in this tradition, it is for us then a time to ask and answer soberly and humbly the three Kawaida questions: Who am I; am I really who I say I am; and am I all I ought to be?

And it is, of necessity, a time to recommit ourselves to our highest ideals, in a word, to the best of what it means to be both African and human in the fullest sense. (Click here for the Odu Ifa meditation)

Who am I? Am I really who I say I am? Am I all I ought to be?
Questions we might all ponder. 

Kwanzaa has an official greeting

There is an official greeting during Kwanzaa week, which is how I got started writing this post in the first place.  Somehow “Happy Kwanzaa” seemed inelegant. The greeting is

Habari gani
[hah – BAR – ee GAH – nee]

which is Swahili for “What’s the news?” The proper response is to name the principle for that particular day of the Kwanzaa week (see the list above).

On that note, I bid you habari gani. 

Starting today, what might you say about unity? 
NEXT WEEK: How do you enter a room? (And how similar is it to how you are entering the new year? I’m exploring here; I hope you’ll join us. Have you subscribed yet? The buttons are up above and also on the right sidebar.)

24 Responses

  1. Merril D. Smith
    | Reply

    “What’s the news?” That seems like an alternative title for your blog. Hope you had a happy holiday, Janet.
    Merril D. Smith recently posted…Magic is ComingMy Profile

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I’m on hiatus from blogging but stopping by to say Hi and Happy New Year, Janet.

    Yes, I have heard of Kwanzaa, but I did not know that the celebration is open to everyone, of all faiths. It is not meant as an alternative to Christmas. Okay, then! 🙂
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Matryoshka Dolls and Your Great-GrandmotherMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      What I could have focused more on were the many misunderstandings about this American holiday, Marian. It’s been a fascinating journey: my favorite kind. Thanks for stopping by on this your brief hiatus. I appreciate it.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Habari Gani: Happy KwanzaaMy Profile

  3. Clive Pilcher
    | Reply

    I’d never heard of this but am grateful to you for broadening my horizons. Habari gani to you too 😊
    Clive Pilcher recently posted…A #ChristmasSongOfTheDay Part FourMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you for weighing in from the UK, Clive. I have wondered how and if this “African-American” holiday had spread to other lands. You’ve added much and I appreciate it. I realize I miss my old friend Ian Mathie, a Scot who lived throughout Africa for much of his life. He’d surely have something to say here.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Habari Gani: Happy KwanzaaMy Profile

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I never fail to learn something new when I read your posts. And while I knew about Kwanzaa, it was only a smattering. Now I’m IN THE KNOW. Thank you!
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Happy HolidaysMy Profile

  5. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    A great share… Wishing you Happy Kwanzaa & Happy New Year!

  6. Kirsty
    | Reply

    That’s interesting – thanks for sharing. It’s not really something that people talk about in the UK, so I didn’t know anything about it.
    Kirsty recently posted…Blogmas 2018 – happy ChristmasMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, I’m getting the sense that Kwanzaa may be concentrated here in the US. Thanks for your comment. Always pleased to see comparisons to other countries and cultures.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Habari Gani: Happy KwanzaaMy Profile

  7. Lise Skalberg
    | Reply

    How interesting! I didn’t know much about Kwanzaa since I’m from a small community without a lot of foreigners so Christmas is pretty much the only celebration here. I’m glad I could learn something new though.
    Lise Skalberg recently posted…Fata MorganaMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Lise. It’s good to see you again. You’re in Norway, yes? I enjoyed your Fata Morgana post. Glad you could share it here.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Habari Gani: Happy KwanzaaMy Profile

  8. Tracy Rittmueller
    | Reply

    Thank you, Janet,

    The more I learn about paths of wisdom in community, those that value unity and justice (and this is a new one for me), the more I’m struck by how similar they are to one another. I was reading Jay Parini this morning, who quoted Buddhist monk and renowned teacher Thich Naht Hanh, who wrote, “Most of the boundaries we have created between our two [Christian and Bhuddist] traditions are artificial. Truth has no boundaries.” Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned about Kwanzaa. I’ve heard of it, but no one I know celebrates it (or perhaps they celebrate it quietly?)

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      “Truth has no boundaries.” Yes, indeed. I recall discovering that the Gestalt therapy I was experiencing had much in common with the 12-Step work I had been doing. And the Buddhist writings that appealed to me also held the same truths. Letting Go; one step at a time; et al. It was a gleeful, wonderful moment. Thanks for sharing that quote, Tracy. I’m fascinated to be following you, btw, for I had settled into thinking that most religions — while fine at the individual level — serve to divide us as a community rather than bring us together. I’m open to hearing your thoughts as you post them each week. And I thank you.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Habari Gani: Happy KwanzaaMy Profile

  9. Silvia
    | Reply

    How interesting and educational! I’ve never heard about this celebration before, but I can tell that I totally agree with their seven purposes!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes. I too found nothing that I disagreed with. Only that there was so much to keep track of. I love the idea of talking about Unity on the first day. So many ways to do that. It was a fun challenge for me yesterday.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Habari Gani: Happy KwanzaaMy Profile

  10. Sonia Chatterjee
    | Reply

    I had no idea about Kwanzaa until I came here to read your post. I go back এ little more informed. Very interesting article.

  11. Shannon Leader
    | Reply

    Thank you for sharing this, Janet. I learned quite a bit about Kwanzaa when I worked with elementary aged children in a way to honor our different students cultures but forgot about the 7 principles piece which I thought could be so powerful if it helped more people to take time to think the important parts of their own cultures.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Shannon and welcome. I think I didn’t know you once taught school. But I’m pleased to know that Kwanzaa was introduced to them. Yes, aren’t the principles fundamental to so much. Still, my favorite is the questions for tomorrow: Who am I? Am I who I think I am? Am I all that I can be?

      No right answers, of course.

      Thanks so much for stopping. Happy New Year.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Habari Gani: Happy KwanzaaMy Profile

  12. Janet Morrison
    | Reply

    You taught me some things I didn’t know about Kwanzaa. Thanks, Janet!

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