Updated: Dec 27, 2021
By: Ritarsha Furqan, A COMPASS Volunteer
What is Kwanzaa? It is a weeklong celebration held in the United States that honors African heritage in African-American culture, it’s observed from December 26th to January 1st culminating in a big feast. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase matunda ya kwanza which means first fruits, or harvest, in Swahili. Celebrations often include singing and dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, African drumming, and feasting. It is a comparatively young holiday, but that makes it no less impactful or meaningful.
Arlethia, a military spouse who lives in Japan, is excited for her family’s inaugural year celebrating this holiday. In the military, an environment steeped with traditions and beliefs from all over the world, this is the perfect opportunity for her family to learn and “Celebrate being African American and our history.”
While everyone has different reasons for why they chose to begin celebrating Kwanzaa, for Arlethia and her family learning of the African contribution to African-American history and culture “Has become a priority for our family as we have grown over the years.”
This recurring theme of the impact of events in recent years and a growing or resurgence of interest in Kwanzaa is understood, based on the holiday’s origins. Kwanzaa was first created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University. He created this holiday in response to the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965, as a way to bring African-Americans together as a community. Arlethia’s interest in the holiday has grown over the years. She’s been aware of the holiday since she was a young child, but recent “Recurrent injustices and denial of knowledge of our rich heritage over the years made it important” so she, and her husband, wanted to ensure their children understood and were proud to be African-American.
We know that from learning comes understanding and with that, growth. For this military family the celebration of Kwanzaa “Allows us to get back in touch with our African roots and show pride in that. Our hope is that when our children have pride in who they are, who they come from, and what their ancestors came out of it will inspire them to preserve through all things and utilize their own inner strength.”
While many choose to participate or abstain from the holidays based on religious preference, Kwanzaa as a holiday, has no religious affiliation “Making it perfect for families who want to celebrate at least once to find out if their family enjoys it enough to continue to celebrate it yearly” says Arlethia. While the holiday is a celebration of African American heritage, is also not limited to African Americans. It's tenets and lessons are those that can be celebrated and embodied by all.
Founded on seven guiding principles, Nguzo Saba, that represent seven values of African culture that help build and reinforce community among African-Americans, each day a different principle is
discussed which is Arlethia’s favorite part of the holiday. Her family has purchased a kinara (candleholder), unity cups and crops to lay out on their table on the 26th. They have traditional African cloth that they will set everything upon, and each night as they light a candle they will discuss the attendant principle and what it means in their lives. On the first night, the center black candle is lit, and the principle of umoja, or unity is discussed. On the final day of Kwanzaa, families enjoy an African feast, called karamu, gifts are given to encourage growth, achievement, and success. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity.
While living overseas can present challenges when it comes to acquiring the correct foods to celebrate the holiday Arlethia and her family have prepared and substituted as necessary, they understand that the spirit and teachings of the holiday is what’s most important. A sentiment that can be carried by us all.