Kwanzaa 101

January 17, 2006

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University. He was searching for ways to unite the African American community after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. He started researching African harvest celebrations and combined aspects of several of them to form Kwanzaa, which celebrates family, community, and culture. A non-religious holiday, it is celebrated for seven days, December 26 through January 1.

The word Kwanzaa comes from the phrasematunda va kwanza(first fruits) in Swahili. Like many holidays, celebrations vary for each family. They often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional meal. A handmade gift is usually exchanged, often representing African heritage or traditions and intended to encourage growth and self-esteem.

The number seven appears often in Kwanzaa traditions. There are seven days of celebration and seven principal symbols representing the values and concepts of the African culture. The symbols areMazao(The Crops),Mkeka(The Mat),Kinara(The Candle Holder),Muhindi(The Corn),Mishumaa Saba(The Seven Candles),Kikombe cha Umoja(The Unity Cup), andZawadi(The Gifts).

On each night of Kwanzaa, one of the seven candles on the Kinara is lit and one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is discussed. The seven principles are called theNguzo Saba. They are values which contribute to building and reinforcing community:umoja(unity),kujichaguila(self-determination),ujima(collective work and responsibility),ujamaa(cooperative economics),nia(purpose),kuumba(creativity), andimani(faith).

Red, black, and green are symbolic colors for the holiday. They are the colors of the Kwanzaa flag and represent the people (black), their struggle (red), and the future and hope that come from that struggle (green).

Kwanzaa at Mary Baldwin

Kwanzaa at Mary Baldwin takes place at a different time because students are on winter break during the traditional Kwanzaa dates. This year, Kwanzaa at Mary Baldwin will be held January 20.

First year students are considered the “first fruits,” a reference to the harvest aspect of Kwanzaa, and are largely responsible for organizing the celebration on campus. With the help of upperclassmen, freshmen present the seven principles through dance, skits, and other art forms. Older students light candles on the Kinara and explain each principle.

Upperclassmen take ownership in the freshmen’s success, said Rev. Andrea Cornett-Scott, associate vice president for student affairs. Scott started the celebration of Kwanzaa at Mary Baldwin University 10 years ago. She sees it as a rite of passage for freshmen, and cites the large alumnae support and participation as one sign of the event’s success and importance.

Barbara Jackson ’08 celebrated her first Mary Baldwin Kwanzaa last year. “It starts out stressful,” said Jackson, “and you don’t really know what it’s about. Once it begins and everything comes together, you realize — wow, this is what it’s all about.” This year Jackson will serve as a big sister and help open the ceremony.

Kwanzaa at Mary Baldwin is sponsored by the Ida B. Wells Society, an Mary Baldwin learning community that explores and celebrates African American heritage through activities, classes, lectures, and interpersonal connections. At this year’s ceremony, new members of the Ida B. Wells Society will be inducted.

Scott adds that while Kwanzaa is staged by African American students, the celebration is for the entire campus and surrounding community. She encourages everyone to come as observers and supporters. Kwanzaa begins at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, January 20 in Hunt Dining Hall on the Mary Baldwin campus.

For more information on Kwanzaa, visit: