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Symbols and insights of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa was conceived as a special time and space for celebrating, discussing and meditating on the rich and varied ways of being and becoming African in the world. Each year, […]


Kwanzaa was conceived as a special time and space for celebrating, discussing and meditating on the rich and varied ways of being and becoming African in the world. Each year, each of us should read and reread the literature, reflect on the views and values of Kwanzaa and share conversations about how it reaffirms our rootedness in African culture and brings us together in a special way to celebrate ourselves as African people.

One focus for such culturally-grounded conversation is on the deep meanings and message embedded in the symbols of Kwanzaa which are rooted in Kawaida philosophy out of which Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba were created.

The first symbol is the mazao (crops) which are symbolic of the African first-fruit harvest celebrations from which Kwanzaa takes its model and essential meaning. The mazao represent the harvest of good and the reward of collective and productive work. Indeed, the concept of the harvest embodies and expresses the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles.

For the purpose (Nia) of the harvest is to bring and do good in the community and the world. It is a purpose conceived and pursued in unity (Umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), and collective work and responsibility (Ujima). Moreover, it is developed with a resourceful creativity (Kuumba) and grounded in a resilient faith (Imani) that believes in, works for and looks forward to its coming into fruition. And cooperative economics (Ujamaa) rightfully represents the harvest as the product and practice of shared work and shared wealth.

The second symbol of Kwanzaa is the mkeka (the mat) symbolic of our tradition and history and thus the foundation on which we build our lives, in a word, our culture. It stresses the need of foundation, of cultural anchor to ground and center ourselves. To stress the centrality and indispensable role of tradition, the other main symbols are placed on the mkeka.

The kinara, the seven-candle candleholder is the next symbol of Kwanzaa. It is symbolic of our roots, our parent people, our continental African ancestors.

The kinara holds the next symbol of Kwanzaa which is the mishumaa saba (the seven candles). The mishumaa saba are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the hub and hinge on which the holiday Kwanzaa turns, the African value system that is an essential foundation and framework for our living a good and meaningful life and the strivings and struggles central to this. To light the mishumaa is to engage in the ancient ritual of “lifting up the light that lasts.” For the principles are the light that lasts in the midst of constant and often disruptive and diversionary changes and challenges that occur in life.

The muhindi (corn), more specifically ears of corn, are another symbol of Kwanzaa. They are symbolic of our children and thus our future which they embody. In the agricultural and naturalistic understanding of African communal societies, the life-cycle of corn represents the life-cycle of both humans and nature.

The kikombe cha umoja (the unity cup) is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of umoja (unity) which makes all else possible. The kikombe is used to drink from after a statement of unity in a ritual of reinforcement of the principle and practice. And it is also used in pouring tambiko (libation) in a ritual of remembrance, honor and appreciation of our ancestors and their legacy of excellence we are obligated to preserve, expand and pass on

The zawadi (gifts) are symbolic of the labor and love of parents, rewarding their children for commitments made and kept. These gifts are never to be overly expensive or a substitute for ourselves. And they must always contain a heritage symbol and a book to reflect and reinforce our commitment to our culture and to knowledge and a life of learning, respectively.

The representations of the Nguzo Saba reaffirm their central role in our life and struggle for the good world we all want and deserve to live in and leave as a legacy for future generations.