By Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, NOFA/Mass Equity Co-Director

A Kwanzaa kinara on a table with other decorations for the holiday.Kwanzaa, a Swahili term derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, is a week-long celebration that takes place during the last week of December each year (December 26th to January 1st). It is based on West African southern solstice celebrations and incorporates much of the agricultural celebrations of “first fruits” harvests or harvests in general.

Kwanzaa, developed and introduced to Black America in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga in California, was meant to be a non-secular celebration that all religious persuasions could celebrate. Being tied to agriculture and community building, it is a holiday that many NOFA/Mass members may appreciate.

Kwanza celebrates the seven principles or Nguzo Saba of African heritage.

The Seven Principles:

  1. Umoja (Unity) – To Strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) – To define and name us as well as to create 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 to 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 the development 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 inherited it.
  7. Imani (Faith) – To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers and our community, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The symbols of Kwanzaa have deep ties to agricultural traditions in Africa. 

The Seven Symbols (source):

  1. Mazao (The Crops) – These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.
  2. Mkeka (The Mat) – This is symbolic of our tradition and history and therefore, the foundation on which we build.
  3. Kinara (The Candle Holder) – This is symbolic of our roots, our parent people — continental Africans.
  4. Muhindi (The Corn) – This is symbolic of our children and our future which they embody.
  5. Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup) – This is symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity which makes all else possible.
  6. Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles) – These are symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the matrix and minimum set of values which African people are urged to live by in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs.
  7. Zawadi (The Gifts) – These are symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.

Dr. Karenga summed it up best in his description of Kwanzaa, “Kwanzaa and its core principles are a powerful force for good in the world. Its central message and meaning urge us to think deeply about our lives, our families, our communities, and our struggles to bring and sustain good in the world.”

I was able to attend the Kwanzaa Celebration in Holyoke, MA earlier this week.

Four people standing behind a table with a green table cloth and Kwanzaa symbols. Two people are lighting candles on a kinara.

Participants of the 2022 Holyoke Kwanzaa Celebration, including Ms. Ayanna Crawford of the Kwanzaa Collective, Mayor Joshua A. Garcia, State Representative Patricia Duffy and community activist Theresa Gorden, light the kinara. Photo credit: Sister Anna Gilbert-Muhammad

Consider attending a Kwanzaa celebration in your area this week, or in 2023, during the final week of the year. For more information on Dr. Maulana Karenga or Kwanzaa, visit