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31.12.2003 Feature Article

Happy Kwanzaa, if you will

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“Do you guys celebrate Kwanzaa”? I believe most Africans who live in the USA have been asked this question by especially, our African-American cousins. When someone put this question to me over two decades ago, that was the very first time I had heard of the word Kwanzaa, let alone celebrating it! My response in the negative disappointed the African- American questioner. How could an African not celebrate Kwanzaa. Worse, how could an African claim total ignorance of Kwanzaa celebration.
The guy was adamant that Africans’ denial of Kwanzaa, (he assumed my ‘ignorance’ to be continent-wide), reflected a cultural divide between Africans born in the ‘motherland’, and African-Americans. Importantly, the ignorance of Kwanzaa, reflected, what may be described in contemporary African-American parlance as a ‘dissing’ (show of utter contempt), of black culture in the USA by their African cousins.
My entreaties to him that Africans do have their own traditional festivals which predated the arrival of foreign influences, and which are still celebrated today, did not make any impact on him. He was in fact, contemptuous of my attempts at educating him at what constituted a true African culture! As far as my African-American cousin (the name used then was Black American!), was concerned, Kwanzaa assumed superiority over whatever traditional cultural festivities Africans celebrate. In his view therefore, I was being un-African by not celebrating Kwanzaa. Americans generally, still find African ignorance of Kwanzaa, baffling!
Considering the nature of our discussion, I deliberately refrained from asking anything about Christmas! But my friend (and we did become friends!), volunteered that Christmas was an imperialist, expletive celebration that must be shunned by all Africans!!
However, his insistence on the superiority of Kwanzaa over other traditional African festivities, and his claim that I celebrate Kwanzaa as an affirmation of this superiority, revealed the general contempt that other cultures hold for Africans and their culture. Africans tend to equate being civilized, with embracing whole-heartedly, foreign cultures and influences. Ethnic groups in African countries who insist on some traditional African practices, in spite of their acceptance of foreign cultural influences, are deemed uncivilized by some of their African brethren! The received idea has choked Africans into equating being modern with the wholesale acceptance of foreign cultures.
A new religious craze in Ghana , for example, is the unquestionable conversion into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). At the recent opening of the Mormons’ Temple (church building), situated at a very conspicuous place in central Accra, Ghanaian journalists waxed poetic about the new Christian faith, without providing any explanation of the faith. Mormons are now converting us from not only other Christian faiths and religions, but also from our ‘ungodly, primitive’ practices. Like my African-American friend, Mormons would strongly oppose my celebration of any African festival.
Yet this is a faith founded in the 1820's by someone (Joseph Smith), who claimed to have discovered hidden Golden Plates with some inscriptions advising him to start a new church, based on the further claim (according to the Golden Plates), that after his crucifixion, Jesus appeared in America to establish a new Church. Mormon theology therefore teaches that the world of Christian religion since the death of the early Apostles remained stagnant until the 1820's when Joseph Smith discovered his Golden Plates to re-establish the true Church. And most Ghanaians are made to condemn Okomfo Anokye for claiming that he received a Golden Stool from Heaven!!
Mormon theology holds that all Christian Churches and practices besides Mormonism, are therefore apostasy! Hence, people who have died since about AD 70 (when the last of the early Apostles are thought to have perished in massacres by the Roman authorities), must be baptized into Mormonism by the living, in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This baptism is done by Mormons with the reading of recognizable names of the dead; while the individual is dipped into the pool of water! This Mormon doctrine is called Baptism for the Dead!!
Until 1978, Mormon doctrine also held that black people were devils, and not fit to be members. That year, the leader of the church received a propitious Heavenly prophesy to reverse that doctrine. Truth be told, the Church was in danger of losing its tax exempt status, if it continued to bar blacks from receiving the priesthood.
The embrace of Mormonism is symptomatic of how easily Africans are quick to ‘convert’ to other cultural influences, while at the same time, denigrating those Africans who provide a hint of clinging to certain aspects of their traditional cultural practices.
It is in this context that I decided to learn a bit about Kwanzaa to get a glimpse of what it was all about. Since it was deemed to have East African origins, I enquired from some natives of that region. All pleaded ignorance of the claim, in spite of the Swahili words used to describe Kwanzaa principles.
Kwanzaa was in fact, founded in California by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga, a Political Science professor in 1966. Its celebration runs from December 26, through January 1 each year. In a recent interview, Dr. Karenga emphasized that the holiday ( i.e. Kwanzaa) is not intended, to replace or compete with Christmas. Rather, “It is very important to realize that Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, Christmas is a religious holiday, and what Kwanzaa does is call us together regardless of the spiritual traditions in African culture that we follow,” .... “African culture is ancient enough, broad and deep enough to include all those traditions whether Christian or Muslim or Black Hebrew, black Jew, black Buddhist, Baha'i ..”
Furthermore, Kwanzaa pays homage to ‘three periods of African history’, which Dr. Karenga describes as “classical period in the Nile Valley, the holocaust of enslavement and the reaffirmation of the 1960.” The Seven Principles or Nguzo Saba which underlie the celebration of Kwanzaa, to which candles are lighted to represent concepts of the holidays are, according to Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga:
Umoja (Unity) To strive maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) To build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose) To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
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.
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.
Kwanzaa, is therefore strictly an African-American celebration founded by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga to provided cultural sustenance for African-Americans. But its observance is not restricted to African-Americans. Millions of people now celebrate Kwanzaa, throughout the world.
Until the early 1990's Kwanzaa remained a fringe celebration observed by hard core Afro-centrists. It was hardly mentioned by the mainstream US media. Since the 1990's however, the economic impact of Kwanzaa has made it a more recognized entity. There are Kwanzaa greetings cards (even Hallmark makes Kwanzaa cards!); Kwanzaa dolls; and assorted materials. Television stations now include messages of ‘Happy Kwanzaa’ in their year-end best wishes to viewers, as they do with Christmas and Hanukkah. In fact, last night (December 29, 2003), the American television network UPN, showed a Kwanzaa film! The birth of Christ it was not!! But it was a good beginning!!!
Given the checkered history of the other major celebration known as Christmas (it was periodically abolished by the Church and imperial rulers, until it gained an economic footing and became a staple a century or so ago), it will not be long before Kwanzaa gains solid foothold in places in Africa, and throughout the world. Perhaps, like Christmas, someone will then provide a religious raison d’etre for Kwanzaa celebration!
I am sure Kwanzaa will be celebrated by some Ghanaians, before long. It would then be held as providing a more ‘civilized’ alternative to our ‘primitive’ traditional celebration of Aboakyir; Homowo; Hogbetsotso; Odwira; and other traditional festivals in Ghana which have lost their allure. After all, Ghanaians have taken to celebrating Valentines Day with a zeal that confounds observers.
So, let me be the first to wish y’all a very Happy Kwanzaa!!! Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.


Kofi Ellison
Kofi Ellison, © 2003

The author has 60 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KofiEllison

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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