The Kwanzaa holiday is coming up in the days immediately following Christmas and while it is widely celebrated, many people still don’t know the significance of the holiday or much about the holiday itself. Kwanzaa is named for the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means first fruits.
Discovering Bulloch spoke with Jamal Toure, J.D., who works in the Center for Africana Studies and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Center. A Savannah and Hilton Head Island native, his family has been a part of the Low Country since at least 1814.
Toure is referred to as the People’s Historian and serves as the resident scholar for Geechee Kunda Cultural Center and Museum in Riceboro, Georgia. He is a reputable Djeli (cultural historian) who shares both the history of African people at home and in the diaspora. According to Georgia Southern’s website, “He has created an artform of history where he performs a one-man event and is frequently called upon to perform internationally to share the history and culture of African people.”
He is the founder of Day Clean: The African Soul and Day Clean Journeys. Tours are held in Savannah, South Carolina and Coastal Georgia and history, culture and empowerment are their focus. He has been putting on public Kwanzaa programs for more than 30 years in this area.
Toure said that Kwanzaa is “a time for family gathering, public gathering; to evaluate where you are personally and collectively and to see where you need to go.”
The celebrate the harvest, each family has some sort of fruits and vegetables present during the celebration. These items vary from family to family and from region to region — it’s dependent on what each family or group has available. One required item is ears of corn (Vibunzi) — one for each child in the family.
“If you have no children, still two ears, because we are still parents of the children of our community,” said Toure.
Much like other holidays, Kwanzaa celebrations can be different from different families and different groups. A common thread is usually the playing of drums and songs and dance, along with a large meal.
During the seven-night celebration from Dec. 26 thought Jan. 1, families or groups gather and a child will light one of the candles in the Kinara (the traditional Kwanzaa candleholder). Each night is dedicated to a different one of the Nguzo Saba (seven principles of Kwanzaa).
According to Toure, there are several other items that would be synonymous with a Kwanzaa celebration. One of them the Mkeka (the place mat) is made from cloth or straw and is a representation of culture, history and tradition. It reflects the knowledge that Toure sums up with this statement: “We aren’t here based on ourselves but because of other people that made it possible for us to be here.”
The seven principles of Kwanzaa are easily summed up by Toure.
“Kwanzaa is not a me-centered celebration; it is a we-centered celebration. It cuts across generations from youth, the adults and the elders,” he said. “Any and everyone can come out. No matter the spiritual belief. It is cultural, for any and everyone. No particular group of people have the ownership of it. Regarding race and ethnicity, no one is excluded. We’re all in this together. “
He said that each person may identify more strongly with different principles. The principles include:
Unity (Umoja) which means to strive for and maintain unity. Unity within families, communities, nations and races.
Self-determination (Kujichagulia) is self-definition. How we define ourselves, speak for ourselves, create for ourselves and name ourselves.
Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima) is the principle dedicated to building and maintaining a community together. It represents making someone else’s problems a “we-problem” and to solve them collectively.
Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa) is the principle that sets the goal of building and maintaining stores, shops and other businesses to profit from them together.
Purpose (Nia), this fifth principle concentrates on collective vocation with the purpose of building and developing the community to bring people back to their traditional greatness.
Creativity (Kuumba), means to do as much as you can, in whatever way you can to leave the community in better shape than it was inherited.
Faith (Imani) is the principle that we should believe in our people, parents, teacher and leaders and in the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Toure mentioned that while all of the principles are important to those who celebrate Kwanzaa and are carried throughout the year with each individual, many people have a specific principle that they tend to favor because they identify with it. His favorite principle is Kujichagulia.
“I like the second night. Self-determination, self-definition. For me personally, I have to respect your humanity because it’s a part of your definition of self,” he said.
Zawadi, or gifts, are given on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, to represent and encourage the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
“Some people will have other artifacts — books to artwork — it depends on the family, group. Some may have the madera, the red, black and green flag,” said Toure. “Something that symbolizes culture, pride and love. The unity cup —libation is a point of remembrance.”
Kwanzaa is celebrated all across the entire country and while some people celebrate only with families, some gather for public celebrations.
Locally, celebrations are held in Glynn, Liberty and McIntosh counties.
“The Center for Africana Studies and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Center will have a pre-Kwanzaa celebration in Savannah and in Statesboro,” said Toure. “Willow Hill does a Kwanzaa program as well.”
It comes as no surprise to most that Kwanzaa celebrations were dampened in the last two years due to the fear of COVID and possible exposure. Events were still held, but on a smaller scale. Toure said that many are now looking to going back to events with attendance and frequency like they were pre-COVID.
It’s important to note that Kwanzaa is not a holiday that is meant to take the place of other religious celebrations. It is often celebrated alongside Christmas and other religious holidays.
Toure said it’s about augmentation.
“It’s a part of identity, of who you are,” he said. “It’s just augmenting who you are, an additional layer. Some people embrace it in everyday life and it gives additional framework.”