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Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966. After the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Karenga searched for ways to bring African-Americans together as a community.

He founded US, a cultural organization, and started to research African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. Karenga combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations, such as those of the Ashanti and those of the Zulu, to form the basis of Kwanzaa.


The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way, but celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading and a large traditional meal.

On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the seven principles is discussed.

The principles, called the Nguzo Saba (seven principles in Swahili) are values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans. Kwanzaa also has seven basic symbols, which represent values and concepts reflective of African culture. An African feast, called a Karamu, is held on December 31.

The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba are a set of ideals created by Karenga. Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle.

The candle-lighting ceremony each evening provides the opportunity to gather and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa. The first night, the black candle in the center is lit (and the principle of Umoja/Unity is discussed). One candle is lit each evening and the appropriate principle is discussed.


Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–jah) – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee– cha–goo–LEE–yah) – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–mah) – To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH– mah) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH) – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah) – 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.

Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee) – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.


Mazao: The Crops (fruits, nuts and vegetables) symbolizes work and the basis of the holiday. It represents the historical foundation for Kwanzaa, the gathering of the people that is patterned after African harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity, and thanksgiving are the fruits of collective planning and work. Since the family is the basic social and economic center of every civilization, the celebration bonded family members, reaffirming their commitment and responsibility to each other. To demonstrate their mazao, celebrants of Kwanzaa place nuts, fruit, and vegetables, representing work, on the mkeka.

Mkeka: Place Mat – The mkeka, made from straw or cloth, comes directly from Africa and expresses history, culture and tradition. It symbolizes the historical and traditional foundation for us to stand on and build our lives because today stands on our yesterdays, just as the other symbols stand on the mkeka. During Kwanzaa, we study, recall, and reflect on our history and the role we are to play as a legacy to the future. The mishumaa saba, the vibunzi, the mazao, the zawadi, the kikombe cha umoja, and the kinara are placed directly on the mkeka.

Vibunzi: Ear of Corn – The stalk of corn represents fertility and symbolizes that through the reproduction of children, the future hopes of the family are brought to life. One ear is called vibunzi, and two or more ears are called mihindi. Each ear symbolizes a child in the family, and thus one ear is placed on the mkeka for each child in the family. If there are no children in the home, two ears are still set on the mkeka because each person is responsible for the children of the community. Children are essential to Kwanzaa, for they are the future, the seed bearers that will carry cultural values and practices into the next generation.

Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles – Candles are ceremonial objects with two primary purposes: to re-create symbolically the sun’s power and to provide light. Mishumaa saba are the seven candles: three red, three green and one black. The black candle symbolizes Umoja (unity), the basis of success, and is lit on December 26. The three green candles, representing Nia, Ujima, and Imani, are placed to the right of the Umoja candle, while the three red candles, representing Kujichagulia, Ujamaa and Kuumba, are placed to the left of it. During Kwanzaa, one candle, representing one principle, is lit each day. Then the other candles are relit to give off more light and vision. The number of candles burning also indicate the principle that is being celebrated. The colors also represent African gods.

Kinara: The Candleholder – The kinara is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and represents the original stalk from which we came: our ancestry. The kinara can be shaped – straight lines, semicircles, or spirals – as long as the seven candles are separate and distinct, like a candelabra. The kinara symbolizes the ancestors, who were once earth bound; understand the problems of human life; and are willing to protect their progeny from danger, evil and mistakes. In African festivals the ancestors are remembered and honored. The mishumaa saba are placed in the kinara.

Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup – The kikombe cha umoja is a special cup that is used to perform the libation (tambiko) ritual during the Karamu feast on the sixth day of Kwanzaa. During the Karamu feast, the kikombe cha umoja is passed to family members and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then, the eldest person present pours the libation (tambiko), usually water, juice, or wine, in the direction of the four winds – north, south, east and west – to honor the ancestors. The eldest asks the gods and ancestors to share in the festivities and, in return, to bless all the people who are not at the gathering. After asking for this blessing, the elder pours the libation on the ground and the group says “Amen.”

Zawadi: Gifts – When we celebrate Imani on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, we give meaningful zawadi (gifts) to encourage growth, self-determination, achievement and success. We exchange the gifts with members of our immediate family, especially the children, to promote or reward accomplishments and commitments kept, as well as with our guests. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose and creativity and to avoid the chaos of shopping and conspicuous consumption during the December holiday season. Accepting a gift makes the receiver part of the family and promotes Umoja.

PLEASE NOTE: excerpted this information from the book, “The Complete Kwanzaa Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest” by Dorothy Winbush Riley. This article has been edited for brevity and clarity.