Kwanzaa Time: What to know and how to celebrate 

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“Habari Gani?”

That’s the term in Kiswahili for “What’s the news?” and is the standard greeting during the seven days of Kwanzaa, when each day represents one of the seven principles of the holiday. The answer is the principle of the day.

Tens of millions of people around the world celebrate Kwanzaa from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, when the holiday concludes with a community feast, or Karamu.

Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 amid the Black Freedom Movement and its search for justice in the face of systemic discrimination. A young scholar and activist in southern California, Karenga sought to celebrate “the good in communities of people of African descent” and connect those communities to their roots.

Kwanzaa is a secular holiday modeled after the African “first fruits” festivities. It recognizes a cultural and political struggle, and encourages celebrants to remember their history and embrace their identity and culture.

In many ways, the holiday is the continuing legacy of the likes of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.


The seven principles of Kwanzaa are a “value system” that urge celebrants to think about the state of the world and their collective responsibilities to make it better for all.

Every day a candle is lit on a kinara, or candleholder, to celebrate one of the seven principles, the Nguzo Saba. In order, and in their original wording, the principles are:

Umoja (Unity): To strive for and 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 brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and 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 always do 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.


Five elements must be present on each of the seven days of the holiday. They are:

In-gathering of the people: Fellowship that includes traditional African drumming, which calls the people together, libation ceremonies, and other activities.

Reverence for the Creator and creation: An expression of African spirituality that gives appreciation for the highest ideals and values of humankind.

Commemoration of the Past: Honoring ancestors and heritage.

Recommitment to cultural ideals: The highest and most fundamental values in practice and thought

Celebration of the good:
Renewing old acquaintances, sharing stories, poetry, music, and feasting.


There are seven symbols of the holiday. They are:

Mkeka (Woven Mat): Represents the foundation.

Kinara (Candleholder): Symbolizes our ancestors as a collective whole.

Mishumaa Saba (Seven Candles): Represent the seven principles: one black in the center represents the people; three red are left facing and represent struggle; three green are right facing and represent the future.

Kikombe Cha Umoja (Unity Cup): Used to pour libation for the ancestors and to drink from to reinforce unity in the family and community.

Muhindi (Corn): Represents children and all the hopes and challenges attached to them.

Mazao (Crops): The rewards of the accomplishments of the year.

Zawadi (Gifts): Represents the achievement of children throughout the year.


The holiday came to Rochester in earnest in 1982, when Gerald Chaka, a founding member of Karenga’s organization, visited Rochester with his family and demonstrated a Kwanzaa celebration.

He coordinated an event hosted by actor and activist David Shakes in his theater in Village Gate. David Anderson was chosen to be the elder to perform the official ceremony. For the next several years, celebrations included families in the Rochester community, and traditional drumming was provided by Clyde Morgan & Company.

In 1988, the Rochester Kwanzaa Coalition was formed and included Anderson, Delores Jackson Radney, and several others.

Celebrations extended to such locations as The Memorial Art Gallery, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, and community recreational centers. Currently, Radney and Terry Chaka serve as elder consultants to the next generation of Kwanzaa coordinators and participants.

This year’s theme is “Love: Bringing Good into the World.”


Each day of Kwanzaa includes beginning and ending Kwanzaa ceremonies, storytelling, drumming with Paul Adell Jr. and community drummers, arts activities, and community conversations.

But first, a pre-Kwanzaa celebration is scheduled for Dec. 4 at Roc Holiday Village from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event includes African drumming, a Kwanzaa celebration, children’s activities, and more.

Dec. 26: Umoja at Black House, 215 Tremont St., Door 3, Suite 300 (6-8 p.m.)

DJ Mix Mingle mixes Kwanzaa music to get feet moving. Art activity includes making a shakere. Community conversation: What’s good? and oh yeah line dancing with Frances Hare.

Dec. 27: Kugichagulia at Phillis Wheatley Library, 33 Dr. Samuel McCree Way (4-7 p.m.)

Who inspires you? Stories of inspiration are shared today. We will recognize local youth and their achievements in school and in the community. Poetry, storytelling, and art activities finish off the evening.

Dec. 28: Ujima at Black House, 215 Tremont St., Door 3, Suite 300 (5-8 p.m.)

Play Black History “Jeopardy” and travel with us across the globe to discover and uncover some truths about African Americans and their journey from Africa to the Americas. If you have traditional African clothing, join us in a community fashion extravaganza. Show up and show out!

Dec. 29: Ujamaa at The Legacy Drama House, 112 Webster Ave. (5-8 p.m.)

Community drummers and dancers open this special day, which includes a game of “Jeopardy” Ujamaa-style, and vendors showcasing their wares at the marketplace. Bring cash if you come. A discussion with local entrepreneurs aims to inspire you.

Dec. 30: Nia at Frederick Douglass Family Initiative, 140 E. Main St. (5-8p.m.)

The anticipation leading up to this day keeps celebrants on the edge of their seats. Stories of motivation in the spirit of activism of Frederick Douglass are intended to motivate people to be positive and do good. We will also highlight Rochester’s trailblazers.

Dec. 31: Kuumba at Montgomery Center, 30 Cady St. (6-9 p.m.)

This is the highlight of the community celebrations in which participants are urged to share their talents. Bring your voice, your instruments, and other creative talents to join the community jam session. You don’t have to be a star to be in the mix. Music, line dancing, re-enactments will follow. Bring your appetite for the Karamu (community feast).

Jan. 1: Imani at wherever you call “home.”

This is a day of reflection celebrated at home with family.

Lisa Johnson and Terry Chaka are members of the Rochester Kwanzaa Coalition.

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