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Kwanzaa’s Seven Principles and the Community

Millions of people are celebrating Kwanzaa this week. Founded by Maulana Karenga in 1966, the holiday started out as a cultural celebration for African-Americans and a replacement for what were thought to be non-African affirming holidays such as Christmas. However, over the years, the celebration has a evolved into a celebration of Pan-Africanism coupled with the other holidays celebrated in and around December. People all over the world and from all different backgrounds are celebrating Kwanzaa.

The holiday is observed over seven days from December 26 through January 1. Physically, people interact with symbols such as African and African-inspired clothing, corn to represent agricultural traditions, and lighting a kinara, a menorah-like candle figure that has seven candles, three red, three green and one black. They are lit each night to honor the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. These principles are the heart of the celebration and considered the heart of what it means to be African or African-American according to Karenga.

It’s these principles that I want to highlight. I believe that these principles can go beyond the seven day celebration and become part of our daily community life, no matter the cultural tradition. In fact, Karenga has stated that these principles are part of a “communitarian African philosophy.” With evolutionary science in agreement that civilization as a whole began in Africa, we are all Africans anyway. In his 2012 statement on the holiday, he calls for continued examination of who we are as people and to fight for social justice for all.

The Nguzo Saba itself is as follows:

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to 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 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 hearts in God, our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

How would these principles connect to other urbanist creeds and general community goodwill?

First, Umoja speaks of keeping people together. Although race is arbitrary, the good traditions from different cultural groups should be celebrated and cultivated. Yet, a unity that is unjust should not be tolerated. The re-segregation of schools and continued segregation of neighborhoods by race and class are detrimental to a society that seeks to maintain growth and prosperity.

Kujichagulia speaks of branding oneself, instead of letting others define you. Some of the new city branding projects sound great, but fail to reach out to average community members and leaders of communities that have been excluded. The principle is better manifested when all community leaders and members come together to define themselves, instead of yielding all control to PR and marketing experts.

Ujmaa manifests itself in tactical urbanism, and other forms of grassroots planning and activism. I see this principle in the community gardens, community policing that builds instead of breaks trust, and in faith communities who continue to invest and include the communities they surround instead of walking away when many of their congregants do. I  also see this principle in the Occupy movement, especially around the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Ujamaa  in some respects equals Buy Local. It talks about local commerce, something that’s trended in many circles over the past few years. Yet, to me it speaks to the need to support good, just, honorable businesses.While this is easier said than done in a world of Walmart being the only affordable option in many households, we need to do what we can to force all businesses to do better to serve instead of sell to customers. I  also want to use this point to disparage the belief that there is no need for culturally-based stores. Some of the same people who would laugh at the black bookstore selling incense, gladly support the local, family owned sushi bar or Irish pub. Mind you, all these businesses could be donating money to schools and senior centers. They could employ youth who need something to do besides walk the streets and terrorize others. They could be paying workers a fair wage and also making good, strong products.

Nia is pretty self-explanatory. Everything has a purpose and everything should have a purpose. That purpose should not be self-serving. If I were to choose a planning/urbanist element to pair with this principle, it would be the community plans, maps, and the process of creating such. These documents serve as the basis of our efforts and help us remember our purpose in creating communities.

Kuumba goes beyond its basic principle. It honors the creative arts and the creative mind. It is here where the creative class principle makes sense. The creative class is not the whole of the community, but it is worthy of respect. Eventually, if creativity is not respected, there will be no innovation and adaptation to changing realities, from natural disasters, to obsoletance of technologies.

Finally, Imani goes beyond religious belief. Even if you don’t believe in God, you have to believe in the ability of your fellow man or woman to do whatever has been granted for them to do. Everything is not simultaneous, fast, or easy. In many communities, it’s been faith that has kept them from completely dissolving and giving up their culture and value to outside groups. Faith is what has kept inventors, builders, and other creators doing what their titles entail. Faith is the heart of all the above elements of community.

To close, we should not completely divorce Kwanzaa from its African culture or celebratory elements. Yet, we should honor the community building elements of Nguzo Saba as we continue in our quests for creating great places.

Image credit: Flickr user soulchristmas.

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  • cyclewrite

    Thanks for this interesting blog post of festive traditions..to sustainable communities.. And Happy New Year!

    • Kristen Jeffers

      Thank you for the feedback! Happy New Year to you as well!

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