Kwanzaa: An American Holiday With A Swahili Voice


Did you know that the word “Kwanzaa” is Swahili? And did you know that Kwanzaa is not, in fact, an African holiday, but an American one?

The celebration of Kwanzaa was begun in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way for African-Americans to celebrate their heritage. It draws from the socio-political nature of the Ujamaa (socialist) ideals established by the first president of Tanzania, Julias Nyerere, and thus it uses Swahili words for its holiday lexicon. The word Kwanzaa itself means first, as in the first harvest. Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th through January 1st, and the days of Kwanzaa are named using Swahili words to explain the seven core principles of the holiday: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination, [literally, to appoint]), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility [lit., communalism]), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics [lit., socialism]), Nia (Purpose, [lit., interest]), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). These seven principles comprise Kawaida (tradition), and are intended to communicate and celebrate the best principles of African heritage. The Swahili phrase Habari gani? (How are you doing? [lit., What’s the news?]) is used by celebrants as a greeting each day of the week of Kwanzaa.

The Swahili language itself belongs to the family of languages referred to as Bantu languages. These languages are spoken in East, central, and southern Africa. Swahili has borrowed many words from foreign languages, especially Arabic. It has also borrowed to a lesser degree from English, Portuguese, Persian, Hindi, German, and other languages. Even though its vocabulary has been so influenced by outside languages, Swahili is solidly a Bantu language, as it bears all the grammatical features of other Bantu languages such as such as Zulu, Xhosa, Kongo, Gikuyu, Luganda, Fang, and many others. Swahili to day is a lingua franca of Eastern Africa, spoken in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

You can learn more Swahili here.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa” by soulchristmas is licensed under CC BY 2.0