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Giving details on why Kwanzaa matters<br> Forum on symbols, principles offers insights into 'a big deal'

If it caught on, it would be tremendous, the few celebrants of the first Kwanzaa celebration thought.

It was held in Los Angeles, and participants sat on pillows on the floor and ate food with their hands as a way of connecting with their African heritage.

They played drums, danced and talked about family and culture. They pondered what they did right in the previous year, what they did wrong and how to do better in the future.

Apparently, it caught on.

Millions now celebrate the seven-day festival worldwide, according to the official Kwanzaa website. Locally, about 1,500 people attended services for last year's observance, up from an estimated 700 in 2007.

"It's a big deal. It's extremely important," said Karima Amin, a professional storyteller and former Buffalo Public Schools teacher.

She has been observing Kwanzaa since the 1960s and recently held a free public workshop at the Frank E. Merriweather Library on Jefferson Avenue to explain its symbols and principles. About a dozen people came, a big jump from a couple of years ago when only one person showed up at a similar forum she conducted.

Yvonne Harris, also a professional storyteller, brought along her grandchildren, Jamal, 5, and Janelle, 7.

"I want them to know about it, know the meaning of it," Harris said. "Get them young. They need to learn now about celebrating who they are, celebrating their heritage and knowing what contributions blacks have made."

Kwanzaa, which will run from Sunday through Jan. 1, is not an African tradition, but rather an African-American creation based on an African harvest festival. Swahili terms specify symbols and principles, and each night a different principle is highlighted.

Amin and Sharon Holley, a former co-chairwoman on the local Kwanzaa committee for 20 years, hosted the workshop earlier this month to demonstrate the correct way to celebrate Kwanzaa as it was intended and to clear up misconceptions about it.

For example, Kwanzaa -- the celebration created by Maulana Karenga -- is not to be confused with "kwanza," the Swahili word for first fruit, Holley explained. The change occurred when Karenga -- an author, activist and professor of African-American studies at California State University at Long Beach -- added an "a" to accommodate the seven children who participated in the first Kwanzaa. He wanted each child to be able to hold up a letter, Holley said.

Also, Kwanzaa is neither a religious holiday nor a substitute for Christmas.

"Whatever your religious belief," Holley said, "you can still celebrate your religion and celebrate Kwanzaa."

The women also demonstrated the proper way to set the Kwanzaa table on the day after Christmas. After covering it with an African print fabric, a mkeka, or straw mat, is placed on it. The mkeka represents foundation, Amin said.

Next the kinara, or candleholder, is positioned in the center. A black candle is placed in the middle of the kinara, with three red candles to its right and three green candles to its left.

"Positioned any other way is wrong," Amin said.

A bowl of fruits and vegetables represents the third symbol, mazao, or crops.

A stalk of corn, called vibunzi, stands for children, and one ear is placed on the table for each child in the household. Even if there are no children, a vibunzi still should be placed. It corresponds to the African concept that every adult is a parent to every child, Amin said.

The bendera is a banner based on a red, black and green flag developed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s to symbolize Africans and people of African descent throughout the world. For Kwanzaa, Karenga reconfigured the colors in the order the Kwanzaa candles are lit nightly: black for skin color, red for blood and green for the earth, Holley and Amin explained.

The unity cup, or kikombe, is filled with some type of beverage for participants to share. Some of it may be poured into a plant in remembrance of loved ones who died in the last year.

Placed on the table last are zawadi, or gifts, preferably from black-owned businesses or handmade. Books also are recommended. The gifts are opened on the last day.

The candles play a significant role, with a new one lit each night of the seven-day observance.

The first night, the black unity candle, or umoja, is lit. As the observance progresses, the candle for that night's principle is lit after the candles from preceding nights are relit. For example, on the second night, the black candle is lit, and then the first red candle next to it is lit to symbolize the principle of self-determination, or kujichagulia.

The rest of the candles are lit nightly, alternating from one side of the table to the next, with the first green candle symboling collective work/responsibility, or ujima; the next red candle symbolizing cooperation, or ujamaa; the next green candle symbolizing purpose, or nia; the final red candle symbolizing creativity, or kuumba; and the final green candle symbolizing faith, or imani.

Lyne Westbrook, an East side resident who attended the workshop, said, "I'm glad I came to get a better understanding."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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