On Dec. 28, 2009, I was invited to my first Kwanzaa ever.
With curious anticipation, I met a girlfriend at 6:30 p.m. at the Burnett-Eaton Museum Foundation (BEMF) in downtown Wilmington, rang the doorbell and stepped into… Africa!
Our hostess, museum founder Islah Speller, wore a traditional African robe and headdress. She led us into a room richly decorated, packed with African-Americans of all ages. We sat among the participants who squeezed in to make room for us. Although we were the only Caucasians, we felt warmly welcomed.
Brochures were passed around detailing the holiday’s history, its symbols and principles. Kwanzaa is observed in the USA from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 to honor African-American heritage and culture. The Swahili name means “first fruits” in reference to African harvest festivals.
There were brief introductions that I barely heard. I just couldn’t take my eyes off the garlands around the windows, shining with the colors of Africa – green, black and red – or the children’s drawings pinned on the walls, or the photos of family ancestors and black heroes. Up front stood an altar covered with a hand-woven cloth, laden with a basket of fruit and corn, a seven-branch candleholder and a mysterious earthen vessel, “the Libation Cup.”
“Let us now partake in the Libation,” Speller said. She raised the cup, declared the Libation Statement, poured its water into small individual cups. She explained that “cold water is poured from the same cup each night, so that we all drink from Kikombe Cha Umoja, the Cup of Unity.”
Unity. Umoja, the first of the seven Kwanzaa principles.
Although I’d missed a couple of days, with that simple affirmation of Unity, I was at once united with my fellow participants. In turn, I raised my cup, said “Harambe,” (Let’s pull together) and drank from Unity.
Speller lit a candle, asked the question calling forth the principle of the day:
“Habari Gani?” (What’s the news?)
“Ujima,” (Collective Work and Responsibility) the congregants answered in unison.
Speller introduced Sonya Bennetone who invited personal testimonies. From children to parents and grandparents, everyone shared personal stories where they either helped a brother solve a problem or were helped by a sister. Recounting their personal experiences further contributed to build and maintain everyone’s sense of community.
The evening closed around 7:30 p.m. after prayer, meditation and spiritual study. I enjoyed it so much that I went back a few times. On the last day, Jan. 1, 2010, the celebrations began with drumming, proceeded with the seventh principle, Faith (Imani) and concluded with Karamu, a feast of homemade fares and refreshments featuring ingredients that Africans brought to America, such as sesame seeds, peanuts, sweet potatoes and spicy sauces.
I left feeling nourished in all levels of my being, resourced and renewed.
This year will see the Fifth Annual Community Kwanzaa hosted at the BEMF. I asked Speller what inspired her to host Kwanzaa. She said that after establishing the BEMF, she wanted to “restore something of moral and cultural value to the community.”
Because its principles support “the foundation of family out to the community, to be a good family member and a good citizen,” Kwanzaa was the perfect vehicle, Speller added. The BEMF, a non-profit organization she founded to preserve Wilmington’s black heritage in downtown Wilmington and for which she won the 2011 YWCA Rachel Freeman Award, became the next logical venue.
“Kwanzaa celebration enables us,” Speller said, “to recommit to our community, to reclaim, to rejuvenate and affirm together the principles from the African ancestors.”
Would you like to experience Kwanzaa this holiday season?
What: The fifth annual Community Kwanzaa
When: 6:30 -7:30pm, Dec. 26, 2011-Jan. 1, 2012
Where: Burnett-Eaton Museum Foundation, 410 N. 7th St.
Details: Each day of Kwanzaa, a different candle will be lit on the kinara (candelabra), each representing a different principle: Umoja-Unity, Kujichaguliai-Self-Determination, Ujima-Collective Work & Responsibility, Ujamaa-Cooperative Economics, Nia-Purpose, Kuumba-Creativity, Imani-Faith.
795-8597 or e-mail SpellerIslah@yahoo.com