Skip to content

Opinion: Kwanzaa displays the gift of African values to the world

As detractors wage their annual campaign against Kwanzaa, a Nigerian priest offers his perspective on why the holiday has value—and strong African roots.

Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga and his wife Tiamoyo celebrating the holiday in 2000. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

I have never heard about the Kwanzaa celebration before coming to Canada.

The reason is apparent: the West usually doesn’t have much interest in metanarratives. Hence, it treats Kwanzaa as a sub-cultural celebration not worth promoting.

Also, unfortunately, some members of the African diaspora—especially those who grew up in Africa like me—aren't always keen to embark on cultural events proposed by our brethren here in the Northern hemisphere. The problem isn't simply that they refuse to embark on such events, but they often try to subvert them or judge them as non-authentic.

Sometimes, they even go as far as joining some detractors to fight against our brethren's beautiful Black cultural heritage. As such, on the second day of Kwanzaa celebrations in 2021, we woke to a polemic concerning it.

For those who don't know about Kwanzaa, the founder’s definition is as follows:

“ African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates family, community and culture. It is based on African first harvest celebrations and organized around five fundamental kinds of activities: ingathering of the people; special reverence for the creator and creation; commemoration of the past; recommitment to the highest cultural values; and celebration of the Good."

The weeklong holiday was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. It celebrates seven fundamental and core values of Black people: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

Although it is a celebration created in the late 20th century, it can be traced to time immemorial of Black people, as it celebrates the core value of our ancestors: the Ubuntu. Therefore, Kwanzaa is not only a cultural celebration but also a spiritual one.

The polemic against it this year involved Dinesh D’Souza’s resharing of a Twitter post from 2019, in which US Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted Kwanzaa greetings.

A famous UK-based Nigerian biomedical scientist and Catholic anti-abortion activist, Dr. Obianuju Ekeocha, replied to her less than enthusiastically:

The problem with such reactions is that they give our detractors a strong axe. It's evident that in this metaverse era, the joy of being retweeted or drawing people to our profiles is often stronger than sound reasoning. But when people who claim to be the moral guardians engage in such self-destructive projects, we have to question their motives.

Besides, even if those who take part in the celebration of Kwanzaa claimed that the feast came packaged from the motherland, where Obianuju has her roots, she would still be wrong to assume that being African gives one a complete knowledge of all African festivities. And implying that the entire African population shares one culture or feast is a colonial mentality.

For example, there are different local cultures and festivities among the Igbo, her tribe. And even when many communities share a celebration, like in the case of the New Yam Festival, they still celebrate it on different days or even months of the year. So how can Obianuju claim that Kwanzaa can't be African simply because she ignores it?

And what about the idea that the Igbo people celebrate Christmas around this time? Historically speaking, Christmas became a Christian celebration in Rome only in the fourth century. And we know that it wasn't originally a Christian festivity. So, following Obianuju's reasoning, St. Paul could laugh at us for celebrating Christmas because his community didn't participate in it.

Both in the UK and the US, celebrating Christmas was once a crime. As recently as 1828, the Christmas celebration attracted punishment in some American cities. In fact, New York City instituted its first police force in response to a Christmas riot.

On May 11, 1659, for religious motives, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made celebrating Christmas a criminal offence. It was stated that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labour, feasting or any other way was subject to a 5-shilling fine”.

It was 200 years before Massachusetts added Christmas, George Washington's birthday, and the Fourth of July to its public holidays.

And what about Obianuju's homeland? The first Christmas celebrated in Nigeria (in today’s Lagos State) took place in 1842. Before this, there was no evidence that anyone previously celebrated Christmas in Nigeria. Is this then the “time” that Obianuju is talking about? Does that mean that the Igbo nation had no feast before the arrival of the missionaries?

Moreover—along her reasoning—why would anyone fight, like we all do today, to continue celebrating Christmas, which history has confirmed was such a troublesome feast among the English colonies in North America?

Finally, how could those who are supposed to be proud that the diaspora promotes our ancestral heritages discredit Kwanzaa with its strong cultural and spiritual values? One would expect that Africans will rejoice to see that through Kwanzaa, Ubuntu has become an international celebration.

It's time that the Church encourages this Black initiative that celebrates the same values Christmas proposes. The diaspora and those in the Motherland should join their hands to promote Kwanzaa. It should be valued as an African gift to the entire world.

And, as we all can see, humanity needs to reinvent itself through the core values that Ubuntu philosophy propagates.

Fr Nnaemeka Ali, OMI was born and raised in Eastern Nigeria and serves at the Innu First Nation communities of Ekuanitshit (Mingan) and Matimekush-Lac John (Schefferville) at the Coastal Shores of Quebec in Canada. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Theology at Saint Paul University Ottawa.

Want to support our work? You have options.

a.) click to give on Donorbox

b.) click to give on Facebook