Happy Kwanzaa, and one more good idea for Africa

Saturday January 6 2018

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected] PHOTO | FILE 

By Austin Bukenya
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A new year is an occasion for both hopes and fears, optimism and nostalgia, memories and anticipation. This is why, as I told you, January is a symbol of looking both back and forward through the gates of time.

Just now, I am thinking of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration that sprang up in the United States 42 years ago, and a person I met just over 30 years back.

You will understand that, for us veteran sojourners struggling towards a century of existence, the time segmentations into months, years or even decades are of little import.

The significance lies in the (presumed) wisdom and prudence that time should have taught us. Here, then, are a few of my thoughts about that event and about the person I met. 

Resist, my friend, the temptation to say: “a penny for your thoughts.” In Kiswahili we have a fascinating derivative, kutafakarisha, which may be elaborately rendered as “challenging one to make oneself think or reflect”. In English we figuratively speak of putting on your thinking cap, and it is always a worthwhile exercise.

To start at the beginning then, on New Year’s Day we also marked the seventh day of Kwanzaa (the beginning), the Black Diaspora’s celebration of identity that begins on Boxing Day and climaxes at New Year. Have you heard of Maulana Ron Karenga? He is the founding father of Kwanzaa, and I met him briefly in Lagos in 1977. That is all of a generation ago, as the oral historians would say.

Karenga, too, is an historian, a very prominent professor of African American history. Born in Maryland, USA, in 1941, Karenga is a man of my age group. But when I first met him in our relatively youthful days, he had already founded Kwanzaa and had been nurturing its celebration for all of 11 years, since 1966.

I will not regale you with details of Karenga’s variegated and often controversial career, or even elaborate on the colourful celebrations of Kwanzaa, for two reasons. Either you know the story, or I would be spoiling your pleasure of discovery through browsing the abundant records on the subjects.

Rather, I will tell you briefly why Karenga and Kwanzaa set me thinking about Africa and the diaspora recently. The first trigger was, I think, a mention of this festival by my friend and colleague, Humphrey Jeremiah Ojwang of UoN. I cannot quite remember the context in which he raised the topic.

But it made me realise that, despite my large and expanding American and, indeed, international (British, Swedish, Byelorussian and Serbian) family, I had not closely followed celebration of the festival for quite a number of years.

Maybe it is high time that I, and all of us with diaspora relatives, started taking more serious note of such events as Kwanzaa, which symbolise the need for our people to assess and assert their identity out there.

This has become even more imperative in the face of the growing overtly racist, supremacist and even murderous tendencies in many overseas societies, which have led our people to call and cry out that “black lives matter”.

Indeed, as I was browsing around for updates on Kwanzaa, I came across a collection of pieces seeking to point out why the festival is even “more important than ever for black people” today.


You will probably have guessed at the second reason why I want us to re-think Kwanzaa. The whole festival is celebrated in our language, Kiswahili.

The seven pillars (nguzo saba) on which the festival is built are formulated in Kiswahili. The main greeting during the festival is “habari gani?” requiring the interlocutor to answer with the pillar, that is the theme, of the relevant day. Even the presents exchanged during Kwanzaa are called “zawadi”.

This, as many observers have pointed out, is a de facto recognition of Kiswahili as the language of the African diaspora. This should certainly make us, “Waswahili” (as Mwalimu Nyerere called us), justifiably proud. But maybe we ought to do more to really deserve the honour.

We could, for example, reach out more proactively to our diaspora relatives during celebrations of Kwanzaa. Imagine what it would be like if all the foods and other paraphernalia used in the celebrations were to come from Uswahilini (East Africa) each year. That might even make good economic sense.


Even more importantly, how strong among us, the Africans, and especially Kiswahili-speaking Africans, are the values, the nguzo (pillars), that our relatives are adopting from us?

The seven pillars are, in Kiswahili: umoja, kujichagulia, ujima, ujamaa, nia, kuumba and imani. You know doubt recognise most of them. They can be rendered as: unity, self-determination, communal service, family sense, purpose, creativity, faith.

Wonderful ideals, are they not? But the acid test is: do we, Kenyans, Ugandans and other East Africans really care for them?

Do we practise them, or are we — mired in our tribalism, selfishness, aimlessness, greed and deceitfulness — permanently short-changing ourselves and our diaspora kin who look up to us?

This brings me to my final suggestion about Kwanzaa. We should consider celebrating Kwanzaa ourselves right here at home in Africa.

It would be a wonderfully opportune occasion for us to “tafakarisha” these indispensable values that make us, or should make us, and our whole African family the great people that we are, and can be. We could even arrange exchange visits to celebrate Kwanzaa in one another’s country.

The diaspora would thus be bringing back to us what Africa inspired in them, and we would be reinvigorating their culture with the latest best from the Motherland. It would also be a healthy idea for the tourism industry.

I seem to be inclined to give away multi-billion dollar deals today. But that, they say, is the nature of Aquarians like me.

Anyway, happy Kwanzaa, a little in retrospect. This year we will start on the dot of Boxing Day.


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]