That’s a Kiswahili phrase meaning “what’s the news?” It is a common greeting used during Kwanzaa, the seven-day, African-American festival created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga (born Ron Everett), who is also the founder of US (United Slaves), a cultural organization based in Los Angeles. When someone says habari gani, you respond by naming the principle associated with that day. There are seven principles in all, collectively called the Nguzo Saba.
Kwanza means “first”; according to the American Heritage Dictionary, a second “a” was added to make it a seven-letter word in sync with the seven principles or nguzo saba that it is built upon. The Official Kwanzaa Website states:
The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, a Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken African language.
Kwanzaa has come a long way in its half-century. In spite of its detractors, Kwanzaa has inspired numerous books for children and adults, a couple of movies, a growing body of songs, theatrical performances, greeting cards, and several U.S. postage stamps as well as weeklong cultural gatherings, events and marketplaces in cities all over the United States. It’s even celebrated by black folks living in Europe, the Caribbean, and the motherland itself.
Yet, some folks still label it a “made-up holiday.” Honestly, every holiday in every culture has a starting date, a lot of years before that when no one had heard of it, and a period after it began when very few people celebrated it.
I personally wondered why a harvest or first fruits celebration would be held in the dead of winter, but it’s a symbolic harvest: the last week of the year is a time when many people are reflecting on their successes and failures and making plans for the next 365 days.
Some people criticize Kwanzaa’s use of Swahili since most African-Americans’ ancestors were taken from western Africa. While that is true, as mentioned above, Swahili was considered a Pan-African language because on a continent with more than 2000 different languages and dialects, it’s one of the most widely spoken across national and ethnic lines. Which of the numerous West or Central African languages should replace Swahili in Kwanzaa terminology?
It’s also true that some of the Kwanzaa terms or their English translations are not verbatim Kiswahili. For example, you won’t find the word kujichagulia, the Kwanzaa principle of self-determination, in any dictionary. However, the Kiswahili root word chagua means “choose” or “select”, while ku and ji are prefixes that respectively mean “to” “self” – myself, yourself himself, etc. Put together, kujichagulia roughly means “to self-choose” – sounds like a non-native speaker’s way of piecing the few words they know to communicate.
Perhaps the most damning criticism is connected to the founder, Dr. Karenga. He has been accused of working with the FBI during the turbulent Black Power era, and he served time for assaulting a female US member. It’s a documented fact that the FBI played his US Organization against the Black Panthers, spying on both as part of COINTELPRO and setting the stage for a violent conflict on UCLA’s campus during which two prominent Black Panther members were shot and killed by US members. This ugly part of our history should not be swept under the rug but studied and learned from.
The greater question that each person must consider is whether these criticisms or Dr. Karenga’s individual character flaws can overshadow the value of the Nguzo Saba.
For me, the answer is no. The seven principles – Unity, Self-Determination, Cooperative Economics, Collective Work and Responsibility, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith – are an excellent antidote to our oppression and miseducation. They are a way to restructure our thinking, to focus our attention, personally and collectively, on our greatest good. Which of them are bad or harmful to us personally or collectively?
The seven principles are so much greater than a single week. Our reflection on them during this time has inspired so many positive actions: businesses, cash mobs, savings clubs, performing arts groups, independent schools, houses of worship, community service projects… our goal should be to live by the Nguzo Saba all year long, with Kwanzaa serving as a time of celebration and refreshment, much as the goal of most Christians is to live out their faith all week long and come together on Sundays for renewal.
Speaking of Christianity, Kwanzaa has been accused of trying to replace “Black Christmas.” Wikipedia may be right that “during the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said that it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas, that Jesus was psychotic, and that Christianity was a white religion that black people should shun” – I can’t access the source cited for this information. In later years, this motive has been either minimized or dropped altogether: plenty of people celebrate both.
The point I want to leave you with is that like the Constitution of the United States overrides the idiosyncrasies of the Founding Fathers; the Nguzo Saba is more important than Karenga or his early ideologies. The seven principles are not a religious doctrine but a philosophy and code of conduct that black people of many different spiritual traditions honor and embody during Kwanzaa and throughout the year.
Visit the Official Kwanzaa page to learn more about the associated symbols and customs, or Google “Kwanzaa near me” to find an event in your area, if you don’t see any posted on social media. Even if you are not into “that African stuff,” the seven principles could be a valuable tool for you, your family and community.