Seventeen-year-old Sarah Wells says she experienced “a new revelation of self-worth” since embracing the principles of Kwanzaa in her everyday life. Wells has celebrated the holiday for about 10 years and to her, Kwanzaa is a lifestyle that she wants more of Indiana’s youth to embrace.
“It’s liberating, because once you are educated about who you are and who your people are, you are filled up with knowledge that you can use in your daily life,” said Wells. “You can learn something, but you can’t unlearn something, so it’s good for children to have these principles.”
The principles Wells speaks of are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). Each one of these principles is reflected on during the seven-day celebration known as Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa is based on the African tradition of celebrating year-end harvest festivals. The name comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.” The holiday was created as a way for African-Americans to honor their heritage and reflect on African cultural values.
Wells thinks young people are misinformed about the holiday.
“Not many of my friends celebrate it. I usually introduce it to them,” she said. “They are all like ‘Are you excited for Christmas?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, but what about Kwanzaa?’ and they are like ‘What’s that?’ They have stereotypes about it, thinking it’s a Black Christmas, but it’s not.”
Sibeko Jywanza of the Indianapolis Kwanzaa Committee agrees that there are misconceptions about Kwanzaa in the Black community.
“The only Black Christmas is the one where you forget to pay your light bill,” Jywanza said. “It’s not anything religious. It’s about knowing who you are and what your worth is. No matter what you do for a living, if you don’t have these principles, you will fall short.”
The Indianapolis Kwanzaa Committee is planning their annual Umoja Village Kwanzaa Celebration. This event will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa and has food and entertainment for all ages. Jywanza hopes Indianapolis’s youth will come out to the event and learn more about Kwanzaa.
“What does Kwanzaa look like in 2016? Back in 1966, it looked a lot different. We have a majority of elders on the Kwanzaa committee, and I would like to see more young people,” he said. “The youth has the principle of creativity down pat, but some might be trying to figure out self-determination. In this society it is hard to do that, because we have a lot of things telling us what to do and who to be.”
Nailah Mabilijengo, 21, says she was five or six years old when her family started celebrating Kwanzaa. As her mother met more people in the community who celebrated the holiday, her family started to embrace the principles of Kwanzaa year-round.
“My mother started to take my sisters and me to the Kwanzaa event, and we would watch the performers. I think she just got to know the people involved in the organization, and (my siblings and I) got involved in dancing,” said Mabilijengo.
After she and her siblings got involved, they went through what they described as a rites of passage ceremony. This event is put on by the community surrounding the Kwanzaa committee and symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood.
“We go through trials, tests and classes run by the elders in the community to make sure we walk into adulthood with the proper skillset. We take classes on things like homemaking and economics,” said Mabilijengo.
She feels that the values, skills and connections she made have benefitted her.
“Growing up embracing the principles of Kwanzaa helped me make the connections I needed for studying eco architecture. I grew up embracing unity and have a tight network of adults investing time in me. I want to build eco-friendly houses and things like that. From this community I have gained connections and the ability to travel abroad. I studied in Texas, and I went to Haiti to do some training and put the things I learned to practice,” said Mabilijengo.
Wells thinks celebrating and understanding the holiday would have a positive impact on Indiana’s youth.
“I think being connected with my family, my spirituality and even with myself is very important. It’s about self-love and connecting with your history,” said Wells. “If you are a Black man, Black woman, young or old, if you understand where you have come from, you will understand how wonderful you are. You will know that no one can stop you. I think violence and a lot of the problems we have in this world starts at home, so it’s very beneficial to teach children good principles.”
Join the Indianapolis Kwanzaa Committee as they celebrate Umoja (Unity), the first day of Kwanzaa, on Monday, Dec. 26, at the Fay Biccard Glick Neighborhood Center, 2990 W. 71st St., Indianapolis IN, 46268. This event will include an African village marketplace, food vendors, African drumming and dance, musical performances, spoken word and more. This event is free and open to all ages. For more information, visit oldsoulent.com/kwanzaaindy.