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Kwanzaa in Canada

by Afua Cooper | December 19, 2000

African Canadians and Blacks around the world celebrate Kwanzaa, a cultural holiday, from December 26 to January 1. Celebrants commemorate the history and culture, and the survival, struggles, resilience and triumphs of Black families and communities. Kwanzaa was born within the struggle of African Americans during the civil rights era.

In 1966, Malauna Karenga, an American professor of Black studies, devised and held the first Kwanzaa celebrations in North America. The word Kwanzaa is taken from the Ki-Swahili language, spoken in East and Central Africa, and means “first fruits.” It is modeled on the various African first fruits or harvest festivals and, as such, is a time of thanksgiving. Karenga chose the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, as a method for restoring a knowledge of African culture to Blacks around the world.

Each day of Kwanzaa “first fruits” is named after one of the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles):

first day day: Umoja

This means unity. Umoja reminds us that even though Canadian Blacks come from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, we are all one. One example of unity is the building of Camp Tiamoyo by Joanne Atherly for Black youths.

second day: Kugichagulia

This means self-determination. Only African Canadians can decide what is best for them. An example of Kugichagulia is the building of the Jamaica Canadian Centre in Toronto.

third day: Ujima

This means working together and taking responsibility for the problems that afflict Black families and communities. An example of Ujima in African Canada is the building of schools by Black teachers and parents in nineteenth-century Ontario when the separate school act of 1850 denied many Black children access to education.

fourth day: Ujamaa

This means building co-operative economies. The Afri-Can Food Basket initiative founded by Xola is an expression of Ujamaa.

fifth day: Nia

This means purpose. One example of Nia is the founding in 1851 of the Voice of the Fugitive, Canada’s first Black newspaper by abolitionists Mary Bibb and Henry Bibb.

sixth day: Kuumba

This means creativity. Deborah Cox’s music and lyrics are Kuumba. Althea Prince’s stories are Kuumba, and Viviene Scarlet’s dance rhythms are Kuumba.

seventh day: Imani

Imani means faith. Through Imani, Harriet Tubman led more than 300 enslaved Americans into freedom. Many of these escapees came to live in Canada.

The Nguzo Saba stresses communitarian values which are the foundation of African culture and traditions.

There are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa; these express the multiple meaning of Kwanzaa. Before the celebrations begin on December 26, the symbols are arranged on a Kwanzaa table. The symbols are:

  1. The Mkeka – a mat made of straw or fabric. The other symbols are placed on it. The mkeka acts as a foundation of our history and traditions.
  2. The Mazao are fruits and vegetables, and symbolize the earth’s fertility and abundance.
  3. The Muhindi, or ears of corn, represent growth, life, and prosperity. An ear of corn is placed on the mkeka for each child in the family or each child present at the dinners.
  4. The Kikombe cha umoja or unity cup symbolizes umoja. At the dinners, on the first and last days of Kwanzaa, each celebrant take a sip from the kikombe.
  5. The Kinara, or candle holder, is placed in the middle of the table. The kinara acts as a “groundation” for the seven candles that are placed in it, thus bringing the seven principles into a unified whole. The kinara is important because, in addition to being a celebration of first fruits, Kwanzaa is also a festival of light.
  6. The mishumaa saba are the seven candles. Each candle represents each principle and day of Kwanzaa. Three red candles are on the left, three green candles on the right, and in the centre, a black candle. The colours of the candles are symbolic:
    • red stands for the blood and energy of Africans
    • green symbolizes hope and love
    • black represents the Black faces of Africans and Africa descended peoples

    These are the colours of the Bandera, or Pan-African flag, and have the same meaning. On the first evening of Kwanzaa, at dinner time, the black candle is lit; on each successive evening the other candles are lit. Around the lighted candles, people eat and talk about the day’s happenings. Most importantly, they talk about the meaning of a particular principle and its practical application to everyday life.

  7. The Zawadi, or gifts, are given to children on the day of Imani (faith). It is encouraged that gifts be home-made to express kuumba (creativity) and ujima (working together and taking responsibility).

food, family, and feast

Each day of Kwanzaa is a celebration of Black cuisine.

Preparing and partaking of the food together reinforces the bond and identity of Africans. At day’s end, families gather to nurture themselves with food and each other's words.

On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, Kuumba (creativity), there is a great feast or Karamu. The Kwanzaa committee of Toronto usually hosts a Karamu. Because it is such a huge feast, the Karamu is held in a community centre, a church hall, or a large restaurant. Some favourite dishes of the Karamu are stewed snapper, Congo rice and peas, fried chicken, baked potato pie, corn bread and calaloo, jaloff rice, and vegetable ital stew.

At the Karamu, celebrants express Kuumba in dances, songs, artwork, speeches, and the viewing of films. In commemorating the past, we remember the Black sheroes and heroes.

Some African Canadian sheroes (past and present) that we celebrate and remember include: Marie Joseph Angelique, Mary Bibb, Chloe Cooley, Rose Fortune, Sylvia Stark, Mattie Hayes, Viola Blackman, Rosemary Brown, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Portia White, Monifa Owusu, and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore.

Kwanzaa is a holiday that stresses the importance of family and community. Women, as keepers of our history, tradition and culture, play a central role in Kwanzaa. In addition, women are the ones primarily responsible for the preparation of food necessary for the sustenance and maintenance of life. Also, in Black Canada, women have been at the forefront of community building.

resources for this story


  • Worlds of fire (in motion), poems by AFUA COOPER, CD, Slam Productions |2002
  • The Meaning of Kwanzaa: Values to Live by Throughout the Year, by AKWATU KHENTI, Kushitic Inspirations, phone: 416-281-6041 | 2000


  • Kwanzaa: An Everyday Resource and Instructional Guide, by DAVID A. ANDERSON, Gumbs and Thomas, ISBN: 0936073152 | 1992
  • Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, by MAULANA KARENGA, University of Sankore Press, ISBN: 0943412218 | 1998
  • Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, by ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY, Dial Books, ISBN: 0803712928 | 1993
  • The Story of Kwanzaa, by DONNA L. WASHINGTON, HarperCollins, ISBN: 0060248181 | 1996

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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