Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why Swahili Terms Are Used For The African American Originated Holiday "Kwanzaa"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information about the African American originated holiday "Kwanzaa" and specifically explores why that holiday uses terms from the Swahili language.

The content of this post is presented for cultural and sociological purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks also to all those who are featured in these post, and thanks to the publishers of these examples on YouTube.

Click for a related pancocojams post "Teddy Pendergrass - Happy Kwanzaa (video & lyrics)"

Also click
for another related pancocojams post "The History & Meaning Of The Red, Black, And Green Flag".

Thanks to Maulana Karenga for creating the Kwanzaa holiday. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post.

Although KiSwahili (commonly referred to as "Swahili") terms are central to the holiday "Kwanzaa", that holiday did not originate in Africa. Kwanzaa wasn't created in the United States by descendants of Swahili speaking East Africans. Few Africans in Africa know about the Kwanzaa holiday, and few African Americans actually celebrate this holiday which was created by Maulana Ron Karenga in 1966 to foster in African Americans' pride in our African heritage.

Swahili terms are central to the Kwanzaa holiday because its Black cultural nationalist creator was a proponent of the pan-Africanists' viewpoint that Swahili should be the language which unites all Africans and all people of the African Diaspora.

Here's information about pan-Africanism from
"Pan-Africanism is an ideology and movement that encourages the solidarity of Africans worldwide.[1] It is based on the belief that unity is vital to economic, social, and political progress and aims to "unify and uplift" people of African descent.[2] The ideology asserts that the fate of all African peoples and countries are intertwined. At its core Pan-Africanism is "a belief that African peoples, both on the continent and in the diaspora, share not merely a common history, but a common destiny".[3]
Notice that red, black, and green are the colors of the pan-African flag. Red, black, and green are also the colors of the official flag for a number of African nations, and those colors are also found in the flag used to represent African Americans. Three of the candles for the Kwanzaa holiday are red, three are green, and the central candle which is used to light the other candles is the color black.
-end of quote-
By "Black cultural nationalist" I mean a person who is interested in African cultures. I distinguish that term from "Black nationalist" - a person who is interested in establishing separate nations for Black people. That said, a Black cultural nationalist can be a Black nationalist. For the record, Since 1967, I was and still am a Black cultural nationalist. However, I've never been a Black nationalist. I don't know if that is true for Maulana Karenga.

Note: These excerpts are given in no particular order. I've assigned numbers to the articles excerpted for referencing purposes only.

Excerpt #1:
Did you know that the word “Kwanzaa” is Swahili? And did you know that Kwanzaa is not, in fact, an African holiday, but an American one?

The celebration of Kwanzaa was begun in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way for African-Americans to celebrate their heritage. It draws from the socio-political nature of the Ujamaa (socialist) ideals established by the first president of Tanzania, Julias Nyerere, and thus it uses Swahili words for its holiday lexicon. The word Kwanzaa itself means first, as in the first harvest. Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26th through January 1st, and the days of Kwanzaa are named using Swahili words to explain the seven core principles of the holiday: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination, [literally, to appoint]), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility [lit., communalism]), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics [lit., socialism]), Nia (Purpose, [lit., interest]), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). These seven principles comprise Kawaida (tradition), and are intended to communicate and celebrate the best principles of African heritage. The Swahili phrase Habari gani? (How are you doing? [lit., What’s the news?]) is used by celebrants as a greeting each day of the week of Kwanzaa."...

Excerpt #2:
From April 20, 2015
"A Language of Their Own: Swahili and Its Influences" by Olivia Herrington
..."When the Kenyan government adopted Swahili as its official language in 1970, it lauded the language for being more African than was English, the previous choice for the government and people’s affairs. As The New York Times reported then, “the governing council of the Kenya African National Union, the ruling party, decided that the widespread use of English language smacked of neo-colonialism, or at least was un-African.”

Or so it was said. But Swahili itself appears to be, at least somewhat, “un-African.” Jomo Kenyatta, president at the time, seemingly chose to overlook Swahili’s foreign influences. The language was born from the interactions between dwellers of the East African coast and traders from the Middle East. Those traders spread its vocabulary as they rode their ivory and slave caravans farther inland, reaching the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the west and Uganda in the north. Indeed, the very name “Swahili” stems from the Arabic for “of the coast,” sawahili. The language also incorporates pieces of English, German, Portuguese, and other tongues belonging to the merchants and colonizers who permeated the region. Yet, curiously, Swahili has come to represent pride in post-colonial identity.

...Tanzanians accept the language’s significance more completely than Kenyans and cherish it more ardently. Their relationship with their chosen tongue began at the birth of the country itself, in 1964. From the start, Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president, promoted Ujamaa, a nationalist and pan-Africanist ideology that revolved around reliance on Swahili instead of on European languages. Though Tanzanian citizens possess tribal affiliations and typically speak a tribal language in addition to Swahili, they value their allegiance to their country. This priority is rare in Africa, a continent of people whose first loyalty belongs more commonly to their tribe. That general preference is unsurprising: many country borders were drawn by European colonial powers, rulers who disregarded or intentionally opposed grouping Africans according to tribal and linguistic affiliations. Tanzanians, though, feel unified—a credit to the strength of Nyerere’s vision.

...Similarly, some African-Americans have praised the language’s authentic value, an affiliation that Dr. Maulana Karenga, the American founder of the holiday Kwanzaa and a leader of US Organization, supports wholeheartedly. “We wanted to escape Western tradition and tribalism, both. Swahili is not a tribal language—it represents a collective effort and our group does too,” he told a Life magazine reporter in 1968. As the Black Power movement gained strength in the late 1960s, the language became for the movement’s members a symbol of meaningful black identity. The timing was excellently coordinated: just as East Africans themselves were accepting Swahili as both tool and emblem of nationalism, US was offering it a place in America—extending the significance to the swelling Black nationalism in which the organization was engaged.

...Even beyond the tradition of Arab slave traders’ using Swahili, it was true the link between the language and African-American heritage was tenuous. Most African Americans’ ancestors came from the west coast of Africa, where Swahili is not spoken. John McWhorter, linguist and associate professor at Columbia University, has argued for the Ghanaian language Twi as a more suitable option. But Swahili felt to Karenga like an appropriate language for pan-African unity. It became Kwanzaa’s established language, providing the holiday with the roots of its name and the words for its seven principles. Karenga’s preference fit well with Nyerere’s."...
I added italics to those sentences to highlight them.

Excerpt #3
From discussion thread for video: "Black People Learn About Kwanzaa"
Matthew Boyce, December 20, 2015
Wikipedia says: Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1965 as the first specifically African-American holiday. According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits of the harvest". The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s, although most of the Atlantic slave trade that brought African people to America originated in West Africa.

Kwanzaa is a celebration that has its roots in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of African traditions and Nguzo Saba, the "seven principles of African Heritage" which Karenga said "is a communitarian African philosophy".

During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said that it was meant to be an "oppositional alternative" to Christmas.However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so that practicing Christians would not be alienated, then stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."

Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas."

Nicole ATCQFAN, December 24, 2015
"Kwanzaa is a fair attempt at getting African-Americans to reattain some kind of African culture that was taken from them. My main issue with the holiday is that it isn't inclusive of all or at least several cultures in Africa. Kwanzaa's major concepts are pretty representative of many African cultures but the nuances like language is not. The creator of the holiday used Kiswahili terms, which is odd in my opinion. This language is actually a creole that emerged from the Swahili people of East Africa who have Bantu and Arabic blood. Today, many non-Swahili East Africans like my family speak it today. I would imagine more focus on the cultures that emerged off the West coast of Africa since many African-Americans (not all), have roots there.*

Fortunately, I'm in a situation where I know where I am from and can trace back my ancestral home/spiritual practices so I Kwanzaa isn't something I partake in. But I feel like it's important for Blacks in North America to have a sense of what their heritage could be like by practicing traditions that their ancestors could have partake in..."
*I think that Nicole ATCQFAN meant was "I would imagine [that instead of using Swahili, there should have been] more focus on the cultures that emerged off the West coast of Africa..."
I should also note that several commenters wrote that the people in the video didn't use the correct pronunciation for the Swahili words. Also, a few commenters noted that "kwanza" is the name of the currency in the nation of Angola which is located in South Central Africa.
The words in brackets are my addition to her sentence.

Click "Kiswahili Should Be Made The Official African Language - Culture - Nairaland" [2010]
Most of the bloggers on that forum are from Nigeria.

Other examples of the use of Swahili terms among Black cultural nationalists in the late 1960s are the use of the rallying calls "Uhuru!" = "freedom" and "Harambee" = "all pull together".

The Swahili words "Imani" (faith) and "Nia" (purpose)-terms for two of the days of Kwanzaa- have become relatively common African Americans female names. Also, I believe that more Swahili proper names have been given to African Americans who aren't descended from Swahili speaking Africans than names from another other African culture, although there are probably more African Americans with Arabic names than Swahili names). I believe that this is because in the 1960s and prior to the internet African Americans had little information about Africa, but somewhat more information about Arabic and Swahili names than about names from any other African culture. In large part this was due to 1960s Black cultural nationalists' adoption of that language over Twi, Yoruba, Igbo, Wolof, and other West African languages.

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Happy Holidays!


  1. Thank you for your informative article. I had read an article from, by a brotha, that called into question Dr. Karenga's validity by creating Kwanzaa with an East-African
    instead of a West-African language like Twi. After reading your article and other subsequent resources, It's clear the aforementioned author did not do his homework prior to writing his article. Thank you for setting the record straight with me.

    1. Greetings, Harp03.

      Thanks for your comment. As a result of reading your comment, I went back to re-read this 2015 post and corrected a few minor errors such as adding quotation marks and adding an "s" to the referent "Black nationalists".

      I'm curious which article from you read.

      Thanks again.