By Sobia Moman
Where much of the province’s population is preparing for Christmas this holiday season, Yasin Kiraga Misago is making plans to celebrate Kwanzaa with his community.
A holiday that spans seven days, Kwanzaa is the celebration of Pan-African and African-American cultures, history and community. It was created in 1966. The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, ‘matunda ya kwanza’ which translates to ‘first fruits’ of the harvest season.
The festivities run from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.
“When you celebrate Kwanzaa, mainly the purpose of it is that we should know each other, we should have the spirit of solidarity, of supporting our community. We should show love towards one another,” said Misago, founder of the African Descent Society of B.C.
He says that celebrating Kwanzaa is especially important in this province because there is not a large African community in B.C.
Misago – born in Burundi and grew up in Uganda and Malawi – came to Canada as a refugee in 2009. This was when he began celebrating Kwanzaa, before going on to create the society in 2012, which now has over 40 members.
“It’s a solution-based event, we discuss how we can deal with our community issues as an individual, as a group and on a communal level,” Misago said.
The number seven is significant in the celebration of Kwanzaa: Seven principles, seven days, seven candles (Mishumaa Saba) lit on the Kinara and seven symbols.
The symbols in Kwanzaa are: Muhindi, or corn, Mazao, meaning crops, Zawadi, or gifts, Mkeka, which is the placemat representing the foundation of Kwanzaa, Kikombe cha Umoja, or the unity cup, candles in green, red and black which rest on the last symbol, the Kinara.
The word ‘Kwanzaa’ itself has an extra ‘a’ added at the end to make it seven letters.
Seven days of Kwanzaa through Misago’s eyes
Misago and his community get together on Dec. 26 to mark the beginning of the celebrations – a day referred to as Umoja, which means unity.
“Our community is broken up into various pieces. Kwanzaa reminds us that we need to unite in order to make an effort and create change in the community,” he said.
Dec. 27 is about Kujichagulia, which means self-determination. For Misago, this day is about having conversations on how to fight against the inequalities that Black and African people experience.
“If we face discrimination – Kujichagulia – let’s stand for our rights and speak our minds,” he said.
The third day, or Dec. 28, focuses on Ujima, which is about collective work and responsibility.
Every Dec. 29 is about Ujamaa, or cooperative economics. This day is dedicated to supporting businesses run by African people and working to begin new ones.
Day Five is called Nia, or purpose, and reflects on honouring the ones who came before them through collaboration and building a strong community.
On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, the Kikombe cha Umoja is used in a libation ritual to honour the African ancestors. This day is also all about Kuumba, or creativity, and is about bringing together artists, performers and storytellers to showcase their talents in a festival.
Kwanzaa itself is not about religion, but for Misago, a Muslim-man, celebrating the holiday without Allah is not possible. This is why the last day of Kwanzaa, which means faith, is the most important to Misago: Imani.
“Kwanzaa is important to Muslims as well, we celebrate it together. To Muslims, words like ‘Nia’ are a part of them. Iman in Islam is the same as Imani in Kwanzaa,” he said.
“When you have faith, everything is possible. If you believe in the people we work with, we can build cooperation and work together. If you have Iman, you can trust each other, you can build resilience and be able to believe in other people,” Misago said.
The last day, Jan. 1, is also typically the day where Zawadi, or gifts, are given. The zawadi represent the labour and love of parents towards their children and are typically handmade presents.
Legacy of Kwanzaa in B.C. still needs work
It is important for Black and African children to grow up celebrating Kwanzaa, Misago said.
“It’s a cultural awareness for them, instilling values, wisdom, culture, heritage – giving them the opportunity as children to learn and celebrate and embrace all of it. I think it is an excellent thing.”
While virtual opening and in-person closing festivals are scheduled in Vancouver this year, African and Black communities are yet to have a cultural space in B.C.’s largest city – a goal Misago is hoping to reach through his efforts at the society.
“In Canada, the government has been slow to support Kwanzaa and we don’t know why but that is something that we’d like to see.”
To celebrate or learn more about Kwanzaa, anyone is encouraged to visit adsbc.org.