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Kwanzaa based on harvest festivals

Thursday, December 24, 1998

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The African-American festival of Kwanzaa has its roots in East African harvest festivals, but it's not meant to be an authentic duplication of them.

Even the spelling of the festival, with a double "a" on the end, is a variation of Kwanza, the Swahili word meaning first. It stands for "first fruits" in the African-American celebration, a time to recognize the ancestral philosophies that have created community among blacks in America.

Kwanzaa emphasizes the African flag colors of red, black and green. Black symbolizes the people of African descent, red stands for the blood shed in the struggle for liberty and green represents the Earth.

But the colors and some of the principles of Kwanzaa are about where the similarities with East African harvest festivals end, said Deo Ngonyani, a professor of linguistics who teaches Swahili at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Ngonyani, 40, was born and raised in Songea, a city in south Tanzania, in East Africa.

There are many thanksgiving or sikukuu ya shukurani celebrations in East Africa, including one that pays homage to the first harvest, which is typically in June and not at the end of the year as Kwanzaa is in America.

The thanksgiving celebrations vary from region to region and household to household. There is no one ritual that holds for all.

In most cases, said Ngonyani, there is lots of beer and family meals. Today, it is also mingled with Christian and Muslim traditions in Africa. At the church or temple, families will take some of the harvest - from corn, banana and plantain to goats and chickens - to share and offer to God. It is followed or preceded by a libation, a ceremony where wine or another liquid is drunk in honor of the ancestors, and prayer.

Ngonyani, who's lived in the United States for seven years, said the harvest festival is always welcomed because it follows the hardship required to gather the crops.

It features a lot of dancing and merrymaking, but contrary to America's Kwanzaa - a seven-day festival - in Africa the celebrations last only a few hours.

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