How to Pronounce and Understand Kwanzaa Terms

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The first Kwanzaa was held less than 35 years ago, and a lot of families are celebrating for the first time. This pronunciation and definition key will help new celebrants connect with the Swahili terms and concepts and gain a deeper understanding of the holiday.

Things You'll Need

  • Swahili Phrase Book
  • Kwanzaa (KWAN-za) comes from the Swahili word Kwanza, which means first fruits.

  • Nguzo Saba (n-GU-zo SAH-bah) refers to the seven principles upon which Kwanzaa is based. There is one principle for each of the seven days of Kwanzaa. They are celebrated in the following order.

  • Umoja (oo-MO-jah), which means unity, is first.

  • Kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-GOO-lee-ah), which means self-determination, is celebrated on the second day.

  • Ujima (oo-JEE-mah), which means collective work and responsibility, is the third principle.

  • Ujamaa (oo-jah-MAH-ah), which means cooperative economics, comes next.

  • Nia (NEE-ah), which means purpose, is fifth.

  • Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah), which means creativity, comes on the sixth day.

  • Imani (ee-MAH-nee), which means faith, is the principle of the seventh and last day of Kwanzaa.

  • "Habari gani?" (Ha-ba-ri ga-ni) is the question asked at the start of every Kwanzaa celebration. This is Swahili for, "What is the news?" Celebrants answer with the Nguzo Saba (principle) of the day.

  • Mkeka (em-KEH-kah) refers to a straw mat on which a Kwanzaa centerpiece is arranged. Items placed on the mkeka include the following: mazao (mah-ZAH-oh), a bowl of fruits and vegetables, especially those native to Africa; muhindi (moo-HEEN-dee) or vibunzi (vee-BOON-zee), ears of corn that represent the number of children in the family; kikombe cha umoja (kee-KOHM-bee chah oo-MOH-jah), a unity cup; and zawadi (zah-WAH-dee), gifts.

  • Kinara (kee-NAH-rah) refers to a candleholder central to the celebration.

  • Mishumaa saba (mee-shoo-MAH-ah SAH-ba) are the seven candles of the kinara that represent the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

  • Karamu (kah-RAH-moo) is the big feast traditionally held on December 31, the sixth day of Kwanzaa.

  • "Harambee!" (hah-RAHM-beh) is a call of unity cried out at the end of each nightly celebration, meaning "Let's pull together!"

Tips & Warnings

  • Swahili consonants are pronounced like English consonants. The "R" is like the Spanish "R" and is pronounced by rolling the tongue.
  • In most Swahili words, the accent is placed on the next-to-last syllable.
  • Swahili vowels are pronounced as follows: a (ah), e (ay), i (ee), o (oe), u (oo).

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