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the seven principles of kwanzaa you should know about and why knowing them makes you a better human.

originally published on medium, december 27, 2018

Photograph by brother jeff Photography,

umoja. kujichagulia. ujima. ujamaa. kuumba. nia. imani. all words that might make you feel a bit uncomfortable because you can’t pronounce them. words you may have heard but never really understood. words that make you laugh and dismiss because you’ve never had to learn about them.

but for those of us who were raised with these words know them as mighty calls to action and more affectionately as the nguzo saba, the seven principles of kwanzaa. kwanzaa is a week-long african-american cultural holiday that runs december 26th thru january 1st based on african agricultural “first fruit” celebrations which were times of harvest, ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration.

kwanzaa seeks to inspire the appreciation and practice of seven essential values to enhance ourselves, our family, our community, our world.

1. umoja (oo-mo’-jah) — unity — to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race. fundamental to kwanzaa is the coming together of the world’s most precious fruit or product, its living human harvest, the people. in its aspiration to reconnect, the principle of umoja calls us to form as one, reunite and fellowship as a community. to live in harmony, establish mutual respect, navigate conflict, take on each other’s problems as our own and uncover common interests that bring us closer rather than push us further apart. without umoja, all the other principles suffer.

2. kujichagulia (koo-jee-chah-goo-lee’-ah) — self-determination — to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves. the second principle encourages the commitment and practice to center on the power of self and the importance of becoming who we set out and strive to be. it isn’t for others to tell us who you are. the responsibility is on our shoulders to be the author of our story, our experience, our truth and be steadfast and confident in its expression and delivery.

3. ujima (oo-jee’-mah) — collective work and responsibility — to build and maintain our community together and solve our problems together. ujima tells us that everyone must carry their weight, do their part, toil and take lead of whatever must be done knowing that even the smallest action is for the greatest good. an african proverb that summarizes ujima is the one that says: if you want to go fast, go alone. if you want to go far, go together.

4. ujamaa (oo-jah-mah’ah) — cooperative economics — to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. endeavor to do for self. to rely on our gifts and skills as a means to support ourselves and our family. ujamaa pushes the entrepreneur in us and the investor in us to generate wealth together. to shop local and give our money to causes and businesses that have community in mind and heart.

5. nia (nee’-ah) — purpose — to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to traditional greatness. without nia there is no direction. no reason. no why. nia reminds us that all that we do is for the better making of our community. our home. our family. our tribe. our village. acknowledging and practicing nia means that our development, our improvement, our gains, our goals, our struggles are linked. nia grounds and roots you to be healthier, wiser, smarter, stronger. to not just be self aware but to have the emotional intelligence to best connect and support those you care about. to inspire others around you. to show those that may look like you, who look up to you, that anything is possible because they see in you their own image. this purpose (of doing all things that benefits the community) honors our ancestors and their teachings and traditions in the ways of odu ifa which believes that humans were chosen to bring good into the world.

6. kuumba (koo-oom’-bah) — creativity — to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. the sixth principle encourages us to think about how we can leave this place better than we found it. to notice what is in chaos and to focus creative flow to restore love and order. to honor natural, spiritual and cosmic energy by giving back what we receive. kuumba is the constant practice of keeping the legacy of those that came before us and finding our own expressive ways to keep their spirit alive. to literally leave this place more beautiful through song, art, poetry, literature, dance, storytelling, affirmation, constructive dialogue, community gathering, political endeavor, teaching and healing. lifting kuumba as a critical value promotes personal and interpersonal growth.

7. imani (ee-mah’-nee) — faith — to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. on the seventh day, marking the first day of a new year, imani is the pivotal seventh and final principle. as umoja roots us in togetherness, imani is what sustains us. for to have a deep faith in the people you journey with is to hold onto and foster hope, love and commitment to make it through success and hardship. this value and day of meditation calls upon the kawaida philosophy which asks of everyone: who am i? am i really who i am? and am i all i ought to be? these questions of identity and authenticity are central to the themes of kwanzaa. and that is why imani falls on the seventh day as a means of quiet and honest reflection. to re-commit and assess how you showed up the previous year and recalibrate where necessary as you strive to become the best version of yourself for yourself, your family, your culture, your community, the world.

this fifty-five year old african-american cultural practice grounded in ancient african traditions provides a value system, a guide, to control one’s destiny and life on a daily basis by embedding (at a minimum) these seven principles. knowing about the nguzo saba (in-goo’-zo sah’-bah) makes you a better human because it imparts knowledge, wisdom and understanding of a history and practice of humans that is similar or different than your own bringing forth greater compassion, gratitude and a deeper appreciation for a celebration that just so happens to fall on the day after christmas. kwanzaa was established in 1966 by dr. maulana karenga in the midst of the black freedom movement based on the african philosophy kawaida.


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