Ujamaa

Happy Kwanzaa everyone.

I just went to my first observance of this holiday, which I must bashfully admit I had given little thought before my sister called me up yesterday; she told me that they celebrate a different principle every night for a week, and Monday’s is Cooperative Economics. Potluck dinner. We’ve got to check it out. Once again, kid sister knows what time it is.

Kwanzaa was created by Ron Karenga in 1966 and runs each year from December 26 to January 1. It is a nonreligious holiday with roots in black nationalism. It has been observed in Sacramento since 1971, and has grown to fill a large room at the Oak Park Community Center, drawing a couple hundred people each night for a week. It featured some great speakers, amazing dancers, and some really loud drums.

Some people may disdain this holiday as part of the annoying “Happy Holidays” war on Christmas (as though sharing the season with Hanukkah wasn’t bad enough), but the more I think about it, the more I like it. The holiday was framed by tonight’s keynote speaker, local educator Geri Scott, as a holiday to help the African diaspora stay connected to its communitarian roots while living in an alien and individualist culture.

According to The International Kwanzaa Exchange, Kwanzaa’s principles are: 

·        Umoja (oo-MO-jah) Unity stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, “I am We,” or “I am because We are.”

·        Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah) Self-Determination requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.

·        Ujima (oo-GEE-mah) Collective Work and Responsibility reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.

·        Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) Cooperative economics emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.

·        Nia (NEE-yah) Purpose encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals that are beneficial to the community.

·        Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) Creativity makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community.

·        Imani (ee-MAH-nee) Faith focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind, by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.

I think that most people could look at this as a pretty nice list of principles, and of course it reminds me quite a bit of the seven cooperative principles. It turns out that the descriptions I heard of tonight’s principle were a bit fuzzy in terms of directly relating to cooperatives as I understand them, but who am I to judge? The more broad applications offered suggestions like the need to keep business in the African American community, which is good advice to be sure.

At the same time, I found myself thinking of Arctic Co-operatives, Ltd., a primarily indigenous federation of cooperatives spanning northern Canada. It is a system that includes 31 village-based cooperatives with a total of 800 employees. It has its own investment and development wing. The federation had $146 million in revenues last year, of which it returned $6 million in profit to its 19,000 members. That’s  an average of more than $300 per member that didn’t go to investors in Toronto, Edmondton, and Winnipeg. 

ACL’s history includes these words: “Our members did not want people from outside their communities coming in and establishing businesses to provide services. We wanted to develop the services ourselves. We wanted to keep the profits from any businesses in our communities and we wanted to use those profits to develop new and better services. We also wanted to provide employment for our members of our communities. The Co-operative model was the best way for us to meet these goals.”
The conditions are very different, and as a caucasian I am intimately familiar with neither, but I humbly offer this as a  model to consider on Kwanzaa’s day of Ujamaa.

But what I’ve really been chewing on all evening is this question: What would Christmas look like if Christians took each of the twelve days to reconnect with a different part of what it means to follow Jesus? What would those twelve parts be? The question was driven home even further by a song, “The Seven Days of Kwanzaa.” Rather than a spectacle of increasingly absurd christmas gifts to prove one’s love (lords a leapin’?!? c’mon!), in this song, the refrain is, “On the first day of Kwanzaa my family sang to me…” and the principles are all listed.

Or, looking in another direction, what if Independence Day was part of a week of reflection about what makes the United States important? Or even four days of that? I think we’d be living in a different country. A better one, that would probably have a lot more in common with tonight’s principle of Ujamaa.

So more power to the visionary people have been keeping Kwanzaa going for all these years. May we all learn from your wisdom. To start that process, I would like to invite my readers to contribute some principles for reflection for either Christmas or the 4th of July.

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