GETTING READY FOR KWANZA Pre-Kwanza Workshops for Families, co-sponsored by the Museum of African Art and the Children's Workshops in Afro-American Visual Arts and Crafts, will be held this Saturday and December 22 from noon to 3 at the Museum of African Art, 328 A St. NW. The workshops are free, but participants must register in advance by calling 547

"Ka-uumba, ka-uumba," chants Howard University professor Frank Smith.

"Ka-uumba, ka-uumba," chant 14 kids, hitting the floor with scrap plywood blocks in rough rhythm with the chant. They sit in a circle around the straw mat. On the mat are a candleholder, a pottery vase, three ears of corn and a basket of plantains. Suddenly Smith yells "Pass" and chaos erupts. The object is to pass the blocks around the circle without breaking the rhythm of the chant, but a four year-old doesn't understand and blocks pile up in front of her. She's out and others go on until there's a hard core of kids who don't make mistakes. They're declared winners and rewarded with a plantain each.

"We got this game out of a book called African Children's Games," says Smith, who is conducting a pre-Kwanza workshop for families at the Museum of African Art. "Kawanza," he explains, is Swahili for "first," but the meaning has been broadened to "first fruits."

Although the language of Kwanza is Swahili, the feast is really Afro-American, explains Smith. It was invented in 1966 by black activist Ron Karenga.

"It's the time of year when we get together as a black community," says Smith. The things on the mat are the symbols of Kwanza. First there's the mat itself, in Swahli a mkeka , which represents the past. The kinara, which holds seven candles, represents the roots of the black family. The candles are called msuhmaa, and one is lit each day starting December 26.

"What do you notice about the candles?" asks Smith.

"They're Christmas colors," guesses one child. But Smith explains that there are black candles for the black people, red for "the struggle we have had to go through," and green for the land and productivity. Each candle stands for one of the seven principles of Kwanza, and lighting the candle of the day serves to generate discussion of the principle of the day. The principles also have long Swahili names like kujichagulia, which the kids have fun trying to pronounce. To illustrate some of the principles, Smith shows cartoons. A rabbit rallies all the animals in the forest to trick a tiger, illustrating the principle of umoja, or unity. A poor child invents a steel drum so he can join in the carnival, illustrating the principle of kuumba, or creativity.

The Kwanza greeting, says Smith, is habari gani . It means "What's happening?" and the proper reply is the principle of the day.

What's happening now, says Smith, is that we're all going to make some mkekas under the tutelage of Eugene Greene, a jewelry-maker and art student.

"It won't look exactly like this," says Greene, holding up a straw mat and leading the way to a room filled with strands of bright-colored raffia and yards and yards of Christmas ribbon. Each kid is issued 16 cardboard strips and told to wrap each strip with raffia or ribbon in colors of his or her choice.

"Be as creative as possible," urges Greene. After the strips are wrapped, four of them are stapled together to make a frame. More strips are placed vertically in the frame and stapled, and other strips are woven in.

"How many people have ever made potholders?" asks Greene. "If you have show the person next to you how to weave."

"Mom, I'm having trouble," says five-year-old David Scott. "I think it will take about two days."

"Keep going," his mother encourages him. "It looks good."

Another kid thinks it would be easier to weave the strips and then wrap raffia around the whole thing. The idea is vetoed, but he's still impatient.

"When is it going to be a potholder?" he asks.

Soon all the kids -- and the mothers -- are working feverishly. A four-year-old is winding pink and blue raffia around the strips. Others work out color schemes of orange and yellow raffia or randomly selected Christmas ribbon. Nine-year-old Louis Bates chooses the Kwanza colors, wrapping his strips in red, green and black stain ribbon.

"We'll use it for our Kwanza celebration at home," says Louis' mother, Esther Bates of Silver Spring. "We've been celebrating Kwanza for the past four years. We got to counting the number and the types of Christmas gifts that each kid received and decided to do something different. We still keep the Christian part of Christmas, the Christ part. But we set price limits on the gifts, and we try to make them handmade or practical. Sometimes the kids make scarves, and we give them things they need for school, such as erasers. We give gifts each day of Kwanza, and on the last day we have an African meal. It's something like chili with corn bread that I found in an African cookbook."

The sound of sizzling oil draws some kids to a corner of the room where Smith is cooking slices of plantain in an electric frying pan. The slices are lightly salted and passed around.

"They're good," announces a little girl who sounds surprised.

"Kwanza is new," says Smith, "so there's no traditional food. We just wanted to give the kids a taste of someting African."

It's almost time to go home and the kids are trying hard to finish, but Greene tells them they can take the materials with them. David Scott gathers raffia, draping strands around his neck, and surveys the scene.

"This looks like Santa Claus's workshop," he observes.

"We're never celebrated Kwanza before," says David's mother. "We came because we wanted to see what it was all about. From what I've heard, I think it's beautiful."