As the annual celebration of Kwanzaa gets under way Saturday, that African greeting will be exchanged countless times. Translated from Kiswahili, habari gani means "what's happening?" And for the next week or so, the popular response will be "Kwanzaa."
Nipping at the heels of Christmas, Kwanzaa is a holiday with special significance for African Americans. Corn and fruit will replace stockings hung by the chimney with care. Gift giving is a part of the celebration, but with a distinctly noncommercial twist: Zawadi, handmade treasures, are traditional presents in Kwanzaa households.
Christmas feasting will give way to six days of fasting from sunup to sundown. On the seventh day, the Kwanzaa celebration will culminate in a feast of simply prepared delicacies from the harvest.
Long before the birth of Christ, the precursor to Kwanzaa was celebrated by African farmers sharing their joy over the first fruits of their harvest. M. Ron Karenga, founder of a nationalist group in Oakland, introduced Kwanzaa to the United States in 1966 while the civil rights movement focused attention on the cultural alienation of African Americans and their need to reidentify with their roots.
The modern purpose of Kwanzaa is to unite communities in a common celebration of the fruits of their labor and to renew the collective commitment to the coming year's goals.
At Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, the Rev. Willie Wilson has led his congregation and their neighbors throughout the city in Kwanzaa celebrations for almost 12 years. He said he views Kwanzaa not as a substitute for the Christian holiday, but as a complementary occasion.
"Early on, Kwanzaa was promoted as an alternative to the highly commercialized Christmas holiday. That was erroneous," Wilson said. "We're still trying to educate the community. We want people to understand that the principles and symbols of Kwanzaa are, in fact, spiritually congruent with the true message of Christmas. Developing this aspect of the African culture can enrich all of our lives."
Beginning Saturday and continuing through Jan. 1, the seven principles that make up the Kwanzaa celebration will be highlighted. Each day, a candle-lighting ceremony will begin an exploration of one of the Kwanzaa concepts: unity, self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purposefulness, creativity and faith -- seven ideals that have bound the African community for centuries.
"Historically a communal people, African Americans can draw great strength from communities where sharing, cooperation and unity of purpose take precedence over selfishness. These seven ideals are our heritage," Wilson said. "Especially for our young people, Kwanzaa is a proud, essential link to our roots."
Children in several District schools have studied Kwanzaa and now conduct their own celebrations, complete with music, dancing, drama and African arts and crafts. Workshops, including several at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum and at last weekend's fourth annual African American Holiday Expo, are teaching families the meaning of Kwanzaa.
Planned to enlighten as well as entertain, this year's Kwanzaa events will feature skits, special speakers and traditional African songs. Special songs, folk tales and games are geared to children. Professional African dancers and drummers, in dazzling rhythm and motion, are also on the program.
Instead of suits and dresses, Kwanzaa-goers will come wrapped in the brightly colored garb of their ancestors. Seating will be on mkeka, African straw mats, or large pillows.
Food will hark back to a time when microwave ovens were strictly sci-fi. Using natural cooking methods, the meal will be prepared collectively and eaten without utensils. In lieu of meat, fresh fruit and lightly cooked vegetables will dominate the feasting table.
"Now more than ever, it is vital for people to be able to identify with the important vestiges of our culture. Kwanzaa provides that opportunity to identify with our roots," Wilson explained.
"At the same time, we try to emphasize that the principles of Kwanzaa really are universal goals. All people everywhere can respond to the timeless message of this holiday."
Kwanzaa observances will be held through the week at Union Temple Baptist Church, 14th and U streets SE. For information, call the church at 889-1888. For information on other Kwanzaa events, call the Roots Activity Learning Center, 882-5155, or the United Black Community's Kwanzaa Planning Committee, 291-5600.
The seven days of Kwanzaa are based on the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of blackness. In the nightly ceremony, a kinara, candle holder, is place on the mkekea, straw mat, and one of the mishumaa saba, seven candles, is lit while the ritual for the principle is performed.
Dec. 26: Umoja, the principle of unity.
Dec. 27: Kuichagulia, the principle of self-determination.
Dec. 28: Ujima, the principle of collective work and Responsibility.
Dec. 29: Ujima, the principle of cooperative economics.
Dec. 30: Nia, the principle of purpose.
Dec. 31: Kuumba, the principle of creativity.
Jan. 1: Imani, the principle of faith.