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Kwanzaa’s Nguzo Saba: A Timely and Much Needed Retrieval of Afro Ubuntu Ethics for Enhanced Flourishing in the African Diaspora and Beyond

26th December was the beginning of the seven days of Kwanzaa, a week long celebration that ends on January 1st .[1]

For those not familiar with Kwanzaa, the  term Kwanza is a Swahili word meaning “First” and it is shorthand for the concept behind Kwanzaa, a symbolic celebration “first fruits.“ The celebration is reminiscent of “new harvest” festivals in Africa. Founded by Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa is  a Pan -African event   celebrated by many particularly in the US. 

Kwanzaa  festival resonates with me partly  because the concept is   articulated in Kiswahili  (with suitable and creative adaptations)[2] a language which I speak and I am most  familiar.  Secondly, Kwanzaa resonates with me since  it  invokes African ethics and values revolving around the African concept of  Ubuntu, a concept which speaks to the very essence of what  it means to be human in community  . Through  its Nguzo Saba (7 Principles) Kwanzaa invites  all to live a life inspired  by Ubuntu  afro ethics  for enhanced flourishing .

The Nguzo are reminiscent of the African notions of the person well captured by the term Ubuntu: As Bishop Tutu explains,    “a person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.” A person with Ubuntu recognizes that   “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours and that   we “all belong in a bundle of life”. An Ubuntu inspired person knows that   ”A person is a person through other persons.” [3]

This Ubuntu ethos  palpably permeates the whole notion of Kwanzaa as imagined by  its  founder . .The 7 Nguzo  (/principles or pillars[4] are values and virtues that constitute ,express and prop up Ubuntu as defined by Tutu. These are 

  •  Umoja : (Unity )
  •  Kujichagulia: (agency and self determination)
  •  Ujamaa  (cooperative rather than competitive cut- throat  economics (Nyerere tried to operationalize this in Tanzania)
  •  Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility (AKA Harambee in Kenya)
  •  Nia : Purpose  :Intentionally   Making collective flourishing our life time  common Goal
  • Kuumba(Creativity):  Commitment to do all we can  to ensure that we to leave our community/world  better than when we inherited it.
  • Imani  Faith  :not just faith in an abstract deity that is far removed from peoples

 struggles for justice and enhanced flourishing , but faith , in people  and their capacity for  good, confidence  in the viability of relationships built on   and Ubuntu , and commitment to affirm each others  contribution to the flourishing of all . Imani calls for all to recognize and  build on the wisdom  of ubuntu inspired leadership regardless  .

It seems to me  that at the very least Kwanzaa’s Nguzo  Saba  comprise food for thought as we all consider the global impact of radical individualism coupled with greed and power hunger . A call for  Umoja,(unity) sounds like a suitable antidote in a palpably polarized world while Ujamaa ( Cooperative Economics,) sounds like much needed balm in a world torn apart by a predatory global economic system where profit is the primary goal and where everything, including people have a price tag . Nia, is the  Nguzo that calls us to make it our lifetime  goal or vocation to enhance rather than  subvert each others flourishing while Kujichagulia (self determination)  reminds us of the imperative responsibly to exercise our  moral agency ,  a defining feature of Ubuntu and  to refrain from  subverting  that of others. Given the complexities and multiple crises facing humanity today, Ujima  (collective Work and Responsibility )and , Kuumba (Creativity) are  particularly urgent principles as we collectively make efforts to leave our rather vandalized planet better than we inherited it.

None of the above is possible without Imani; Faith in people and their moral agency (Kujichagulia ) resilience and capacity for good.. Imani , is a major antidote to contemporary cynicism that often leads to deadly indifference and apathy  and prematurely  giving up on the quest for viable solutions .

 In  concluding these reflections on Kwanzaa, it is my  hope that more than African Americans can adopt the spirit of Kwanzaa and  its Nguzo Saba.. Even becoming aware of these Nguzo za Ubuntu (Pillars of Ubuntu, authentic humanity ) would , in my humble view , be  a step, however lilliputian  in the direction of enhanced flourishing, both human flourishing and that of all who call Earth ,  home.

As I conclude these reflections , I am also aware that similar values are embedded in many of our faith traditions  but have been rather forgotten and replaced by values that subvert life in many ways . Perhaps  it is time to retrieve , reconstruct and reclaim these forgotten life supporting values as  Karenga did in the African- American context or as Pope Francis has done in retrieving Franciscan and biblical virtues of stewardship for earth and solidarity among humans .   As Wangari Maathai , speaking of the need to reconstruct and reclaim Afro Ubuntu  virtues and values points out , such a retrieval  will indeed help “heal ourselves and heal the world ”.[5]

[2] Whereas  in developing the concept of Kwanzaa Karenga uses a language and idiom from among the “Bantu speaking people  of East , central and South Africa, elsewhere he taps into the  language and idiom of other parts of Africa particularly Ancient Egypt from where he retrieves the ethical notion of Maat as  representative of Afro-ethics.   For details see:  Maulana Karenga : Maat: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A study in Classical African Ethics: Routledge 2004

[3] Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness: Doubleday 1999:31

[4] Nguzo in Kiswahili  literally means Pillars

[5] For details of Maathai’s urgent appeal  for retrieval of  Afro ethics ,see her book: Replenishing the Earth : Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and The World.   Doubleday 2010