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Even in pandemic, Kwanzaa traditions stand strong in Metro Detroit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

In the final days of each year, Kwanzaa arrives with activities honoring African tradition and culture, linking Metro Detroiters to the past while focused on preparing the future.

The same concepts apply as the weeklong holiday starts Saturday. However, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed participants to reimagine the celebrations — moving most to a virtual format or with plenty of space.

A candle holder called a Kinara holds seven candles, three red ones on the left, three green ones on the right with a black candle in the center. A candle is lit during each night of Kwanzaa.

As challenging as 2020 has been, some say the observances are especially relevant in helping inspire followers to advance, rebuild and thrive.

“We want to increase the interest in Kwanzaa, not let it subside at all,” said Anemashaun Bomani, who directs the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s Detroit chapter. “It’s important that we stress that within our community and globally.”

His group is among those presenting a ceremony each night during a Kwanzaa event led by Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

First launched 54 years ago following African studies professor Maulana Karenga’s work, Kwanzaa typically lasts seven nights, corresponding with the number of principles adherents are urged to follow.

Alkebu-Lan Village dancers perform African dance at the first day of the Kwanzaa celebration in 2019.

Known as the Nguzo Saba, they are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).

At 7 p.m. Saturday through Jan. 1, guests can log on to thewright.org or tune in to the city's Channel 22 to view a presentation delivered by the museum and one of its partners centering on the principles.

On Sunday, Bomani’s group presents a moderated conversation with acclaimed writers Gloria House and Haki Madhubti, “some of our long-established revolutionary people,” he said.

Whether through a digital screen or seated around a stage as in years past, “we just want to celebrate the traditions of Africa,” Bomani said. “We want to continue and promote that. It’s part of our culture that’s been taken, so Kwanzaa is one of the ways it’s preserved.”

The ceremonies, which were pre-taped, also feature songs, dances, storytelling, poetry reading, lighting the candles in the kinara, or candleholder, and explanations of the seven principles.

"To have access to tradition is very important for so many people, particularly this year," said Yolanda Jack, the museum's educator and Kwanzaa director. "There have been so many issues that have brought people to the realization of what is really important. As a result, people in the community understand these seven principles. These have been how many of us have really survived 2020."

The independent Southfield-based Detroit Book City also plans a virtual Kwanzaa celebration on Saturday. It’s slated to feature professional Black storytellers, coordinators said.

From left, Gabriella Ware, 9, of Detroit pauses from eating her donut to look up while her brother, John Ware II, eats his donut at Detroit Farm & Cider on Lawrence Street in Detroit on Nov. 9, 2020.  The location is open on the weekends through Dec. 5. Kwanzaa celebrations and year round programing is being planned.

For those seeking a more interactive, in-person experience, Detroit Farm & Cider on the city’s west side marks the occasion with seven days of free fun at its nearly five-acre site with heated greenhouses.

Over those days, visitors can find activities tied to the holiday’s traditions and Swahili name, which means “first fruits of the harvest.” Those mean dance troupe performances, herbal medicine making, a day devoted to volunteering, wares from local Black-owned businesses, lessons in history and self-defense and African food provided by the city restaurant Fork in Nigeria.

Visitors must wear masks and practice social distancing. Meanwhile, they’re encouraged to donate clothing and canned food for people in need.

The gatherings aim to create a safe, encouraging environment at a dark time, owner Leandra King said. “This is about community and unity, supporting each other and positive energy. It’s about giving where it’s needed and being prepared.”