By GRACE WILLIAMS
For Montclair Local
Despite the pouring, chilly rain, an estimated 200 people made their way to the Montclair Public Library on South Fullerton to gather and get cozy.
Some arrived casually dressed, while others went all out and wore brightly colored attire. They were all ages, from grandmothers to toddlers, and there were vendors and dancers. But they all shared the same mission: they were there to celebrate the library’s 30th annual Kwanzaa celebration, this past Sunday, Dec. 16.
Enola Romano, of the Montclair Public Library, said the event is popular with people from all over Essex County.
“We are very fortunate,” Romano said. “I have seen people today [that I] haven’t seen in a while and I know people are coming. It’s exciting to see the community and some of our old time employees as well. The community really does rally around our Kwanzaa performance here.”
Kwanzaa is traditionally celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and traces its roots to 1966, when the first celebration kicked off. The holiday was created by Maulana Karenga, a professor and chair of the department of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach. Karenga organized the event in response to the August 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, which resulted in 34 deaths, and thousands of arrests and injuries. The word Kwanzaa is derived from Swahili and means “first,” or “first fruits.” Kwanzaa was created to spread pride and positivity for people of African heritage.
Mama Yaa, of Pyramyd Dance Company, a group that performed several traditional dances throughout the event, kicked off the afternoon with a libation ceremony. Dressed in a traditional outfit and standing at the Ancestral Table at the front of the auditorium, Yaa explained the symbolism and significance of the items that were placed at the table.
Newcomers and onlookers learned that the number seven holds important significance in a Kwanzaa celebration. In addition to the celebration being seven days long, there are seven candles to be lighted. And, as part of the event, Yaa called seven children in the audience up to the front to read the seven core principles of Kwanzaa, first in Swahili and then in English. The principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
Yaa, who has been teaching African dance since 1970, says that in Ghana, children are named for the day of the week they were born. Her name means “Thursday-born female child.” She has been to Ghana 14 times and has a longstanding goal to visit every country on the African continent, with 10 down thus far.
“It’s very important for people to have a good understanding of what Africa and African culture is all about,” said Yaa. Citing perception and misconception about other cultures, Yaa added, “it’s important that people really get to know other people and cultures because we all get trapped in our small worlds and don’t know what’s going on oftentimes outside of our block.”
Audience members were encouraged to participate throughout the event, whether it was getting up to dance while performers took the stage in their dazzling costumes, call and response with the presenters, or clapping along with the drummers and percussionists who performed throughout the ceremony. Although music and dance were often center stage, the audience was also treated to a demonstration of capoeira, a martial art from Brazil that blends fighting with music and dance.
Performances and food could be found at either end of the auditorium, face painting and activities for children were available outside of the auditorium, and several vendors were on hand to sell African-themed goods.
Charles Welborn was a first-time vendor this year, offering an array of colorful textiles, including handwoven baskets and rugs, table runners and intricate bookmarks. Welborn, who has always worked in the arts. was excited to be at the event.
“Art helps me keep my sanity,” he said.
The celebration took place throughout the afternoon and provided something for everyone, from longtime participants to newcomers. Sabina Wasonga-Gitau, a native of Kenya who has lived in Montclair for 11 years, is a Swahili teacher at Nishuane Elementary School. She participated in the Kwanzaa event a few years ago and said she was glad to be back for this year’s festivities.
“I’m drawn to it because the language it’s written in is my language,” said Wasonga-Gitau. “I never heard of it before I came to the U.S., so I’m here to learn, and I came to get more informed about it.”