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Cultural Competency and Financial Literacy: Embracing Ujamma

Updated on February 22, 2014

Ujamma and Kwanzaa: An African-Only Tradition?

When I was a child, my mother, a New Yorker, had a great appreciation for the Jewish culture because although she was a Catholic, she has a little bit of rich Jewish heritage in her bloodline. We would sit for hours and listen to a 33rpm record, entitled You Don't Have To Be Jewish ( Much like the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the themes are universal and watching makes you laugh until you cry, in You Don't Have To Be Jewish, it depicts this most endearing culture with the doting mother who would go to any lengths to protect and care for her children. In both instances, the same family theme rings throughout, hence the universal theme that one's nationality matters least and sense of family matters most. And much like in Greek Wedding, where the actors and actresses speak with an adorable affectation in their English, the mother in the video link to You don't Have To Be Jewish, speaks with the caw-fee tawk Lon-Geye-lind accent that we all adore and for which we laugh with her, not at her - and you don't have to be of any particular or specific extraction for those cultural nuances and linguistic affectations to give you a chuckle or for it to touch your inner cultural duende, either.

Historical Backdrop

That said, while one has to be Jewish to participate in a Hebrew service or christened Greek to participate in that nationality's rich tradition, when it comes to Ujamma and the tenets of Kwanzaa, one shouldn't think they have to be of African descent to enjoy and practice these tenets. That's where Kwanzaa is different. While it highlights the culture of a certain people, the tradition is one that we should all pay attention to and live by,much like the Ten Commandments of Christianity. Created in the mid-1900's, Kwanzaa was created by Cal State Long Beach professor of Black Studies, Dr. Mualena Karenga, as a measure to heal the African community and bring those together in the culture after the Watts riots, with the intent to promote family, unity, and community.

The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase: "Matunda ya Kwanza", meaning first fruits, which brought a feeling of renewal to African culture after this dark period in Black history.

Ujamma and The Principles of Kwanzaa

I highlight Ujamma, the act of cooperative economics, because of the subject of this article, but the other tenets of Kwanzaa are equally as practical and ones that everyone, regardless of background and culture, should want to live by. For this reason Kwanzaa transcends culture and is seasonless, although usually celebrated at the end of December and into the New Year.

The first tenet of Kwanzaa, Umoja, promotes unity. If you have read my other articles up until now, you will know that this is really the main theme: unity. In sports, there is no "i" in team. In the working world, there are no individual contributors. In any major group effort, unity is what prevails. And, in life, the ability to get along with others and collaborate promotes unity. Unity also promotes the removal of prejudice and with that, hate. Unity is most important and an essential value for sense of community.

The second tenet of Kwanzaa, Kujichagulia, promotes self-determination. In Christianity, we say that God helps those who help themselves. Self-determination also ascribes to this way of thinking. When one is self-determined, one is self-realized and accomplished.

The third tenet, Ujima, promotes collective work and responsibility. In a family relationship, everyone has a chore to keep the household running and together; the success of the family is the responsibility of everyone involved. The armed services are all about collective work and responsibility. When something goes wrong, all troops are responsible. The captain may go down with the ship, but he goes down collectively with his men.

Finally, we arrive at Ujamma, the tenet of Kwanzaa that promotes cooperative economics. It is the responsibility of everyone in a family to collectively keep the family machine going. This is an old tradition in my mother's era (she is 91 going on 92). In her day, all children went to work at a very early age, with some of her brothers working as early as ten years old. My father, also an immigrant, drove my grandfather's ice cream truck at the ripe age of 11, long before laws would have dictated otherwise. It is what the family unit did to keep together - cooperative economics. In today's society (and my own children), what kids make becomes their "fun money." My mother and father would have a lot to say about that, as there was no such thing. You worked to help the family survive. Period. My mother tells an interesting story about one day complaining to her older sister, Anne, now buried in Arlington National Cemetery with her husband, Major Stelio A. Lovece, just 100 yards from where Kennedy is buried, that she never had any money of her own, because what she earned, she gave over to my grandmother. Auntie Anne, as I knew her (she was my Godmother) counseled my mother by saying, "Who told you to tell them how much you make?" She said,"Keep a little for yourself - and give over the rest." My mother, being the youngest of three girls, had no idea, but followed suit soon after! In my own little family, I know that if I ever touched any of my daughters' tips from their waittressing days, I would have been dead meat! Cooperative economics has turned to individual ownership of property and just doesn't have the same beautiful meaning that its rich African tradition should deserve in our lives today! It should, but it is a fleeting concept in many American households.

Nia, the tenet which promotes purpose, promotes making something of oneself and creating one's own purpose in life. Who of us, as parents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, etc. don't profess this to our younger counterparts? It just makes sense. It is life. Life with a purpose. Nia.

Kuumba, the tenet which promotes creativity, asks those who practice it to "look outside the box" and reach outside of one's comfort zone to make a contribution to one's community or to society as a whole. It doesn't get any more beautiful than this, do you think? Unless, you consider the final tenet: Imani. Read on!

Imani, the final tenet, which is really first and foremost, means to have faith.No matter what your religion or beliefs, you either say that everything happens for a reason or that having faith will bring you what you richly deserve or what is meant to be. Imani, or faith in whatever higher being you worship, will help to heal you, help to sustain you, and most of all, help you in your darkest and brightest of periods in your life. Faith is trust, so practicing Imani with others and in your own family, lays a foundation for the way you will interact with the world. Imani is the grounding concept by which most people live, whether it is Faith in God or Faith in another higher force.

So,while the original purpose of Kwanzaa was one of healing and community, it is the hope that you will recognize that we all have many more similarities than differences, or at least, that's what we should aim at searching for when meeting someone who appears, lives, or sounds different to us.

It is also the hope after reading this that you would agree: you should not have to be African to live by the principles of Kwanzaa. In fact, you should only have to be human!


Submit a Comment

  • drfil profile imageAUTHOR

    Filippa S. Viola, Ed.D 

    4 years ago from New Hampshire

    Precisely! Many think that the Kinara, used to light the candles for every day of Kwanzaa, is similar to the menorah and is just for that culture. The menorah is used in Hanukkah, which isn't a religious holiday, either. Glad you had a take-away from this article!

  • profile image


    4 years ago

    Thanks that was very interesting. I thought it was their way of celebrating holidays. It is more like the 10 commandments or the Way of Buddha-practical and ways to live a purposeful life.


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