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Monday, April 22, 2024


Dec. 28, 2001 – "Habari Gani?" he asks. "Ujima," they all respond as Akinyemi Blake leads a roomful of children of all ages in a celebration of Kwanzaa, which started 35 years ago.
"Let's hear it again," Blake commands, "louder now. I really want to hear you." Habari Gani? means "What's the news today?"
Again, the answer is a resounding "Ujima," which means "working together," the principle which defines the third day of the annual week-long Kwanzaa observance. It is being celebrated Friday at Enid M. Baa Public Library in a program sponsored by the Friends of the St. Thomas Libraries.
The small children's room resonates with sound — drums, laughter, prayers and stories. Children sit at low, round tables, coloring from books with Kwanzaa symbols. Some get up to dance to the four drummers, Eddie Bruce and Friends, who line the front wall, or just to stand and stare, fascinated by the rhythmic beat. "A heartbeat," Mariel Blake, Akinyemi's wife, explains.
There is color everywhere, in the dress, the art and the Kwanzaa table filled with symbols of the celebration.
"It isn't a religious event," Mariel Blake says. "It is to point with pride to our history, all the things African-Americans have added to this country. We have a long history, not just of slavery. We celebrate our past, the rituals of the past; it goes back millions of years." She explains how the celebration has spread in recent years and now is observed all over the world by millions of people.
Blake and her husband are both educators. She teaches 7th and 8th grade at Montessori School, and he is an assistant principal at Charlotte Amalie High School.
Together they lead the morning ceremony, along with Kuumba Leba Ola-Niyi, another educator, who explains to his mostly young audience just what Kwanzaa is. He says it was started in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a California graduate student. Resplendent in bright gold clothing, Ola-Niyi doesn't spend a lot of time with details for his young audience. "When was it founded?" he asks. "1966," the children reply.
"That's right. Now, who are some of the people we are celebrating?" "Martin Luther King," comes from the audience. Then, "Malcolm X," and, getting closer to home, "Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey."
The children are entranced as the Blakes pour a libation from the Kikombe cup in honor of the ancestors and elders. They sit silently during a prayer.
Then comes the morning's big event — the lighting of the Kinara, the candles in a holder that represents the stalk from which life springs. The seven principles of Kwanzaa, the Nguzo Saba,– one for each of the seven days of the celebration — are read as each candle is lit. The children watch intently as different adults light the candles, while another reads the principles:
Day 1 – Umoja for unity.
Day 2 – Kujichagulia for self-determination.
Day 3 – Ujima for working together.
Day 4 – Ujamaa for supporting one another.
Day 5 – Nia for purpose.
Day 6 – Kuumba for creativity.
Day 7 – Imani for faith in ourselves and the world.
The room is sprinkled with older siblings and adults. The University of the Virgin Islands is represented by David Edgecombe, director of the Reichhold Center, who keeps perfect time to the drummers as he sits to the other side of a table bearing the mkeka, a straw mat on which the Kwanzaa symbols sit.
The other symbols are the Mishumaa, the seven candles of Kwanzaa; Zawadi, the gifts; Karamu, the feast; and Muhindi, ears of corn. A household is supposed to have one ear of corn for each child.
Patrice Johnson, UVI public information director, takes part in the candlelighting while keeping an eye on her 3-year-old daughter, Kameron. Caught up in the excitement, Kameron attaches herself to Michael Feracho, 16, an Antilles School junior who has volunteered to help with the program. "I don't know her; she just likes me," Feracho says, grinning, as Kameron holds tightly to his hand. Feracho has been celebrating Kwanzaa since he was a student of Mariel Blake's in the 8th grade at Montessori. "I learned from her then," he says.
Another Antilles student volunteer, senior Lorenzo Donastorg, 18, says "I enjoy doing it." He also is a regular volunteer at the library.
Attorney Archie Jennings is present with his 11-year-old daughter, Ariel. Like many others, Jennings says he has been celebrating Kwanzaa just in the last "four or five years." And, like many others, Jennings says it is an annual observance now.
After the candle lighting, the Blakes lead a rousing round of "Habari Gani", challenging each side of the room for the best, or loudest, answer. It is a toss-up for the answer but not for the enthusiasm. The morning ends with more music, songs and greetings as everyone moves to the library courtyard for some libations and food before an afternoon of arts, crafts and storytelling.

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