Keeping Kwanzaa alive: Followers celebrate African roots of the black community

Standing in front of nearly two dozen people at Williams Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on Thursday, and wearing traditional African dress, Dr. Adeleri Onisegun sang “Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa is an African feast.”


She performed a few simple dance steps and encouraged those in attendance to join her as she sang.

A few minutes earlier, Onisegun and her husband, Obajalaiye Ifaghbemro, recited the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday in which blacks celebrate their African heritage. The Seven Principles – Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith – are celebrated and reflected upon in the homes of followers daily throughout the week.

Several churches throughout the area hold Kwanzaa services each year, though it is a cultural celebration.

“Kwanzaa is not religious,” Onisegun said. “It is based on these principles, and many churches maintain the idea of the principles and incorporate them into their religious traditions.”

This is the second year the couple has presented the Kwanzaa program at the church, though the church has held the celebration for many years.

Onisegun, an associate professor of psychology at Paine College, and Ifaghbemro, a business student at Paine College, maintain strong ties to their African heritage. Onisegun was born in the Caribbean and Ifaghbemro is from Louisiana. They have both made several trips to Africa and embrace many aspects of the African culture, Onisegun said.

They displayed some of the items they acquired during their respective trips at Thursday’s Kwanzaa celebration.

Vendors were invited to bring handmade items for display, with 20 percent of all sales donated to the church to be used for children’s programs.

The items on display at Onisegun’s and Ifaghbemro’s table included dresses Onisegun brought back from Rwanda, as well as incense and handmade place mats. She said people often ask questions about the items, which gives her another chance to share her heritage.

“A great deal of time is spent talking about the pieces – what they mean, where they come from, who made them. It’s an educational process. A great deal of it is sharing what they are and what they mean,” she said.

She said the vendors also demonstrate one of the principles of Kwanzaa: Cooperative economics.

“The idea is that if you support people in the community that are trying to build their cooperative economy, you’re supporting something broader than just an individual,” she said.

The program included a drum demonstration, a poetry reading and traditional foods like cornbread and black-eyed peas.

The Rev. Paul Gardner, pastor of Williams Memorial, said though participation in Kwanzaa seems to be falling off, his church will continue to hold Kwanzaa celebrations and hopes to inspire more young people to embrace the holiday and pass it on.

“It’s a foundation of our community,” he said. “If we do our job well, then generations to come will benefit for 140 years and beyond.”