Learning and Living the Principles of Kwanzaa

OYA youth at the MacLaren and Tillamook facilities participated in the traditions and celebrations of Kwanzaa


“Habari gani.”

The phrase meaning “What’s the news” in Swahili was frequently heard at some Oregon Youth Authority facilities recently, as youth celebrated Kwanzaa, a cultural holiday that included food, presentations, and displays brimming with symbolism.

Kwanzaa, which is annually held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, was established in 1966 to give African-Americans an opportunity to celebrate their history and culture.

For youth at Tillamook’s two OYA facilities and at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, the holiday was an opportunity to educate each other in the principles and meaning of the seven-day festival.

The principles (in Swahili) are:

  • Day 1 – “Umoja” or unity
  • Day 2 – “Kujichagulia” or self-determination
  • Day 3 – “Ujima” or collective work and responsibility
  • Day 4 – “Ujamaa” or cooperative economics
  • Day 5 – “Nia” or purpose
  • Day 6 – “Kuumba” or creativity
  • Day 7 – “Imani” or faith

The participating youth also put together displays for Kwanzaa with symbols for the holiday: a mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed, a unity cup (Kikombe cha Umoja) for commemorating and thanking African ancestors, a candle holder (Kinara), and seven candles (Mishumaa Saba) for each day of Kwanzaa. The colors of the candles are also symbolic: Black is for the people, red for the struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from the struggle.

Camp Tillamook and Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility youth enjoyed a holiday meal together, made up of fried chicken, collard greens, black eyed peas, fruit, and lemon cake. Three youth — Mason, William, and Cleavland — led a discussion on the history of the holiday, shared the principles of the day, then gave examples of how the youth can model each principle while being in custody.

At MacLaren, five youth who form the Brothers Reflecting Brotherhood Leadership Team visited every living unit to educate the youth and staff about the principle of the day. On the fifth day, Portland community organizers Samuel Thompson and Bryan Walden visited MacLaren to speak to the youth about “Nia” or purpose.

The Kwanzaa events were facilitated by Roderick Edwards and Johnny Demus, who are staff members of OYA’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR).

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