HACKENSACK, N.J. – For Marlene Ware, a teacher at Teaneck High School, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to demystify Africa.

“A lot of African-Americans to this day really don’t acknowledge the role that Africa has in the world,” Ware said.

As organizer of the high school’s annual Kwanzaa celebration, which was held earlier this month, Ware uses the holiday to demonstrate the importance of Africa to people of all races.

She understands that Kwanzaa, which began Sunday, can be of particular value to young African-Americans. Ware said many young people have distorted impressions of Africa, and Kwanzaa can correct that.

“We’re really hoping it does raise self-esteem, particularly of African-Americans about their culture. They really don’t know about Africa,” she said.

In addition to organizing the high school’s Kwanzaa festival, Ware teaches African dance and organizes trips to the continent every few years. At the Kwanzaa celebration on Dec. 12, Ware had classes teaching African drumming and jewelry-making as well as a ceremony explaining the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

“It’s a time when the community comes together and celebrates African culture, and that’s why we did it.”

Families and educators look to Kwanzaa as a way to educate young people, particularly young African-Americans, about Africa as well as the struggles blacks have faced in the United States.

“It invites family time and family unity and it gives them another sense of who they are,” said Keli Drew Lockhart-Ba of Trenton, a psychologist who celebrates the holiday with her family and runs a business, Creative Memories, that constructs family scrapbooks for special occasions like Kwanzaa.

“It connects people to their heritage,” said Verushka Spirito, associate director for performances at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, which held its annual children’s festival earlier this month and drew about 5,000 youths from around the state. The event included African dance classes, where young people attempted to soar and twirl down the dance floor, as well as face-painting, music concerts and storytelling.

Kwanzaa was first observed in 1966. It was created by Maulana Karenga, now the chairman of the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach, as a way for African-Americans to celebrate their roots in Africa. It is now observed by millions of people around the world.

The holiday’s name comes from the Swahili matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits.” And Kwanzaa uses as its inspiration for its ceremonies the early harvest celebrations in Africa.

Kwanzaa celebrates the Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles. They are umoja, or unity; kujichagulia, or self-determination; ujima, or collective work and responsibility; ujamaa, or cooperative economics; nia, or purpose; kuumba, or creativity; and imani, or faith. During each night of the holiday, celebrants light a candle on the kinara, a candleholder similar to a menorah, to recognize each of the principles. Each day a different principle is celebrated.

For Lockhart-Ba, the non-religious nature of the holiday makes it a great way to share a special moment with her family since her husband is Muslim and she is Christian.

“It’s not a religious holiday, it gives our family an opportunity to understand our heritage and we go over all the principles and for each principle we have the kids read them,” Lockhart-Ba said.

Ware said it’s important to tear down stereotypes about Africa.

Bridgette Johnson, a senior at Teaneck High School, said that many of her peers only think of famine and AIDS when they imagine the subcontinent.

“I think when people think of Africa, they think of HIV and the commercials on TV with the hungry kids,” said Johnson. “If people asked me if there is one place I wanted to go, I would say Africa.”

Johnson and Ware, along with 18 other fine- and performing-arts students and another teacher, are traveling to Ghana this spring to experience Africa firsthand. The group, called THREAD – Teaneck High Represents Education Art and Diversity – has held bake sales and talent shows to raise money for its trip, which isn’t officially being sponsored by the board of education.

“Ghana is a big part of the middle passage,” Ware said. The middle passage is the journey African slaves took to reach the United States from Africa. Ghana is one of the countries where slaves were transported to the New World. “It’s really going to be an excellent experience.” The students will exchange lessons with their peers from Ghana during the trip.

Johnson said many friends were shocked she wanted to travel to Ghana.

“When I told a lot of people I was going to Africa they told me, “Don’t talk to me,’ when I get back, “You’ll have AIDS,”‘ Johnson said.

“It’s a chance to get out of America and in school everyone always talk about the facts about Africa and nobody really knows,” said Sade Henry, also a senior at Teaneck High School. “I think we should learn more about Africa.”

Johnson said that if more people celebrated Kwanzaa, there would be a greater understanding of the importance of the continent.

“Unless you celebrate the holiday, you don’t know the gist of it,” Henry said.

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