I have a problem with Kwanzaa.

It's not that the holiday is a total fabrication--all holidays are fabricated. Nor do I care that is has been commercialized, that there are Kwanzaa cards, candles, and self-help books. Indeed, which holiday in America is not commercialized? No, the reason I don't celebrate or recognize Kwanzaa is because the language and practices of that occasion are drawn from an African tribe that is not mine.

I'm Manica, which is a tribe settled in the eastern, mountainous region of Zimbabwe. I recognize my tribe first, and then to a much, much lesser extent my country, whose borders were invented by the British. As for Kwanzaa, I don't know the tribe that does and says such things as "Umoja" and "Ujima"; and if I did know them I still wouldn't celebrate their holiday because it is not a Manica holiday. I don't celebrate Zulu holidays, nor do I celebrate the holidays of the Masai people, and so why should I celebrate the holiday of the tribe that says things like "Umoja" and "Ujima"?

I'm a tribalist--but who in or from black Africa is not? There are no real nationalities in Africa, just real tribes. And those who don't take tribalism seriously know absolutely nothing about the black African experience. Almost all wars, massacres, and power struggles in present-day black Africa are a result of tribal rivalry. In Rwanda, to give an extreme example, a million Tutsis were cut down by Hutus, and the potential for Rwanda-style violence exists in every sub-Saharan African nation. The tribe is the root of a black African's being. You can send him to Europe, have him drink thousands of bottles of Bordeaux and learn Hegel by heart, and still you will not erase the tribe stuff from his soul.

Even someone like me, someone who knows firsthand the atrocities committed in the name of tribalism, cannot free himself from its hold. I'm Western; I was educated in Africa at British schools and in America at American schools; English is my language. I have never worn anything that could be remotely called traditional Manica clothes (unless my parents put it on me when I was a baby). I rarely eat Manica foods. I have visited Manicaland only once in the past 15 years. When I lived in Zimbabwe 20 years ago, I stayed in the capital, Harare, which is a very European city. When I went to visit my grandmother in the cold mountains of Manicaland, it was always with dread--there were no lights there, no paved roads, no proper toilets, and none of my elders spoke English. Eighty percent of my life has been lived in the West and in the West's orbit; I'm a touch Zimbabwean. But I'm pure Manica. My loyalty is with that tribe only. Now imagine a black African who is not as Westernized as I am? Imagine his sense of loyalty.

Kwanzaa was constructed in the mid-1960s, at the height of the Black Power movement in America, to give black Americans a real connection with Africa--a chance to use real, i.e., tribal, African words, admire real, i.e., tribal, African art, and perform real, i.e., tribal, African customs. For real Africans, however, there is no universal appeal of the "tribal," there is only our tribe. And the realities of tribalism are fearsome. In fact, one black American reporter, Keith B. Richburg, who made a trip to the motherland in 1994 and saw with his very own eyes the mass misery that tribalism caused in Central and East Africa, considered himself lucky that his ancestors were taken away in slave ships.

Kwanzaa gets a lot of its inspiration from Swahili, and, as a consequence, from East African countries where that language is used, countries like Kenya and Tanzania, countries, further more, that have their own tribes, tribes that have nothing to do with us Manicas. The creator of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga, is not ignorant of this fact; indeed, his whole aim was, and still is, the unification of Africa, and with good reason: It is impossible for the descendents of blacks stolen from West Africa 400 years ago to determine which tribe they came from because they came from so many tribes. Black Americans are a mix of black African tribes, and so the only way they can identify with Africa is with the continent as a whole. This is why the Afrocentric movement, which Dr. Karenga is a part of, can cobble into one seamless reality the ancient civilization of Egypt with that of the Zulus, the ancient civilization of Great Zimbabwe with that of the Yoruba people.

To his credit, Karenga was right to use Swahili as the language of the holiday he invented. In the early, heady years of African liberation ('50s and '60s), Swahili was supposed to become the language of a United States of Africa. It was an African language that would replace the dominant European ones, a language that would connect Africans in Lagos with Africans in Nairobi with Africans in Cape Town. But this Swahili unity thing never happened. The dream of a pan-African language has remained to this day simply just that--a dream. Why? Because which tribe does the language of Swahili come from? And if you can name that tribe, now tell me why should the Manica, to take one example, speak some other tribe's language and abandon their own? And besides, what if Manicas don't like the way the people in that other tribe dance? What if they go up and down and not side to side, the way we do, the way our ancestors have for hundreds of years?

While African Americans enjoy their invented tribal holiday, real Africans look to America as an escape from tribalism. Indeed, the best possible gifts that black Americans could give black Africa are their tribal-less music, customs, books, hairstyles, and dances. A holiday that celebrated the traditions and practices of a tribal-less black America would probably be more useful to black Africans as a whole than one that got at all involved in the messy and usually bloody business of tribalism.

There is an example already in language: English, the language of the oppressors, unifies black Africans because it is not the native language of any black African tribe. English also unifies black Africans with black Americans. Similarly, the fact that black Americans are not attached to a tribe (or tribes) means that they have created a unified African-American culture, one that offers Africans a better example for unification than anything you would find in Africa itself.

Black American hiphop, for example, has connected the urban realties of Dakar, Johannesburg, and the Bronx. And black American heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. are recognized and admired by all black Africans because they don't represent a tribe but a color, and the experiences shared by those of that color. If King says, "Let freedom ring!" all black Africans will rise up and clap their hands. But if he says, "Umoja," many will not clap but wonder which tribe he is from, and why a member of this African tribe gets to give a speech rather than a member of their own tribe.

Let's leave this Kwanzaa tribal business alone and reconstruct an occasion that connects us to the fact of being black.

charles@thestranger.com

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