London children celebrate Kwanzaa - and enjoy themselves while learning about Africa's cultural heritage, says Maureen McTaggart.
Bing Crosby's dream of a white Christmas doesn't cut ice with everyone. Many pupils in east London may hope for snow, but they are also looking forward to a black Christmas - and they aren't dreaming.
For them, there will be more to the festive season this year than tubes of glitter, fake snow and that fat old geezer with the sack of presents. Instead of celebrating with the mandatory Yuletide tear-jerkers, which are fun for parents but teach children little, schools in Hackney have decided to re-create a 30-year-old spiritual celebration used by African-Americans to honour the past, evaluate the present and commit to a better future.
The Assembly Rooms at Hackney Town Hall, setting for many a political meeting, were pounding to the rhythm of conga drums as the borough's black students celebrated their culture with their families and friends in a multi-racial event.
Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits of the harvest" in KiSwahili, was originally a celebration of the end of harvest. It isn't a religious festival, nor an alternative to Christmas. Celebrated over seven days, from December 26 to New Year's Day, it is a time to focus on self, history, culture and tradition. But, more importantly, it is also a time to concentrate on family and community, which is what Christmas should be about - Mary and Joseph pulling together under difficult circumstances.
The East African celebration has been introduced to Hackney by Paa C Quaye, writer, lecturer in dance and drama and artistic director of Ujamaa Arts Project. Funded by Dalston City Partnerships and Hackney's Education and Leisure Services, it promotes AfricanCaribbean dance, drama, music and mask making at play schemes, schools and adult education institutions in the borough.
For six years, Kwanzaa has featured on Ujamaa's agenda. This year, Quaye worked with pupils from five of the borough's junior schools and two youth groups, introducing them to the Kwanzaa philosophy - through dance, drama and music. Several months of collaboration culminated in the performance at Hackney Town Hall. "The idea is not just to let them perform in public," Quaye says. "It is to educate them about black people and the diaspora of Africa."
Celebrated by 13 million people in north and south America and the Caribbean, Kwanzaa has its own symbols: Mkeka, a straw mat which means reverence for tradition; Kikombe Cha Umoja, the cup of unity; Mazao, fruits and vegetables; Muhindi, an ear of corn representing children and their well-being; Kinara, a seven-stem candleholder symbolising the origins of humanity; Mishumaa Saba, seven candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa; Zawadi, gifts for the children, their rewards for being good and responsible.
Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, co-operative economic development, purpose, creativity and faith are the seven principles on which the festival centres. Once familiar with them, the students choose one to work with - developing a storyline, characters, choreography and music in collusion with Quaye.
Holy Trinity C of E primary, one of the five schools involved, has a largely AfricanCaribbean intake and its Year 6 pupils opted to perfom their interpretation of Umoja (unity) which has them resolving a neighbourhood dispute. "The whole philosophy behind Kwanzaa, particularly the unity aspect, is good for our pupils," says Sharman Masterson, Holy Trinity's acting head. "Although it was hard to fit the workshops into the timetable, it was useful and exciting."
Each school allowed 10 weeks for rehearsals. Nine weeks into the proceedings staff reported that children gained in confidence, even those who didn't have speaking parts. "There are some children in the play who are very outgoing characters, but there are others who wouldn't normally like to have attention focused on them. But over time they became unselfconscious, demanding leading roles in the production," says Miss Masterson.
All the participating schools would normally put on some kind of Christmas play or end-of-term presentation. "These were commercial productions that came with a set script," says Miss Masterson. "Kwanzaa is different - preparation takes place over a longer period, and is developed from improvisation and scripted with the help of the children."
Not all the children wanted to take part. Sajid Rashid, of Sebright juniors, says: "It was difficult to persuade the parents of Muslim students that it would be beneficial to their children. Eventually, out of 12, five agreed - and none of them regretted it."
At Ujamaa's Saturday morning youth group's session, the last before the performance, lead players in the production were still struggling with lines to be learnt and movements to be perfected. "How many of you have looked at the script since last Saturday?" asks Quaye.
One hand goes up - tentatively. "I thought so. If you are not word-perfect by next week, I will have to cut the script because I don't want to be embarrassed in front of all those people at the Town Hall."
u But, in the best theatrical tradition, it is all right on the night. By 7.30pm, there is standing room only in the Assembly Rooms, as a rich ethnic mix of families watch the actors storm on to the stage and ask: "Habari Gani - what's the news?" Seven youngsters bring on the symbols representing seven days of celebration. After the meaning of Kwanzaa is explained, a pupil comes on to light the first of seven candles, heralding the performance of the first principle - Umoja (unity).
At the end of each section, another candle is lit, until all seven are blazing. There follows two hours of energetic dancing, singing and acting from a rainbow tribe of children who are really enjoying themselves. So too is the audience - judging by the whoops that follow every sketch or dance sequence.
The evening is brought to a close by a traditional African dance. The tumultous appreciation echoes long after the last performer has left. "Harambee" is the felicitation on people's lips as they make their way home, full of the joys of Kwanzaa.
Ujamaa Arts Project, 30 Cavendish Mansions, Clapton Square, London E5 8HR. Tel: 0181 986 0915.