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Jamaica kicks off Kwanza festivities

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Ballet International Africans performs. Photo by Nat Valentine
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John Watsui Branch, executive director of The Afrikan Poetry Theatre, lights a Kwanzaa candle. Photo by Nat Valentine
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Dancers from the Devore Dance Center take the stage. Photo by Nat Valentine
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Children are handed presents at the end of the event. Photo by Nat Valentine

The Afrikan Poetry Theatre hosted its annual Kwanzaa celebration at MS 8 in Jamaica Friday, honoring the 45-year-old holiday with music, food and a reflective look back at African culture and tradition. Dozens of revelers in southeast Queens turned out for the event.

Although the festivities could not be held at the usual venue at Rochdale Village due to a scheduling conflict, families from all over the borough came out to the 167th Street school to enjoy the six-hour program.

“I’ve been to a lot of celebrations all over the city, but this one is special, is entirely Queens-based,” said John Watusi Branch, executive director of the Afrikan Poetry Theatre.

The celebration began with a presentation of the history of Kwanzaa by Branch and an explanation of its significance in African-American culture.

Created by activist Maulana Karenga in 1966, the holiday lasts from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, with each day representing one of its seven principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

Branch said the holiday was created to complement the other December holidays and honor culture and community instead of religion.

“It’s a harvest celebration,” he explained. “People worked together to plant the seed, reap the soil and come together, and we’re doing that in a different way.”

The days are marked with the lighting of the Kwanzaa wreath and at the end of each day and the presentation of Zawadi, or gifts, to children.

Some of the young visitors gave back with several live performances on the school’s stage. The celebration included dances from the Batingua Arts Ensemble, the Devore Dance Co., the Edge School of the Arts and other groups from the area.

“All of the performers are from Queens and it brings them together,” Branch said.

Aside from the music, several vendors were on hand to sell various African-based goods, including clothing, sculptures and artwork. Many of the visitors came to the school early so they could have a first shot at the merchandise.

Wasima Brown has been bringing some of her family members to the celebration for years and said it has been getting bigger and better with age.

“It’s part of our cultural history,” she said. “It doesn’t replace Christmas — it is part of our holiday celebration.”

Branch said that even after the sights and sounds are done, the spirit of the holiday lasts all year.

“I hope they understand the seven principles. If they use them, it will make their life better,” he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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