Woman spreads spirit of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa begins Friday, and Nia Imani’s family is ready to celebrate.
Thursday, December 25, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:48 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Nia Imani’s name is a testament to the message of Kwanzaa.

More than two decades ago, she changed her first and last name to glorify the Kwanzaa principles that most inspire her.

Nia means purpose. Imani means faith.

“That’s what it means for me,” she said. “To help me determine my purpose in life and having the faith to obtain it.”

Imani’s three children, daughter-in law and two grandchildren all share that sacred name.

“Kwanzaa is for all of us,” Imani said. “But it’s really for our kids.”

Imani, a Columbia native, will light the first candle on her Kinara and display three ears of corn, one for each of her children, when Kwanzaa begins Friday. By the holiday’s conclusion Jan. 1, the Kinara will hold seven candles, each symbolizing a principle of Kwanzaa.

“It’s a time for you to review your life,” she said.

Imani’s life was changed when she attended her first Kwanzaa celebration 23 years ago while attending Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. She was a single mother and full-time student searching for direction — “something to guide me in my life,” she said.

Imani will never forget how alive she felt during that first Kwanzaa celebration. Hundreds of African-Americans gathered as a community for cleansing and clarity.

This year, her family will celebrate Kwanzaa at home. Each person will study a different principle and present it to the group. This can be in the form of a song, a skit or a simple discussion. Regardless of the format, the idea is to focus on ways to improve as an individual, a family and a community.

“Look at who you are and what you want to be,” Imani said.

Tiye Imani-Gaidi, 17, attends Hickman High School and has grown up with Kwanzaa.

“I’m more culturally conscious than other people at my school,” she said. Not all African-Americans celebrate the holiday.

MU graduate student Jere Tobias said he had heard of Kwanzaa growing up in St. Louis but never took part in it because he assumed it was a religious holiday,

“A lot of African-Americans know what Kwanzaa is, but they don’t know the seven principles because it’s not a family tradition,” he said. “More African-Americans need to be made aware of it.”

That’s Imani’s mission.

For the past several years, she has organized the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department’s annual pre-Kwanzaa celebration, held on the first Saturday of December. She dreams of a celebration with hundreds of community members, much like her first Kwanzaa in Indianapolis 23 years ago.

“I’d like to see that happen here,” she said. “I’d like to get as many people learning about Kwanzaa as possible. It doesn’t end at the first of the year. It’s a jump-start on the rest of the year.”

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