Today, I offer a belated reflection on the fifth Kwanzaa principle, Nia, “Purpose”
Traditionally speaking, Nia requires us to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
I’m assuming that the traditional greatness Nia imagines refers to the traditions of African communities on the continent. This is an uncomfortable starting point for LGBT folk. Homosexuality is illegal in over 50 African countries, and several Caribbean ones, despite the incredible work of activists on the continent and in the diasporas. History texts are usually written from a patriarchal heterosexist lens and do little to shed light on the experiences of ancient folk who would now be considered “LGBT” – at least in North America.
Where does a queer Afrikan find out about our traditional greatness, in order to ground our Purpose?
The Sankofa practice – loosely translated as the importance of looking back in order to go forward – gives me a little bit of allowance to take bits (lessons, lore, practices) from the past to guide future steps.
For example, here are three traditions that I have learned from my family that help me live Nia.
- Collective Problem-Solving: My mother tells me that when she was a child, and there was ever a problem that needed to be discussed, it would be done around a table, at a family meeting. She laments that families don’t do this as much now and she deeply believes in putting everything out on the table and then figuring out a solution. I think that this tradition is beautiful and critical for problems in families, communities, nations and beyond. I don’t know it’s origin, but I do know that as the branches of my family tree extend, we will strive to continue this practice. The act of gathering to solve a problem collectively offers opportunities for individuals to bring their strengths to the table for the collective good.
- Eldership: I was taught to respect my elders and to honour the wisdom that comes with age. I strive to remain in a place of respect. There are, of course, instances where that respect wanes or disappears altogether. That is, there are some older adults, who, because of their behaviours can no longer assume eldership status and don’t deserve my deference.
- Discipline and Routine: Another lesson I learned from my parents, and that is reflected in my relatives is routine and discipline. My parents lead lives rich in ritual and discipline. It’s amazing. Because there are certain things that remain unchanged despite the passing decades, they are in some ways like a well-oiled machine. While in my youth, this used to bother me a bit, because I equated it with inflexibility (still true in some instances) I also see how discipline and routine can free up creative energies for other things. For example, my mother wrote a book – a spiritual autobiography called Jesus Opened my Eyes – Faith Alive – in her 70s while continuing her everyday routine in the home.
Practising collective problem-solving, honouring eldership and cultivating discipline have roots that trace back to an Afrikan past somewhere, and can support development of Purpose.
Traditional Greatness Reloaded?
What if Nia was equally about developing Purpose through the creation of new traditional greatness? What if we imagined forward?
Nia: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to, and beyond, their traditional greatness.
Afrofturism does this for me. Take a look at this image for example:
This is Lady Sankofa, as imagined by artist James Mason for the Onyxcon Convention, a place where, as eloquently expressed by Ingrid LaFleur and Wanuri Kahiu in their talks on Afrofuturism, the traditional greatness of the past meets speculative technologies of the future.
Such reloaded Nia is reflected in the work of Afrikan academics and activists such as Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, Dr. Naila Keleta-Mae, Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Dr. Breeze Harper who are reimagining ways forward while maintaining a mindfulness of various traditions. Sankofa in action. Follow the links to look more at their work.
The work of these women are a reminder that the term ‘technology’ is not limited to hard tech like computers, phones, vehicles or dwellings, but it also refers to soft tech, like the technology of community, family, relationships and self. Imagining and reimagining ways to survive, heal and grow. This is where I want my practice of Nia to be situated.
Nia Challenge: Invest in individuals who are dedicating their talents to producing new traditions in which all of us can ground in Purpose.
Thanks for reading!