Years ago, after coming out to my family as non-heterosexual, I left Christianity in search of a spiritual practice that embraced all of who I am. Kwanzaa found me during that search. That’s why I celebrate it faithfully every year.
Today, I honour Umoja, which means ‘Unity’ in Swahili and is the first principle of the Nguzo Saba.
Umoja is misunderstood.
A mentor once challenged my use of the term unity as a goal for Afrikan communities. He asked me if we truly need to be united in order to advance?
I took his point.
Unity, Umoja, is a concept often misused, usually in times of conflict, by people and organizations seeking to influence the thoughts, values, and actions of others. That’s why so many of our leaders and celebrities get away with rape and other forms of violence.
Our misunderstanding of unity combined with our fear of abandonment prevents us from holding people properly accountable for their wrongdoing.
Observing Kwanzaa and reflecting on Umoja provide us with alternative ways to be together.
Umoja in My Life
My first observation of Kwanzaa had all the things I wanted in a holiday: ritual, food, coming together, and dance. Since I was celebrating with other queer folks of colour, our identities were front and centre. No need to kiss our partners quickly in secret or to tone down our fabulousness.
At the time, I had never been in a spiritual space with other Afrikans who, like me, had same-sex partners. The possibilities of ‘home’ were endless and it deeply enriched me. That was my first true experience of Umoja.
My most recent experience of Umoja was yesterday, ironically, at a family Christmas gathering. It had all the things I wanted in a holiday: ritual, food, coming together, community values. My fiancee and I were likely the only non-heterosexual people in the room and heads were bowed in Christian prayer. But somewhere along the way, that has become less of a deal-breaker for me.
I’ve come to understand Umoja as a process.
As I looked around the room yesterday, especially as I saw my mother embrace my fiancee, I felt a deeper sense of home and unity than I did the first time I celebrated Kwanzaa.
My mom and I don’t need to have the same beliefs as one another in order to experience unity, and to follow the Umoja path.
Multiple truths can (and do) exist simultaneously.
Unity is the process by which we accept this and use the power gained by this as a way to advance together as colleagues, comrades, lovers, families, communities.
But, I’ve not completely figured this out.
I see a problem with my reasoning.
If multiple truths are to exist simultaneously, then what about those so-called ‘truths’ which are morally or factually wrong? Those ‘truths’ that underpin oppression, for example?
Fair point. I’m not sure. That’s where I get stuck, especially when dealing with conflict. So, this year, I’ll spend some time on this question, and use it to frame my Umoja challenge.
Umoja Challenge: When in conflict, attempt unity first.
What’s your Umoja reflection or challenge?
Thank you for reading!