Kwanzaa organizers’ efforts bear fruit

They hope event will become local tradition

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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It was a celebration of African-American people, culture and roots Saturday night.

Around 20 people turned out to New Direction Community Church to listen to songs, watch an African fashion show, hear African drumming and learn about the seven principles and Kwanzaa. The night was followed up with Karamu, a feast of African foods.

Celebrating Kwanzaa came later in life to event organizer Ruby Lewis’ family. It started with her mom, Marcella Leonard, who wanted something other than Christmas culture for her children. Soon the family started learning Swahili and the history and culture of African people.

“It’s not that she was dissing every other culture. It’s that she said we don’t know anything about where we come from,” Lewis said. “I wanted to be part of it.”

Today, with the help of other volunteers, the two women are the drivers behind the event. They hold it in the middle of the month rather than on Dec. 26, the official start of the holiday, so they can connect with college students and avoid competing with people’s Christmas plans.

Today’s was the first official Kwanzaa Celebration held in Vancouver.

Ruby Lewis said that the event was held in town once before at a private residence in 2014. The following two years, a celebration took place at Portland Community College.

Flag-bearer saluted

This year’s event paid tribute to Emmanuel James Holifield, who died in April of a brain tumor at 12 years old. At past Kwanzaa Celebrations, Holifield was the flag-bearer. This year his cousin Marianna Leonard filled that role. Holifield’s mother Zoezita, was presented with the flag in his memory.

Now that the holiday is celebrated in Vancouver, Lewis’ goal is to make it a pillar the community can gather around.

“I feel like if we start in Vancouver and progress to Portland — because there’s not a lot of African-American stuff here I think it’ll progress even more,” Lewis said. “I would like to see a growing population of African-Americans show up for events like this. I think it’s important (they) know where they come from because our African-American children don’t know.”

Kwanzaa, part of a Swahili phrase that roughly translates to “first fruits,” is a week-long holiday that began in the United States and has since spread around the world.

It was created by Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga and first celebrated in 1966-67. Karenga wanted to help African-Americans reconnect with their African historical heritage and culture.