December 18, 2005

A holiday by any name, Kenyans will celebrate

By C. Bryson Hull and Wangui Kanina

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Call a holiday for any reason, by any
name, and Kenyans will celebrate it.

In the East African nation of 32 million, it takes very
little to persuade wananchi -- as the public is known in
Swahili -- to take the day off to dance, eat roasted meat known
as nyama choma, drink and relax.

So the debate over what to call Christmas in the United
States, given sensitivities over religious holidays like
Hanukkah and the largely African-American celebration of
Kwanzaa which come at the same time of year, baffles Kenyans
who embrace festivities -- theirs and others -- with equal

"Whether Jesus was born in a manger, whether there is Santa
Claus or whatever, at the end of the day everybody has a right
to celebrate what they believe," said Bruno Selebwa, a
24-year-old who works with computers.

With a population of more than 40 ethnic groups
encompassing a cornucopia of religions, Kenyans say they are a
model of religious tolerance.

"We have lots of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists,
traditional religions, people who worship trees and God knows
what else, but that has never been an issue," Selebwa said.

Political correctness about religious festivities? Not in a
country where the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr is a holiday
just like Christmas.

"For us, (Christmas) is a public holiday to look forward
to, just like the way my Christian friends were looking forward
to the Eid holiday," said receptionist Fatma Mohammed, a
26-year-old clad in traditional Muslim garb.

"We work and we do not get a break so it is a time to get a
break from work."


But Kwanzaa puzzles the Kenyans who know about it -- and
many who were asked about it in downtown Nairobi did not.

Created in the United States during the 1960s in the midst
of the civil rights struggle and the Black Power movement as a
pan-African cultural celebration, its melding of African
traditions based on harvest festivals has found strong
acceptance there.

Not in Kenya, where it might be the only holiday Kenyans
would not celebrate.

Anne Ouma, a 21-year-old student at the University of
Nairobi, said she had only heard of Kwanzaa by reading about it
in Ebony magazine.

"It is something they made up, created, because they did
not fit into the American society. Basically I see it as a
desperate attempt to connect with Africa or 'the motherland' as
they say," she said.

Margaret Mugo, a 32-year-old telecommunications manager,
said Kwanzaa was "black Americans aspiring for or reaching out
to a greater sense of belonging to the African race."

"That is why they have come up with Kwanzaa, which is a
Swahili word meaning 'first,"' Mugo said.

"They even spell it wrong," she said.

An extra "A" was purposefully added to the end of the
correct Swahili spelling, according the official Kwanzaa Web