‘Each one of us has a special purpose’: Lawrence poet, storyteller teaches about Kwanzaa

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People are better when working together, according to Tai Amri Spann-Ryan.

“In Africa they say, ‘One stick can be broken easily. Many sticks together can never be broken,” said Spann-Ryan, Lawrence poet and storyteller.

Spann-Ryan went on to unfold a story about the origins of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration based on African harvest festival traditions.

Children and their families sat in a group together on the floor listening during his Kwanzaa storytime Tuesday evening at the Lawrence Public Library. 

Fellow artist and musician Barry Barnes accompanied Spann-Ryan’s storytelling with his drum, sometimes faintly tapping and other times strumming up commotion as the story intensified.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Barry Barnes

In the story, called “Seven Spools of Thread,” seven Ashanti brothers in Ghana put their differences aside to save their deceased father’s inheritance. In doing so, they learned the power in unity and were able to make their village plentiful. They were “too busy working with their hands to fight” with each other, Spann-Ryan said.

The first Kwanzaa took place in 1966 in Los Angeles. The name is derived from the Swahili phrase, “Matunda ya Kwanza,” meaning “the first fruits.” Another “a” was then tacked on to make the word seven letters and align with the number of principles Kwanzaa teaches about.

Celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, Kwanzaa represents one of its seven principles each day: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). Participants light candles, called Mishumaa Sabaa, for every designated day.

During Tuesday’s event, Spann-Ryan navigated through each principle, allowing the kids to contribute their thoughts and leading everyone through songs and chants. With a lesson came a song.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Tai Amri Spann-Ryan leads attendees in the Harambee chant. Harambee translates to “let’s pull together.”

Ujamaa, meaning cooperative economics, relates to buying locally. Those who honor or celebrate Kwanzaa make a concerted effort to shop from local Black-owned businesses in solidarity during the holiday, flooding support into their communities.

A common theme Tuesday was togetherness — the idea that combining people’s skills and talents is powerful. Day five is all about living in one’s purpose: Nia. Day six encourages creativity.

“Each one of us has a special purpose — something special they come in the world to do,” Spann-Ryan said. “One way we make the world better is by creating with our hands, with our minds and our hearts.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Children weave together mkeka mats, which fruits, vegetables and other symbols are placed on top of during Kwanzaa.

After storytime, children and their families participated in a Kwanzaa craft, weaving their own mkeka mat.

Vegetables and fruits contributed to the event’s Kwanzaa table display will be donated to local food banks, including the Sunrise Project and Just Food, this holiday season.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The seven Kwanzaa candles are called Mishumaa Sabaa in the Swahili language. They sit in a candle holder called Kinara, next to the unity cup, Kikombe cha Umoja, and other harvest symbols.
Zephyr Adams / Lawrence Times Produce from the Kwanzaa display table will be donated this holiday season to Sunrise Project and Just Food in Lawrence.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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