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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    Kwanzaa feast tells story of heartiness and resilience in New London

    Adwoa Bandele-Asante and her husband, Ibiju, pose for a portrait Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, at their business, P.E.A.C.E. Works Group LLC in New London. At right is a kinara, a seven-branched candleholder used in Kwanzaa celebrations, that Ibiju made. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    New London — Adwoa and Ibiju "Baba" Bandele-Asante set a table to celebrate Kwanzaa, the far-flung flavors of the African diaspora coming together in earthenware bowls to nourish and unite those gathered around.

    There were collard greens, rice, black-eyed peas and yams: symbols of resiliency and health that represent both the holiday and the New London couple's outlook on life.

    The seven-day Kwanzaa holiday comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits." It has its roots in traditional harvest celebrations around which California-based professor and activist Maulana Karenga grew the holiday in 1966.

    Adwoa said Karenga was looking for a way to "establish ties that bind" among people of African descent. She described Karenga's extensive travels and research as he sought to recover and reconstruct an African culture that had been dispersed all over the world through the slave trade.

    It was about finding commonalities that would unify people across the broad pan-African landscape, according to Adwoa.

    "You wouldn't try to use language; there's way too many of them," she said. "You wouldn't try to use religion; it ends up oftentimes being divisive as opposed to unifying."

    So Karenga used the harvest.

    The holiday theme encompasses thanks to the creator, honor to ancestors and a call for sustenance "to keep us strong and able-bodied so we can be responsible as adults, have a good quality of life as elders and grow healthy youth that come to take our place," Adwoa said.

    In a taste of the celebration held each year from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Adwoa and Baba earlier this month brought together friends to share their tradition. Both wore aprons with the pan-African colors of red, yellow and green. Adwoa's headwrap of earthy green and gold evoked the continent, while Baba's tall, knit, flat-top hat conveyed his Caribbean roots.

    The couple invited their neighbor Ben Abraham. They invited Sharmaine Gregor, an environmental advocate and staff member at the community-based agriculture and youth empowerment organization FRESH New London. They invited active community volunteer Debbie Phillips.

    Adwoa and Baba's youngest daughter, Isis, home for the holiday break from the country's oldest African-owned and -operated boarding school in Mississippi, joined them.

    Baba cooked the vegan meal using skills honed through culinary school in Washington, D.C., as he took advantage of ingredients from his own Caribbean background as well as other African traditions. His wife gave voice to their cultural significance.

    There is heartiness in the food that flourished in Africa and came with the slaves who were taken away, she said.

    "Oftentimes captive Africans in this country, after they did their work for massuh, they would have their own fields to tend to," she said. "So collards would grow without a lot of attention, because you're talking about people who are working from sunup to sundown six days a week, sometimes seven."

    The black-eyed pea, also a traditional New Year's Day staple, represents prosperity, health and endurance.

    "We as a people are resilient," she said. "No matter what challenges we're given, we're here today, still."

    Nguzo Saba

    There are seven principles of Kwanzaa known in Swahili as the Nguzo Saba: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

    Karamu, typically held on Dec. 31, serves as the communal feast day.

    "When we sit down and have our meals, we reiterate those principles, we discuss them, and we talk about how we can practice these principles throughout the year, not just during the time of Kwanzaa," Adwoa said.

    This holiday season, the couple used the seven principles as a framework for their goal of finding their own commercial kitchen so they can create a community gathering place with a focus on fresh food. More than a place to sit down and eat — though it will accommodate that, too — Adwoa said she envisions it as a spot where organizations can work together to help sustain people, sustain the environment and sustain the local economy.

    Educated in the New London Public Schools, Adwoa went on to earn a bachelor's degree in international relations from Connecticut College and a master's degree in political science from Howard University. She is a teacher, tutor and performer who does the self-proclaimed "best post-Civil War reenactment of Harriet Tubman you're ever going to find."

    Baba has worked as a chef and a bottler of various juices he makes in the Caribbean tradition out of ingredients like hibiscus, ginger, pineapple and lemon.

    The couple, who have four daughters, said food and nutrition have always been an integral part of their family life.

    "Now, they all don't have our diet, don't get me wrong," Adwoa said of her daughters. "But they all started vegan, and we hope that they'll all return to that path one day. They are experiencing the world and we just want them to be healthy and choose wise."

    Baba, who described himself as living a "yogi life" based on proper nutrition, exercise, breathing, relaxation and positive thinking, said there's a need for more groups like FRESH New London that play an important role in making healthy food more accessible.

    "I feel if we had more natural foods for average people, you wouldn't need too much medicine. Nature can never make mistakes; nature is on point," he said.

    Ben Abraham said the meal and the historical context were his first introduction to Kwanzaa. "I enjoyed this," he said. "What I'm taking from this is positivity."

    Sharmaine Gregor said she hasn't yet forged her own Kwanzaa traditions, but she likes to celebrate with those who have.

    Adwoa said it's important to her to share the holiday with others, especially younger people, so they have the tools to build it into their own family life in the future if they're so inclined.

    "It's all about keeping the community strong and supportive of one another," she said.

    e.regan@theday.com

    From left, Ibiju Bandele-Asante, his wife, Adwoa, and daughter Isis, 15, pose for a portrait Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, at their business, P.E.A.C.E. Works Group LLC in New London. At right is a kinara, a seven-branched candleholder used in Kwanzaa celebrations, that Ibiju made. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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