Sister Makinya Sibeko Kouate, Mother of Kwanzaa: Transitioned to the Realm of Sacred Ancestors, Feb. 4, 2017 (6257 AFK)

Posted on February 7, 2017 by


Sister Makinya Sibeko Kouate, Mother of Kwanzaa  

Transitioned to the Realm of Sacred Ancestors, Feb. 4, 2017 (6257 AFK)

Compiled by Bro. Mxolisi Ozo-Sowande


(The invaluable work and inspiration of Sister Makinya Sibeko Kouate [July 1, 1926 to February 4, 2017] in giving life and power to our Kwanzaa/Nguzo Saba tradition – nationally and internationally — which earned her the title of “Mother of Kwanzaa” in so many of our hearts, was featured in an article by Keith Mayes, “A Holiday of Our Own: Black Nationalist Public Culture and Promotion of Kwanzaa”. That article was included in a 68-page magazine-like journal that the Richmond (VA) Kwanzaa Kollective assembled for their 2017 Kwanzaa gathering, celebrating the 50th anniversary of our beloved “first fruits” heritage celebration. The following are excerpts and paraphrases from that entry.)


Los Angeles was the birthplace of Kwanzaa. But due to Black Power’s growing cultural capital and resonance with African-Americans, the city could not keep the holiday to itself. . . . The more significant story is the holiday’s move to northern California and its promotion by other black activists outside of the US Organization.

The Western Regional Black Youth Conference of 1967 was part of a growing Black Nationalist counter-public where Kwanzaa could be located but with great difficulty. On day two of that conference, a little known speaker named Harriet Smith from Merritt College stood at the podium to address the black student role in the Black Power movement. Harriett Smith of Berkeley, California and student body president at Merritt College in Oakland talked about organizing on campus and the need for black students, particularly at majority white campuses, to seize control of budgets and activity fees. Impressed by Smith’s presentation, Maulana Karenga, widely credited as being the founder of Kwanzaa, approached her to see if she would be willing to start what he described to her as the “community Kwanzaa” in the Bay Area. Karenga also referred to her as “Sister Makinya” – a black woman with strength and dignity as defined by him. “He just blurted it out,” Smith remembered, “Yeah, call that sister, Sister Makinya, she’s Sister Makinya.”

Back in the Bay Area, after perusing the two mimeographed sheets Karenga gave her, she attempted a private Kwanzaa celebration among family and friends on December 26, 1967. The mimeographed outline Karenga had given her lacked instructions on where to place the holiday’s material items so Sister Makinya improvised, arranging the symbols and pre-prepared foods on a table according to her own personal taste. . . . As Sister Makinya perfected the art of Kwanzaa performance and the act of Kwanzaa display, she became the contact person for Kwanzaa celebrations on both sides of the Bay from 1968 to 1971. She created the Kwanzaa Organizers in 1968 – a Bay Area consulting organization that trained interested blacks how to perform Kwanzaa celebrations in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.

John Hill and the Berkeley Youth Alternative invited Sister Makinya to Bethlehem Community Church in Oakland to explain to the young members of the congregation the particulars of this new Kwanzaa holiday. That relationship with the black Lutheran church led to a six-week summer project from mid- July to late August of 1971 where John Hill, Sister Makinya, and members of the Berkeley Youth Alternative put together a Kwanzaa pamphlet and distributed it in select cities such as Portland, Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, and Houston. They packed up a station wagon and first headed north on highway 101. Kwanzaa was not an important year-end activity of Minister Kirstwood and the senior church officials at Bethlehem. As Sister Makinya recalled: “They just did things for us . . . like providing the car . . . they provided the facilities for us to do what we wanted to do.” . . . As one youth member remembered, “They didn’t take it serious . . . and they said, ‘oh this is something nice, let’s see what they are going to do.’” (Additionally, Sister Makinya is known to have personally taken the Kwanzaa tradition to a number of other cities, and a few African countries as well.)

Kwanzaa blossomed, becoming the featured annual event in other Bay Area organizations like Pan-African Peoples Organization (PAPO), the Postal Street Academy (a group of black postal employees), the Nairobi (East Palo Alto) Kwanzaa Committee, the Bay Area Kwanzaa Committee, the Pan-Afrikan Secretariat, the Kwanzaa Celebrants, and the Wo’se Community Church in Oakland. . . . As the Bay Area Kwanzaa representative with the longest history associated with the holiday, Sister Makinya’s facilitation of public Kwanzaa celebrations in the 1970’s and 80’s earned her the unofficial title of “Mother of Kwanzaa.” May her life and spirit warm our hearts and souls forevermore, empowering us to dare to struggle and dare to win, “as long as the sun shines and the waters flow” (to borrow an expression of Dr. Karenga’s).

Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri ! ! !

(May the days of Kwanzaa for you and yours — and all the days of life —

be abundantly full of good fortune and blessings divine ! ! !)