Harambee: How this long-standing tradition has made Kenya the most generous country in Africa

Ama Nunoo October 22, 2020
Photo: Paukwa

Harambee is a call to action and every Kenyan identifies with this word so boldly written on the country’s coat of arms. It is more than a motto for the people; it signifies, unity, patriotism and hope for a better future.

One may wonder what Harambee is or what it means. This long-standing Kenyan tradition that guides the conscience of the people means “all pull together” in Kiswahili, a concept that experts say existed among Kenyans way before the word Harambee became a thing.

Kenyans were into communal living where a group’s needs are placed before an individual’s and that is exactly what Harambee embodies. To Kenyans, it is “an unwritten law of generosity, and regardless of class, ethnic group, gender or religious background, we will lend a hand to assist anyone in need,” one Kenyan writer said to BBC.

The origin of the word, according to Kenyan historian Njuguna Ng’ethe at the University of Nairobi, came about when Swahili porters shouted “Harambee” when they needed the joint effort to lift heavy objects at a go.

Nonetheless, Kenyan folklore also states that the word has Indian origins. According to the stories, in the 1890s, about 30,000 Indian migrants came from Mombasa to help construct the Kenyan-Uganda railway as requested by the British. Whiles working with Kenyans, the Indians invoked the divine potency of God, Hare, and Ambe, the goddess of power, energy and invincibility. The continuous usage of the two words later caught on with the Kenyans who joined in their chants and combined the two words which Kenyans later adopted as a call to unity.

In the application of the term Harambee, it could be monetary or emotional support or even just a helping hand or favor, according to a BBC report. A Harambee is mostly organized during rites of passage or life events like weddings, funerals or when someone is very sick. Elders access the situation and alert the community for help if need be. Friends, neighbors or co-workers then contribute money or resources to support the one in need. Some also avail themselves to offer the needed emotional support to the fellow in question.

After Kenya gained independence, Harambee was what helped Kenya become what we know it as today, according to historians. Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, put the term on a pedestal when he mentioned it in his independence day speech in May 1963 after the country gained freedom from the British.

“I would suggest we use the Kiswahili word ‘Harambee’ to express the mood we want to create,” Kenyatta said. “It means ‘let us all work together’. Get up and go!”

The term was perfected by Kenya’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi, as it was used to actually cause some significant changes in the lives of Kenyans during his tenure.

There was a sense of nationalism now more than ever among the people and Moi used the avenue to see to fruition infrastructural development and government initiatives like the Kennedy Airlift Program that granted scholarships to brilliant Kenyans to study abroad and then return to improve the country with their acquired knowledge.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient and social and environmental activist Wangari Maathai, and senior governmental economist Barack Obama Sr, the father of Barack Obama are notable recipients of the award. The concept of unification under Harambee was abused by some leaders and it reversed the philosophy of putting the group’s needs before the individual’s.

Some leaders stopped allocating government funds for development and always fell on the people to make contributions. Government projects ended being executed by the people for free, all in the name of Harambee. A 2003 bill put an end to the use of Harambe by public officials. Now, chamas, which are cooperative societies that pool savings and investments are the most common ways Kenyans “pull together” their resources for the good of the community.

Kenyan almost always tops the list of Africa’s most generous countries and visitors always feel at home because of the generosity of the people. Giving is a concept that is ingrained in everyone from birth.

It is also a patriotic pact made to ensure equal rights and immortalized in their national anthem, “Service be our earnest endeavor” and every Kenyan lives vicariously through these words by way of Harambee.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 22, 2020


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