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Common Denominator Of Popular Slogan
Harambee Is Always About Raising Money

Coastweek --  Instead of continuing on the theme of why Kigali and Rwanda in general is considered the cleanliness capital of Eastern Africa and probably most of Africa, I will digress a little this week and come back to Kenya, writes TETI KAMUGUNDA.

We were talking last week about the Rwandese concept of “Umuganda” (or the coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome) and how it has helped to transform and stabilise the country…. and act as the driver to the cleanliness that we see in the country among other good things.

In Kenya we have an almost equivalent that we call “Harambee”.

We are told that it has its origin in the Swahili language and means to “pull together”.

However, people differ in the real origin with some saying that it originated from a Hindu expression - Har Ambe - which is an invocation to the God Ambe for strength.

This was apparently used by the railway workers who built the railway line from Mombasa to Kisumu which is otherwise known as the Lunatic Express.

It is said that they would chant “Har Ambe” every time they needed to work in unison or found some work that required extra strength.

The locals then assimilated the words into their vocabulary and it became the word Harambee as we know it today.

The other school of thought about the origin of the word is that it came from a word borrowed from the Miji Kenda word Halumbe which means pull or push together.

This was similarly used when extra effort was required or people were required to work together.

The word was corrupted by pronunciation to Harambee which is then considered to have stuck till this day.

Whatever the origin – and I have no preference – the word was made popular by the founding father of the nation Mzee Jomo Kenyatta when he used it as a rallying call to bring Kenyans together to build the nation.

He would shout “Harambee” and the crowd would respond “Eee”.

This was used either to open a rally to set the tone or at the end of rally.

Quite often it was used in the middle when one felt that the meeting was getting a bit stale and people needed to be roused or else to check that the crowd was still engaged.

It was however applied in many different circumstances.

When a community wanted to build a school, they would come together and each contribute whatever they had towards that effort.

Some would provide building material, others would provide some produce from their stock which would then be sold during the effort to raise money towards the construction and some others would provide their labour and expertise as their contribution.

The ways of joining into a harambee effort were numerous and there was no one single way of doing it.

Another circumstance when the word harambee was applied was when a community or a group of friends got together to raise money towards a specific need or needs.

People would gather in a place and a specialised master of ceremonies would run the proceedings and use his wit and guile to extract as much money as he could from the people assembled.

Most times those attending know what they had been called for and would carry whatever they could to contribute to whatever cause was on the agenda.

Reasons for holding “harambees” varied from raising money for school fees, unexpected hospital bills, sending people abroad for treatment or education, building school infrastructure or any other community type facility, weddings, parties and so forth.

The list was long but the common denominator was raising money.

This form of harambee became the dominate use of the word.

The donation of one’s service was not considered as contributing to the harambee – this was just volunteering and had no other value.

To date harambee has continued to be associated with the unique Kenyan way of crowd funding – rallying friends, relatives and their associates to a location to raise money for a declared purpose.

This is very different from the Rwandese equivalent “Umuganda” which has continued to promote the four pillars that stands for – environment, community development, security and unity and reconciliation.

Kenya needs a rallying call like Umuganda which can stitch the nation together and also offer a common basis for doing things together.

The tribal, cultural, religious and economic divisions that are dogging the country need to be closed through creating a greater and common purpose that can bind us together

Harambee would be a great way of starting the journey of creating a clarion call that could embrace the ethos that we would like to define what we are and how we relate to each other.

We could perhaps then start seeing all of us get our cities, towns, villages and homesteads clean, improve our security help our neighbours prosper and then truly come together as one united nation.

As Kachumbari says, we need a new glue to bind the country together.




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Remember: you read it first at !

  This year’s rally will be
flagged off at Sarova
Whitesands on November
23rd and finish at the same
venue on December 1st.


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