Harambee is a Kenyan tradition of community self-help events, e.g. fundraising or development activities. The word means “all pull together” in Swahili, and is the official motto of Kenya, appearing on its coat of arms. The word was assimilated into the Swahili language from Hindi at the time of the building of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Kampala. Indian labourers used the phrase “har har Ambey,” or, “hail Ambey”–an exhortation to Amba, the Hindu Goddess – when performing difficult tasks that often required more than one person to be involved, such as lifting heavy loads.
Harambee events may range from informal affairs lasting a few hours, in which invitations are spread by word of mouth, to formal, multi-day events advertised in newspapers. These events have long been important in parts of East Africa, as ways to build and maintain communities.
Following Kenya‘s independence in 1963, the first Prime Minister, and later first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta adopted “Harambee” as a concept of pulling the country together to build a new nation. He encouraged communities to work together to raise funds for all sorts of local projects, pledging that the government would provide their startup costs. Under this system, wealthy individuals wishing to get into politics could donate large amounts of money to local harambee drives, thereby gaining legitimacy; however, such practices were never institutionalised during Kenyatta’s presidency.
The etymology of the term is cited as genuinely Bantu, from the Miji Kenda term halumbe “to pull or push together”. The word Harambee was assimilated into the Swahili language from Hindi at the time of the building of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Kampala. Indian labourers used the phrase Har Har Ambey or Hail Ambey – an exhortation to Amba the Hindu Goddess – when performing difficult tasks that often required more than one person to be involved e.g. lifting heavy loads etc.
The word “harambee” and the concept of harambee fund-drives have received criticism. The word was originally adopted by Jomo Kenyatta as the signature Kenyan national philosophy to mean pulling together or cooperating in community projects.
Historical abuse and poor performance
Due to repeated abuse, the word is often perceived to refer to manipulative or deceptive collection of monetary funds from the public.
Harambee fund-drives have been repeatedly abused through:-
- misappropriation of publicly collected haramber funds by individuals;
- forced contributions by government officials;
- forced contributions through forced and unofficial deductions on the salaries of government employees;
- corruption and use of harambee funds for personal gain;
- stalled harambee projects;
- poor coordination of harambee-funded projects;
- use of harambee fund-drives as campaign platforms by political aspirants;
- use of harambee fund-drives to publicly attack and embarrass political rivals;
- use of harambee fund-drives to launder money stolen by officers who attempt to clean their public image by appearing to give generous donations for public projects;
- use of harambee events to give bribes under the guise of issuing public donations;
- poor performance of state-controlled entities that have the word “harambee” as part of their name, such as the national football team Harambee Stars;
- perceived inferior status and poor management history of harambee schools which were established through harambee fund-raising projects; and
- perceived legitimisation of dependency on donations or external assistance at the expense of promoting self-sufficiency, resourcefulness and innovation.
Kenyan Christians have criticised the use of the word harambee as an official term due to its apparent Hindu origin. Harambee is neither a Hindu god nor a Hindu word; it is a Swahili word and Kenyan. The objections have also been dismissed on the basis that even if the supposed derivation from hare Ambeh (hail Ambeh) were true, it has become irrelevant to the term’s modern usage and meaning.
In January 2002, the Risk Advisory Group Ltd commissioned by President Moi’s administration as part of the anti-corruption efforts recommended the abolition of harambee, or the spirit of pulling together.
In 2003 when the National Rainbow Coalition NARC took over from the Kenya African National Union KANU, President Mwai Kibaki enacted the Public Officers Ethics Act which prohibited members of parliament and cabinet secretaries from presiding over harambee events.
In February 2018, a petition was presented to the Kenyan parliament and senate, seeking to have the word “harambee” removed from the public seal on the claim that it represents a Hindu god.