Kenya will celebrate its 54th independence day later this year.
The east African nation’s motto is “Harambee,” which is a Swahili word that basically means, “All pull together.”
It is a term and concept emphasized by Jomo Kenyatta (1891-1978), who became the first president of the Republic of Kenya, and “Harambee!” is the title of a book of his 1963-64 speeches.
Kenyatta declared in one of his June 1963 speeches, “I therefore give you the call: Harambee! Let us all work hard together for our country, Kenya.”
Wikipedia says that “harambee” is “a Kenyan tradition of community self-help events, e.g. fundraising or development activities.”
That article goes on to say that 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.”
In addition to being widely used in Kenya – such as Harambee Stars for the nickname of the national football (soccer) team and as Harambee for Kenya for the name of an organization founded in 1998 to help street children – the name and term is also used some in the U.S.
For example, in the 1980s the name of historic Franklin Park (named after Benjamin Franklin) in Boston was changed to Harambee Park, and Harambee is now the name of a section in the city of Milwaukee. Also, in St. Louis, there is a Harambee Youth Training program.
The first time I remember hearing the word harambee was in connection with Freedom School at Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC). Every summer since 2007, RMC has hosted a six-week, full-day summer enrichment program for 100 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
This year the name has been changed to Rainbow Summer Program, but the daily program still begins with harambee, a time of “cheers and chants.” On June 11, there was a harambee time as part of the Sunday morning worship service at RMC.
Last year, the Freedom School participants were only 11 percent African-American, but the 10 percent who were Caucasian, the 73 percent who were Hispanic and the others heartily participated in the daily harambee activities.
Everyone pulling together is a good emphasis regardless of race or ethnicity.
Because harambee was originally a Kenyan term and concept, I recently read a book by Jim Corrigan titled “Kenya,” which included two long paragraphs about harambee.
Corrigan writes that rather than the government providing much in the way of social services, Kenyans mainly “rely on their families and a longstanding tradition known as harambee.”
In spite of President Kenyatta’s emphasis on harambee, though, there is considerable criticism of it.
According to Corrigan, “The critics argue … that precious financial resources could be spent more efficiently if they were overseen at a national level, rather than through hundreds of individual, uncoordinated projects.”
Pulling together in the spirit of harambee is certainly commendable on the local level. But trying to take care of all the social and educational needs of an entire nation by means of harambee seems quite problematic.
Surely the needs of Kenyans could be taken care of better by national programs implemented for all citizens rather than through local harambee activities that vary from place to place depending on the presence and choices of the wealthy.
Isn’t this also true for the U.S.?
Why shouldn’t it be possible for the needs of people in all states and communities to profit more from nationwide programs – such as for healthcare – rather than varying from state to state?
Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, The View from this Seat, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @LKSeat.