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In The Spirit of Harambee

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May 2024
May 2024
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It was towards the end of July 2011. Usually, it’s a cold season in Nairobi, during this time, and I had just closed school, marking the end of the Second Term. During the holidays, I enjoyed listening to a radio station called Kiss 100. Back then, social media wasn’t that common - except for Facebook, which we’d access occasionally at a cyber cafe. Across radios and televisions in Kenya, there was an ongoing campaign dubbed Kenyans for Kenya. 

This was a fundraiser, set up by a coalition of partners, led by Safaricom Foundation - the largest telecommunications company in Kenya, and the pioneer of mobile banking in the world. The fundraiser was meant to raise money for a drought in the Northern parts of the country, described by the United Nations as ‘the worst drought over half a century’. I vividly remember journalists, calling for contributions of as little as 1 Kenyan shilling (66 Cents). This period was a uniting moment for Kenyans. 

This wasn’t the first time I had come across such an initiative. Growing up in Kenya, collective giving was the norm. The concept of self-help has a long history in Kenya, dating back to when the country was a British colony. During that period key institutions, such as education, health, places of worship, as well as residential areas in major towns across the country, were racially segregated into European, Asian, Arab, and African categories. The Europeans had well-funded institutions, with Africans having the lowest quality. The colonial government believed that the African culture was limited, equating it to Europe during the Middle Ages, rationalising that the European settlers were culturally superior. 

The under-investment in African institutions was also a discouragement to competition against the white settlers and Asians. Africans were therefore limited to subsistent farming, artisans and craftsmen, and labourers in white settler farms. To control the Africans, a pass system was introduced to limit them from accessing the white-reserved areas, and no African could travel from one place to another without a permit issued by their employer - who was always a European.

Taken together, these discriminatory practices built resentment among the Africans in the Colony. But they also led to the birth of alternative models. It saw them establishing independent institutions that were free from the missionaries and colonial government influence. 

Alternative Institutions

There was the establishment of independent schools that were built by Africans using African-mobilised resources. These schools served Africans at all levels, beginning at nursery school to secondary school, equipping them with skills and knowledge that were believed to be limited only to the Europeans. Egerton University was the earliest form of a higher learning institution in Kenya, and it was a farm school that was only accessible to white settler children. This meant that for Africans to gain higher learning, they either had to go to Makerere University in Uganda - the oldest university in East Africa or study abroad. To achieve this, Africans in the colony would raise money to support their fellow Africans in furthering their education. 

Africans in the Kenya Colony valued education, and since the Colonial government had control over what African minds could be fed, independent schools proved otherwise. When I was in High School, one of my favourite English literature books was called The River Between, written by a renowned Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. One of the characters, called Chege, allows his son, Waiyaki to get a Western Education, learn the ways of the Europeans, and use this to liberate his people. The book is set during Kenya’s colonial period, and it shows the role that independent schools had in the country’s liberation.

This also shows up in religious institutions, whereby, independent churches sprung up, as Africans rebelled against mainstream European churches, that were believed to be suppressing Africans’ growth. Again, these churches were built from money raised by Africans. Other projects included boreholes and cattle dips, and the communities were meant to be in charge of these amenities. 

When Kenya gained independence in 1963, we adopted ‘Harambee’ - which means pulling together - as our national motto. The Harambee Philosophy had instilled a sense of belonging and ownership, in the precolonial era, a period when the progression of the Kenyan African population was seen as a threat to other races in the country. This ideology helped African independent institutions drive Kenya towards self-governance. Harambe incorporated the principles of service, joint social responsibility, and community self-reliance. 

The Birth of a Nation

After independence, the new government had three issues it wanted to address and those were poverty, ignorance and disease. Most of rural Kenya had previously been designated as ‘African reserves’ by the colonial government. These areas were still very much underdeveloped compared to urban areas and regions in the ‘White Highlands’ that had been preserved only for the white settlers. Harambee was adopted by the new government to build the new country. Through community fundraisers, schools, hospitals, roads, and residential areas were built. Environmental preservation efforts, especially on soil conservation - seeing that much of the Kenyan African population were subsistent farmers - were made possible through community unity. According to a research paper written by Peter M. Ngau, between 1965 to 1984, Harambee's contribution to Kenya’s GDP was an average of 12%, with over 37,000 projects completed. During the same period, the contribution towards the Harambee projects had 90% financing from the people, 6% from the government, and 4% from other donors. 


Just like any other model, Harambee has not been perfect and has been criticised due to certain issues such as corruption, negative politicisation of the approach, and misappropriation of funds especially by the elites and politicians. Many people believe that Harambee has no relevance in 21st-century Kenya. On the other hand, some Harambee initiatives have had a long-term effect on the development of key infrastructure in Kenya, 60 years after independence. Personally, the high school I attended was built with funds raised by community members and has been able to provide educational opportunities to many young Kenyans. 

I see the Harambee philosophy as a participatory problem-solving technique, that shaped the lives of a people that had a common goal. Participatory problem-solving approaches have been the cornerstone of the development of many societies, this is because only those that experience a problem can solve it. The utilisation of local assets and prioritising local ownership towards this process leads to the sustainability of solutions. Community dynamics are unique to every setting therefore discrediting the viability of a one-size-fits-all approach that seems to be adopted by contemporary problem solvers. In grantmaking, those who have the power in the form of resources should act as catalysts, connectors, and allies while those from the communities receiving the resources act as shapers, decision-makers, and drivers of change.

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