It was Jomo Kenyatta who popularized the term Harambee. In the months leading up to independence in 1963, Jomo, who was tipped to be Prime Minister, begun to use the term to rally the nation to “pull together” resources for development. Some say Harambee replaced Uhuru, the Kiswahili word for freedom that had been the galvanizing motto in the struggle for independence. Is it possible then that in adopting Harambee, which was also known as self-help, we gave up freedom for collective burdens? One is tempted to think so, seeing that in the early years, those who rejected the Harambee clarion call ignored the customary response, “heee!” opting instead to shout, “Majimbo!” — regionalism. I will return to this story of Majimbo soon. For now, let me trace the journey of Harambee from the ethos of hard work to the dungeons of corruption.
The history of the term Harambee illustrates one of the most admirable aspects of Kenyan social life — our ability to borrow from across communities and weave into the tapestry of pre-existing cultural practices, including language. The word Harambee is a deft cojoining of two disparate words — Har and Ambe. These words became Kenyan on account of the 31,983 indentured workers that Britain, as colonizer, shipped from India to the East African Protectorate to build the so-called Uganda Railway. Construction started in Mombasa, in 1896, reached the shores of Lake Victoria in 1901 and didn’t reach Kampala until 1931.
Har Ambe was an empowering cry that bound the workers as they lifted loads in unison, like human cranes. There is something radical in Indian immigrant workers, known pejoratively as coolies, breaking into their own tongues to invoke a female deity as they were being ordered to lift heavy loads in the sweltering heat. Ambe is a goddess worshipped in many parts of India. She is associated with force and energy and is said to have divine power to destroy obstacles. Har, meaning everyone, comes from Hindi; a language whose origins lie in Sanskrit and one that has grown to do the work of a national language even though that status remains contested. In an alien land, the Hindi Har worked like glue, binding these labourers.
Pally Dhillon captures the distinction of one these labourers in the ground-breaking Kijabe: An African Historical Saga that is part memoir, part fiction. That worker was taller than his colleagues and therefore easily recognizable. Kala Singh, for that was his name, embraced the Har Ambe call, and lent his name to yet another improvisation — the colloquial term kalasinga that is used in Kenya to refer to any Sikh. Terms like these, used to honour rather than to deride, signal acceptance. In A Kenyan Journey the erudite lawyer, human rights activist, and creative writer, Pheroze Nowrojee shows how tenuous acceptance has been for Kenyan Indians to put down roots in a land that has intermittently questioned their loyalty to the economy and their stake in the heritage and the politics. (A Presidential Proclamation by former president Uhuru Kenyatta on 21 July 2017 recognized Kenyans of Asian Heritage as the country’s 44th tribe.) However, it is worth noting that President Jomo Kenyatta’s adoption of the term Harambee as a national motto that was quickly turned into popular song by Daudi Kabaka working with the empire-building British producer Charles Worrod before it was given further credence in the loyalty pledge, was a significant endorsement of the value bricolage in the work of forging nationhood. (See Issue #38 of the chronicle magazine, Old Africa, which features excerpts from And Master of None, Charles Worrod’s unpublished autobiography. Kabaka’s “Harambee, Harambee” is another fine example of borrowings and bricolage. The guitars that underpin Kabaka’s song came from demobilized World War Two soldiers, Worrod says he “used the melody of ‘John Brown’s Body’, and ‘Rule Britannia’ as inspirations”, never mind that it was a symbol of the colonizer, and the Equator Sounds Band that worked with Kabaka drew members from all over Eastern Africa.) No community was too small to lend a humanizing and working strategy, word, or practice to the project called Kenya.
It was in this spirit then that one of the first projects the citizens of an independent Kenya raised money for was the construction of the Senate Chambers. Prince Philip had laid the foundation stone on December 13, 1963. Soon after, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Humphrey Slade was appointed to head the Kenya National Fund which was established to receive contributions from the organizations, members of the public and other well-wishers for the completion of the Senate Chambers. It looked like government by the people and for the people was off to a good start; people were paying for the institutions they believed in.
In Jomo Kenyatta’s day, development was understood as physical infrastructure and his new motto urged communities to join hands in building schools, establishing a dispensary, a maternity ward, or providing staff housing. As Kilemi Mwiria observes, the colonial government had deliberately “limited educational opportunities for Africans”. In Central Kenya, this gave rise to the Independent Schools Movement whose driving force was Mbiyu Koinange. At independence, the president saw this approach of schools built by the community as the shortest route to expanding facilities and increasing enrolment and by extension literacy. Economists can tell us whether in 1963, foreign exchange earned from the sale of cash-crops was negligible, and if the tax-base from those in formal employment was likewise too small to sustain the annual budget. Whatever the case, Harambee evolved as the unofficial tax system.
From 1968 when Dr Julius Kiano was at the helm of the Education Ministry, the government gave communities additional incentives to build secondary schools with the promise that if the community built the classrooms, the government would provide them with teachers. Secondary schools were not the only target of Jomo’s Harambee movement. Numerous institutions that stand today as public institutions of higher learning had their origins in the Harambee spirit and were led by people in the private sector. For instance, Masinde Muliro University started as Western College of Arts and Applied Science (WECO) in 1972, spear-headed by Amos Wako and A.A.A. Ekirapa among others. Similarly, Dedan Kimathi University grew from Nyeri College of Science and Technology, mooted in 1971 by pioneer Nyeri technocrats like Duncan Ndegwa and built from the contributions of big cash-crop farmers and subsidiary farmers of the district. This idea for tertiary education was replicated in many parts of the country. Additionally, in seven out of the eight provinces, Harambee secondary schools out-numbered the government-aided ones. The government publication, Kenyatta Cabinets: Drama, Intrigue, Triumph states that by 2012 there were about 600 Harambee schools countrywide.
At independence, the president saw this approach of schools built by the community as the shortest route to expanding facilities and increasing enrolment and by extension literacy.
In those days before WhatsApp messaging, invitations to Harambees were printed cards, or letters from the person leading the initiative or from the nascent institutions. Once in receipt of the invitation, one was welcome to make a pledge which would be dutifully entered in the ledger on the back of the card, or on a continuation sheet attached to the letter. The community would raise funds, sometimes over a period, and on an appointed day the Chief Guest, usually the area Member of Parliament, would make his donation to boost the community’s efforts. If the school had a particularly high profile, either on account of its name, or its location, the Chief Guest would be a senior member of the Cabinet. There is a photograph in Moi Cabinets: The Nyayo Era, of Vice-President Daniel arap Moi laying the foundation stone for Ngina Kenyatta Harambee Primary School in Kinoo on 13 October 1967, accompanied by Mwai Kibaki, Minister for Commerce and Industry. Following his appointment as Vice-President, Moi needed to raise his profile at the grassroots. That was why he travelled to Kapsabet to officially open the Mosoriot Harambee Health Centre on 16 December 1969, as Nathaniel Kalya, the pioneer Senator for Nandi, and later area MP for Mosop and Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services (1967-1969), explained to his biographers, Godfrey K. Sang and Wilson Kalya.
Occasionally, money was raised through Harambee for a child to go abroad for further education. The push for higher education became urgent at independence because the departure of the colonialists opened up a raft of jobs for Africans, especially in the civil service. Since education was historically linked to the new religious faiths, it wasn’t long after independence that Harambees to build churches spread like bushfire. Development, it seemed, would not be divorced from its original paths, even in this now independent country. Everywhere you turned in the 1970s there was a Harambee to build a church, a hospital, a school. In reality, some of these were about boosting the standing of current or prospective politicians.
In those days before WhatsApp messages, invitations to Harambees were printed cards, or letters from the person leading the initiative, or from the nascent institutions. Once in receipt of the invitation, one was welcome to make a pledge which would be dutifully entered in the ledger on the back of the card, or on a continuation sheet attached to the letter. The community would raise funds, sometimes over a period, and on an appointed day the Chief Guest, usually the area Member of Parliament, would make his donation to boost the community’s efforts. If the school had a particularly high profile, either on account of its name, or its location, the Chief Guest would be a senior member of the Cabinet. There is a photograph in Moi Cabinets: The Nyayo Era, of Vice-President Daniel arap Moi laying the foundation stone for Ngina Kenyatta Harambee Primary School in Kinoo on 13 October 1967, accompanied by Mwai Kibaki, Minister for Commerce and Industry. Following his appointment as Vice-President, Moi needed to raise his profile at the grassroots. That was why he travelled to Kapsabet to officially open the Mosoriot Harambee Health Centre on 16 December 1969, as Nathaniel Kalya, the pioneer Senator for Nandi, and later area MP for Mosop and Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services (1967-1969), explained to his biographers, Godfrey K. Sang and Wilson Kalya.
Since education was historically linked to the new religious faiths, it wasn’t long after independence that Harambees to build churches spread like bushfire.
Reading the biography of Nathaniel Kalya one gets the impression that the budget in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services literally lay with the people. He spent countless hours on the road from Kaptumo, Mosoriot, Kabiyet, and Kaiboi in Nandi; Kandara and Kariti in the then Murang’a District; Githunguri in Kiambu, Kehancha in Kisii and many other locations in rural Kenya. The bulk of his work as an MP, and even as an Assistant Minister, seems to have been taken up by organizing and officiating at funds-drives for health centres, schools, staff houses, even the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital!
By the late 1990s, Harambee had become a loathed concept. District Officers used it to terrorize traders in towns, chiefs used it to punish villagers by confiscating their chicken, churches used it to judge their followers. Ordinary citizens were no longer being asked to give to projects they believed in, projects that would benefit an entire community; they were being bullied to fulfil the narrow agenda of an individual. Two anecdotes will illustrate the absurdities. Sometime in the mid-1990s, a senior academic registrar at a public university wrote invitations on the university’s letterhead for a Harambee to raise funds for his son who was due to take up a place at a university in the US. The letter was sent to academic staff under the registrar’s mandate, and to heads of institutions that traded with the university. Wow. No sense of irony in a man presiding over an education that was seemingly not good enough for his own child. No notion of conflict of interest in roping in merchants who could easily resort to inflating their invoices to meet this unworthy request. No compunction whatsoever, just brazen abuse of office, its stationery, and its social standing.
The second anecdote is about a senior magistrate in a provincial town. He invited his colleagues and practicing advocates in the region to a fundraiser at his newly built home where, as he said, he needed a little help to get an electricity connection. Again, no sense of conflict of interest; no dire plight like an insurmountable hospital bill, just greed in demanding what you want regardless of how it will affect the institution where you work, the very work that you do, and those that do it with you. By the end of the 1990s this self-serving use of the self-help culture had poisoned every social space from weddings to funerals with ridiculous budgets, and worse still, the government was not fulfilling its mandate of alleviating poverty. In this season of brazen abuse of the giving nature of Kenyans, the Harambee motto gradually went from a philosophy to better communities, built from two borrowed Indian words whose spirit resonated with the solidarity that is endemic amongst Africans, to a form of Black Tax in extended families and a tool of administrative tyranny that simultaneously allowed government to abdicate its primary work of providing pathways to secure livelihoods.
In 2002, the government commissioned a British firm to assess anti-corruption initiatives. They zeroed in on Harambees as a driver of graft. Consequently, one of Mwai Kibaki’s first pronouncements as president in 2003 was to invoke the Public Officers Ethics Act to ban Cabinet Ministers from presiding over Harambees. But given the roots of Harambee, banning these fund-raisers entirely, or vetting them for approval as the National Assembly’s Constitutional Implementation Oversight Committee proposed in 2019 is unworkable. Harambee no longer works as a driver of government projects, but it remains robust, if a little wayward as a socio-cultural pillar. In recent years, it has been given new impetus by technology. From WhatsApp groups to rally people around a cause, to M-Changa and allied collection platforms, the Paybill is now a critical constituent of our socio-cultural rites. It frees many from physical attendance of fund-raisers and simultaneously allows them to show commitment to the cause. Which leads me to the other key term in our political culture.
There is a close relationship between Harambee and hand-outs. You could almost argue that one birthed the other. In the early days, the people gave for their welfare, including building the Senate Chamber, which was later used by the National Assembly. And as stories from the colonial struggle show, they willingly raised money for the freedom of persecuted leaders. Two stories cement the argument.
Soon after their 1961 release from detention, the Kapenguria Six addressed several rallies around the country. At Ruring’u stadium in Nyeri, Paul Ngei was asked to say the closing prayer. He asked “the God of Africans to urge the God of Whites to leave to Kenyans the land they occupy and go back in Britain in peace. For this, Ngei was charged with incitement and charged KES 500. Enthusiastic crowds quickly raised the money, Harambee style, and stuffed the currency notes in his pockets while carrying him shoulder high”. (Moi Cabinets Vol 2: 124).
From WhatsApp groups to rally people around a cause, to M-Changa and allied collection platforms, the Paybill is now a critical constituent of our socio-cultural rites.
It seems 1961 was a special year for Kenyans opening their wallets for their would-be leaders. Another story is told of money raised to buy the newly released Jomo Kenyatta a car. It is not clear from these anecdotal stories who initiated this campaign, but those who participated in it tell it with great pride in their willingness to restore dignity to a detainee. When the car was purchased and issued with the registration KHA, the proud fundraisers immediately dubbed it “Kenyatta Home Again”.
How did we move from this point where the public raises money to aid persecuted leaders to where we are now with leaders, even wannabe ones gunning for office, buying support at campaign rallies in the name of the so-called standing allowance? All might not be lost if the story of the newly elected Mumias MP, Peter Silasyia, is anything to go buy. But the way the story of Silasyia’s supporters building him a house is told with the moniker “broke MP”, it is clear where the values of our society lie. Namely, in the same place where people cheered in 2017 as the newly elected 23-year-old MP for Igembe South, John Paul Mwirigi was given a brand new Prado by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Handouts are not just a problem at the top. They are a retail item, available for everyone. Recently, an academic on Twitter reported difficulties in finding “manual labour” during the 2022 campaign season. “People would wake up and follow the campaign handouts. The handouts ranged from [KES] 100 to 200. Other contestants would give packet of maize flour.” The screenshot below captures the crisis of productivity spurred by this campaign market.
Rent-a-crowd was lucrative enough for some to abandon their usual (side-)hustles as was reported elsewhere. If this practice ran strictly as an election-related business, many would look away from its slippery moral basis and call it the market force of demand and supply. The real tragedy though is that this culture of hand-outs is now so rooted in daily life that drawing a line between it and corruption is a game of mental gymnastics.
Say you approach a crowded hospital parking, and the watchman allows you to park in a “No Entry” section by a door that he knows is never used. You have a parking ticket which you will validate via payment as you leave, so why do you, nonetheless, feel compelled to give that watchman 50 shillings? Is that gratitude? And if so, isn’t saying a warm “Hallo and thank you” enough to show your appreciation? How can it be corruption if the watchman did not ask for it, you say? You might argue he expected it. But what does that say about your own complicity — condoning the breaking of rules and accepting graft? Culture is truly that moment when we do things without stopping to ask the why or wherefore; we do them because they are always done, and done in that way.
The real tragedy though is that this culture of hand-outs is now so rooted in daily life that drawing a line between it and corruption is a game of mental gymnastics.
The dependency created by hand-outs in our society is both crippling and deliberate, sadly. Somewhere along the journey of Harambee, the giver became the recipient as our politicians found value in reversing the relationship. Rather than take from the people to structure what they need in terms of infrastructure and social services, now politicians give us handouts to keep our mouths silent about our needs and their failures. Hand-outs are an instrument of control, a loss of freedom for the people — the freedom to critique, the freedom to be gainful, the freedom to self-determining. Harambee for development became a burden on the people while hand-outs from their leaders have become blinds that lock out the vision of industry and social well-being. There is no compulsion on the part of politicians to expand opportunities and create real wealth for the majority. Meanwhile, at the top, politicians jostle for space at the trough from which they reap to bag enough for handouts for people, if they are generous. The other name for that jostling is elite consensus aka handshakes.
At a 25 November 1963 public rally in Kapsabet, the crowds shouted “Majimbo” in response to the “Harambee” call made by Tom Mboya and Achieng Oneko of the Kenya African National Union (KANU). The people were protesting in this manner to show their disappointment over a decision made by Jean Marie Seroney, William Murgor and Taita arap Towett to decamp from Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) to join KANU. “Their defection was greeted with fury. [Nathaniel] Kalya was surprised that these individuals had not even bothered to consult anyone”. Two short months later, on January 23, 1964, Senator Kalya joined the bandwagon and walked out of KADU. He does not say whether he consulted anyone. He avers that “the move was the best way to serve the people he represented”. It is not lost on readers of his story that soon thereafter, “Kalya was appointed the Deputy Leader of Government Business [in the Senate]. He became the first person to move from being opposition chief to being Government business leader.” Ahem!
There is no compulsion on the part of politicians to expand opportunities and create real wealth for the majority.
Was it naivety, sheer negligence or outright greed that led these KADU leaders to believe that the Majimbo they had stood for in KADU would not be compromised by a KANU government since it was already in the Constitution? Seroney argued that, “the best way to preserve it was to be in Government”. Did these elected representatives underrate the wily intentions of the KANU men who lured them to cross the floor, as it was known then, or were they just greedy men who stood on zero principle? Their actions left Majimbo in jeopardy, an orphan with no concerned voices to fight for it following the slow death — more like murder — of KADU in 1964. That death was a long game orchestrated by Tom Mboya, the Minister for Justice and Legal Affairs, working on behalf of Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta to ensure that effective opposition would not thrive.
Flash-forward to 2022 and the times are upon us once again. Virtually all representatives elected on an Independent ticket at the 9 August 2022 general election crossed the floor to join the president’s winning coalition, Kenya Kwanza, within days of the declaration of Kenya Kwanza’s victory. Worse still, even those like Kiraitu Murungi and Professor Kivutha Kibwana, who made their bids on rival parties and lost, somehow found it in themselves to cross over and join those who formed the new government. The less I say at this point about Professor Kibwana, a decorated human rights activists and a stellar pioneer Governor for Makueni, the better.
In Kenya’s political history, co-option has had many diversionary names — crossing the floor; co-operation; nusu mkate aka Government of National Unity; handshake. The facts remain the same, no matter what we call it, or how we justify it. Raila Odinga, opposition doyen from the 1980s, famously told us in 1997 that his co-operation with KANU was intended to break it from within. While his goal might have been achieved in the long term, in the short-term it allowed President Moi to enjoy tranquillity in his last term.
This practice of joining the side forming the government, even when the legitimacy of its election is in doubt, raises critical issues about representation. How are the needs of the electorate to be served when the person they elected by virtue of their backbone turns out to have none? When we read this lack of principle as a feature of culture, it is even more overwhelming. It seems independence, the most important ingredient in forging a culture of democracy, is something that elite Kenyans do not want and something that they rob ordinary citizens of at the earliest moment. Sadly, along with abhorrence for independence, scores of public intellectuals have, since Youth for KANU ’92, supplied the carving knives with which the free will of the electorate is slaughtered.
How are the needs of the electorate to be served when the person they elected by virtue of their backbone turns out to have none?
You might, cynically, say there is free will for people to join whatever side they like at whatever time. But no, there is an obligation that leaders have, to those they purportedly represent. But if those who follow them do so on account of the handouts they have been given, then the free will of the electorate is a commodity that has a price. And that price has been put in place by governments that have failed to secure every individual’s dignity by eradicating want. There can be no democracy in a society where people are either bullied, impoverished, shamed, or shunned into following the crowd.
Conceding is not the same thing as being co-opted. This is where we have the politics of compromise all wrong. The stakes have been raised higher than they ever were by the Constitution of Kenya 2010. There are term limits for Governors and Senators and provisions that leave the runner-up in the presidential election with no seat in any of the houses of Parliament and barred from appointment to the Cabinet. The resultant lack of status, income, and influence is enough to tempt anyone accustomed to state largesse to cross over or shake hands.
The triple helix of Harambee, hand-outs and handshakes weaves an intractable chokehold on democracy as the unimpeded participation of citizens in the design and execution of conditions to better their social and economic well-being. This chokehold is particularly deceptive because on the face of it, its three markers have the capacity to further free participation but, they have frustrated it: a classic case of a boon and a bane. Long before we had worked out that development is more than stone buildings, piped water, textbooks, syringes, pills, and the human resources to execute these to eradicate illiteracy and secure health, Harambee as a vehicle for the delivery of this development was in danger of being abused. That danger stemmed first from the narrow perception of development. That old understanding left out the growth of social relations such as gender equity, environmental sustainability, and equity between nations. Secondly, and perhaps more germane to the question of cultural engineering is the fact that while Harambee was born from the quotidian struggles of workers, its growth as a national movement was driven by politicians.
Culture thrives when state actors give it space to define itself. When state actors hijack cultural tools, decay is imminent. We saw this when the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) hijacked the popular song “Unbwogable” as their campaign anthem for the 2002 General Election. It didn’t take too long before the new NARC government started interpreting “Unbwogable” as an exclusive ethos. Vice-President Michael Wamalwa was at a victory party held at Mulwanda Primary School in Butere/Mumias District, as it was then, when the MP for Emuhaya, Kenneth Marende, warned local teachers to tread carefully in their demands. “It is only MPs who are unbwogable. Teachers cannot also start claiming they are unbwogable in their demands for a pay-rise.”
While Harambee was born from the quotidian struggles of workers, its growth as a national movement was driven by politicians.
To reiterate, the fact that Harambee gave birth to the culture of hand-outs, to say nothing of the millions that have been looted in the name of government workers attending fundraisers, is a good illustration of how fast and putrid the decay of a people-driven ethos is in the hands of politicians. Handouts are no doubt the first cousins of handshakes, that unworthy practice of elite purchase of free will and independent thinking. With the rot where it now is salvation must come from our public intellectuals. How they safeguard their independence and rebuild sites and institutions where the reimaging of freedom can happen is the only real chance we have of revisioning the independence we like to say we earned on the night of December 12, 1963. May the day break.
This publication was funded/co-funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of The Elephant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.