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.
A popular etymology deriving the term from the name of a Hind goddess, Amba Mata (a form of Durga riding a Tiger) has been proposed, supposedly via Hindu railway linesmen carrying loads of iron rails and sleeper blocks who would chant “har, har Ambe!” (“praise Amba”) when working. The first president, Jomo Kenyatta has been said to have witnessed such a railway line team as it worked in cohesion and harmony and derived the term from there. This has led to criticism against the official use of the term on the part of Kenyan Christians. The actual etymology of the term is, however, cited as genuinely Bantu, from the Miji Kenda term halumbe “to pull or push together”. The objections have also been dismissed based on the that even if the supposed derivation were true, it has become irrelevant to the term’s modern usage and meaning.