Harambee - Pulling Together

Good Work News, September 2007, By Sarah Anderson

In February of 2006, when Julian and I were volunteers at the Ugunja Community Resource Centre in Western Kenya, our friend Betty invited us to a harambee fundraiser for her mother. In the morning we arrived to a small house full of women drinking tea and eating homemade donuts, looking smart in their boldly patterned uniforms.

This wasn’t your typical bake sale or car wash. It was a harambee. And harambees make me nervous.

Another foreign volunteer had warned Julian and me about the process. With pockets full of shillings, people use fines, counter-fines, dares, wit, bravado, dancing and singing to compel, embarrass, or harass others into giving up their money.

In Swahili “harambee” is a call to pull together - a call so strong that the concept was used as a nation-builder when Kenya gained independence. The UCRC encourages people to put the spirit of harambee into practice – pulling ideas, energy and resources together for community development.

The Twelve Friends Women’s Group is a typical example of this spirit, with neighbours gathering regularly to share farming strategies, resources and personal support. Today’s harambee, organized by the group, would help Betty’s mother cover costly funeral expenses.

The drama began when one member showed up late. The group ordered her to pay a fine of 20 shillings. She threw her coin into the collection plate and, to make up for her tardiness, greeted each person in the room with a French-style cheek-to-cheek hug, wiggling her bum for added flair. When she got to Julian, the women laughed and cheered. He was the only man present, let alone a strange, skinny, white one.

Julian and I were at a disadvantage. We had to interpret dramatic gestures, songs and laughter with almost no understanding of the language being spoken. To start the event, everyone was to introduce themselves and put money onto the plate based on how much they respected their own name. Betty translated when she could. If someone pleased the group with a funny introduction or generous donation, the women danced and sang while adding more coins to the plate.

This was when the worries began to roll around in my head. How much should I give? How much will others give? I knew that the women expected that as a wealthy foreigner I would give more. And, since I had more money, shouldn’t I? But giving more would only reinforce a paternal dynamic that I wanted to work against. It’s better to give modestly and look stingy. Right?

Luckily or not, I was able to shove these questions aside when Julian and I realized that we had forgotten to bring our money. Our wad of shillings was far away in another village, under our bed where we had left it. After a few whispered calculations we realized that between the two of us, Julian and I didn’t have enough shillings to introduce ourselves in a manner remotely respectful of our names. Just in time, Betty discreetly passed me a folded up bill and we were back in the game.

When she was introduced and the group rose to their feet, I got up and danced along. I tried my best to copy the local dance moves and I think that for a foreigner I didn’t do too badly. Whenever I danced, the women across from me kept catching my eye and laughing. I like to think they were laughing with me.

One member scolded the women for not dancing with enough enthusiasm after her introduction. Everyone threw in their coins as penance and got up to give her a proper show of appreciation. Julian hadn’t danced; shyer about dancing in Kenya than he was in Canada. I schemed with Betty, wanting the whole group to put money in to force Julian to dance. But, before we could fine him, he got up and did a little move in response to Betty’s mom’s introduction.

I leaned over to Betty. “I have another idea. Julian should fine the group for having too many women at the harambee.” Betty agreed, so I whispered my plan to Julian. When ordering a fine, it seemed you needed to give an amount of money large enough to encourage others to join in. All we had were 2 US dollars that happened to be in Julian’s wallet. Though not worth much and difficult to exchange in Ugunja, we knew that these foreign bills represented an embarrassing amount of power and wealth. It was time to capitalize on our only assets to get ourselves into the drama.

Julian waved the dollar and placed it in the empty plate. Stepping into the middle of the circle, he proceeded to teasingly insult his hosts. “What a great disappointment and shame to be the only man present. You can help me feel less lonely, by adding to this dollar.” The women laughed and clapped when Betty translated, pleased by his money-making complaint.

I used the other US dollar to convince one women, an amazing dancer, to give me impromptu lessons. With the group singing, she danced over and started shaking her shoulders. We faced each other and shook our chests, bending over so that our heads almost touched at waist level. I tried to keep up in the dance-off, bum out and shaking high in the air. The whole room laughed. “Ah aah! Sarah, you really danced,” Betty said.

After everyone had introduced themselves, guests gave a final offering and the group leader and secretary counted the money. In total about 6,000 Kenyan shillings were raised, or 100 Canadian dollars. Not bad for a handful of people. Especially since one dollar usually stretches a lot further in Kenya than in Canada. To celebrate, Betty’s mom served a feast of chicken, tilapia, beef, sukuma wiki kale and ugali. Then it was time to head home to Ugunja.

Meanwhile, back in Kitchener in 2007, I wonder if I’ll ever get the courage to organize a dancing, singing, hooplah of a harambee fundraiser like that one. Hmm… For now, I see the harambee spirit living through The Working Centre where, as in Ugunja, people pull together to get good work done.

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