Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I am sitting in the Student Center of Wheaton College in Chicago, Illinois as I write this column. My daughter, Sophia is enrolled at what is one of the world’s most prestigious Christian universities. A few weeks ago, we did not know how we would pay the bill for her first semester. Today, we still do not know our complete future. (Only God knows that information.) However, we do know that based upon all we see Sophia will get through her first semester, and we will continue to trust God for the remaining seven semesters. Over the last month we have learned the old lesson of our grandparents well. When we face an opportunity with more challenges than our individual resources can muster, we must reclaim Harambee.

My wife, Jana grew up in Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s post-colonial Kenya. She sings our babies to sleep in Kiswahili. I’ve listened to her parents, siblings, and her memories of those days. My father-in-law, Gaston Tarbet attended, spoke at, and contributed to at an uncountable number of Kenyan Harambees.

Contemporary Kigali faces many challenges in the development of our social and economic sustenance. After boy meets girl and finds the courage to form a lifelong covenant resources are required. Sometimes the wedding crosses the threshold from celebrating covenant and becomes an exercise in extravagant pride. However, I almost always give a small gift to each young couple I know because I believe their life will be better married than co-habitating. I also ponder that as I sit on the side of one family me where I know almost all across the divide I may know almost none. Our Kigali community is a stronger one when our children marry from a godly community different from our own. Their new unity builds the unity of us all. Their marriage proclaims we must reclaim Harambee.

University students graduate with degrees, skills, and ambition. However, our job market cannot employ the vast majority of them. They may try their hand as entrepreneurs, but this requires capital. Most only have a few coins at their personal disposal. Yet they have wealth in their skill, youthful strength, and relationship network. Their economic future proclaims we must reclaim Harambee.

Some have not been blessed by their grandparent’s nurture in Kenyatta’s Harambee. (In fact most of us in Kigali who know Kenyatta’s Harambee learned the lesson as sojourners and not power brokers.) In 1963 as Kenya gained independence Mzee Jomo Kenyatta brought immediate calm from the Mau Mau crisis, healed wounds, and gathered the humble to build. His message was Harambee. We must organize together. Kenyatta was aware of his own failings, but confident in the strength of his united people. He said, "There is no society of angels, black, brown or white. We are human beings and as such we are bound to make mistakes. If I have done a mistake to you, it is for you to forgive me. If you have done a mistake to me, it is for me to forgive you. (For more reading on Kenyatta’s Harambee check out http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,875094,00.html.)

As a community faced a challenge that required capital he made a donation and asked for others to join in sharing their resources. With Kenyatta’s Harambee culture schools, hospitals, and infrastructure were developed. Among the humble Harambee economics provided realistic hope.

A month ago, Sophia was accepted at a university that we could not walk away from in good conscience. We could not ask my daughter to choose a less expensive option that we knew would also mean a smaller and less influential network. If Wheaton was not to be her future, God would need to show us this in our failure to discover resources. We had begged God for this opportunity. Therefore, I assumed He wanted us to go relying on Him (and the network, resources, and creativity He had given us.) In my prayers, I asked for God to remember that a humble pastor like I had facilitated many others to study abroad. In the quiet moment I heard our ancestors whisper, “Reclaim Harambee.”

We invited every friend we had in the world to our Kigali Harambee. One friend had the courage to tell us that he would not come because he was broke. Harambee has been misused in the past to be a ceremony for the wealthy to manipulate others. It has also been on occasion one of exclusion. One of our God lesson journeys has been never to choose friends based upon their ability to do things for us. Harambee in its purest form sees the dignity of all. Everyone no matter how humble has something to contribute. Ideas, friendship, and labor are as valuable for our community’s well being as financial resources.

On the day of our Harambee many came. Some did not have grandparents who knew the stories of Kenyatta’s Harambee. Thus we taught history. The Harambee traditionalists were a bit surprised that our speeches were short and our music eclectic. We danced, we laughed, we celebrated, and we contributed. A few only placed a coin in the contribution. A few ate more value than they contributed. Our friends came from many nationalities yet it was a Rwandan family who made the largest contribution that night. As Sophia and I traveled to the USA we still did not have enough resources to pay the first semester. A poor American college student heard of our Harambee and placed a shockingly generous envelope in our pocket. Kenyatta and our grandparents were right. The humble can succeed when they organize together. We must reclaim Harambee.

In my pre-Harambee visits of passing out invitations I heard a whisper. This Kiswahili word sounds familiar. There is a similar Kinyarwanda word. Then the conversation quickly moved on. Finally, two Kigali pastors made me wiser. Charles Mugisha from New Life Bible Church remembered the tradition of Harambee as extended families gathered resources to build and send children to school. Why has this tradition been forgotten? We must reclaim Harambee. Samuel Mugisha from St. Etienne Cathedral remembered chanting, “Harambee” as his childhood friends toppled trees for firewood. Then he had the courage to speak about the defilement of Rwanda’s tradition of organizing together. In 1994 defilers of language used our African traditions of community organization to commit mass murder. Genocide perpetrators took the beauty of our community’s resilience and created the Interhamwe.

I asked if I should rename our fund discovery party. Would my attempt to honor my family’s past and place our daughter in a location she would thrive unduly wound? Though our gathered wisdom was only a few pastoral friends we decided we must reclaim Harambee. It is the simplest message we proclaim. All God has created is good. Sin entered the world and corrupted God’s intentions. When we put our faith in Jesus all starts anew. God moves in our community. When we face an opportunity which requires more resources than an individual can gather we must organize together. We must reclaim Harambee.

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