Harambee: A tale of bees, greed and corruption

Former Limuru MP Kuria Kanyingi donates money at a fund raiser.


One day in 1973, Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu was in Tigania area of Meru, where he was evaluating development projects.

 By 10am wananchi were still gathering to hear their PC pronounce government programmes to be implemented in their area. He called on the people to raise funds and construct a district hospital. He proposed that every person present contribute a shilling towards the project.

 The next thing we saw was the people rising up and walking away to their respective homes. They said they were were provoked by the administration by being forced to contribute a shilling. Mahihu sent his chiefs and assistants to order the crowd back to the grounds. Some returned and contributed what they could.

 But it turned out the story had a more sinister twist. At the end of the meeting, an interesting angle to the boycott leaked. In the past, the Tigania people at the same grounds had attended Mahihu’s meetings reluctantly. To ensure Mahihu did not have the opportunity to address them, two or three individuals would attend with a gourd full of bees.

 These guys positioned themselves in strategic areas with their containers hidden under their heavy coats. They waited for the moment the DC introduced the PC to address them. Then they would simply remove the lids letting the angry swarm of bees out. A stampede would then clear the playground ending the meeting prematurely.

 The administration realised something was amiss when this happened at three times. Whenever the PC visited the area, people were frisked to see if they were carrying bees.

 One of the reasons for this behaviour was that people in the area did not like harambees, especially when they were being forced to contribute. Although people like Mahihu had a noble reason to ask for contributions, the harambee spirit introduced by President Jomo Kenyatta was ultimately hijacked by politicians. It helped pool resources together but was also abused by those in power, who used it to enrich themselves.

 One major event that popularised harambees was the focus on the Gatundu Self Help project. It was heavily boosted by contributions from groups visiting Kenyatta’s home ground as a gesture of goodwill. Kenyatta diversified the harambee spirit to spill over into other areas of development, first and foremost by identifying the areas of education and technology.

On the weekend of December 5, 1971, Kenyatta laid the foundation stone of the Murang’a College of Technology, where collection bags were filled with money donated by Kenyans from all parts of the country. A total of Sh1,319,800 was raised, serving as an eye opener for the future of the fund raising movement.

Sh10 million budgets

Kenyatta said: “This is a magnificent example of how nation building may and must be rooted in a spirit of self-reliance and determination.”

On the fact that the College was started by people of Murang’a, Kenyatta said, “It is in every sense a national concept which will not entertain any kind of discrimination or privilege in the intake of students.” Harambee was now taking root. There was no turning back.

Shortly after, the idea of setting up colleges of technology spread out to all provinces. Budgets of approximately Sh10 million were proposed for each instruction. The Nyeri people led by Mwai Kibaki, then the Finance Minister, came up with the idea of the Kimathi Institute of Technology which is now the the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology.

Many colleges mushroomed shortly after in Kiambu, Meru, Kirinyaga, Rift Valley, Kisumu and Kakamega. The flamboyant MP, Kamwithi Munyi, also came up with the Kanyuambora Technical School. The Akamba Union felt challenged and set up theirs.  And in Kisii, the Nyaore Vocational Training Institute was founded.

 Government administrators took the front line to encourage wananchi to raise funds for their prioritised projects. But they soon encountered resistance in some areas, where people felt it was unfair to ask them to contribute.

 In Nyanza and Western Kenya, there were numerous reports of the provincial administrators confiscating chicken and other things from those who did not contribute.

 Most of these items were put to personal use by the marauding local administrators. The practice had a very negative effect on the harambee spirit, resulting in many projects being abandoned.

 In some cases, a list of names of sons and daughters born and bred in a given constituency were obtained together with the addresses of their employers. The local administration usurped the individual right to contribute at will and went ahead to instruct the paymaster and employers to deduct and submit the same to the district development boards.          

This was another way the spirit of harambee was abused, a malice that encroached on salaries of individuals without their consent. The era of forced harambees had arrived.

However, there were cases where where political leaders with an axe to grind with the administration backed their constituents in boycotting development projects that were for their own benefit.

Audited accounts of harambee projects reflecting misappropriation of large sums of money were a regular occurrence that created tension between the leaders and the contributors. In many cases, individuals who were responsible went scot free.  Massive abuse of this system went on into the 1980s as it also became a political tool for fighting opponents. Harambees had become a double-edged sword that pooled resources but also pulled the nation apart. Politicians competed to outdo each other especially atevents presided over by President Moi. The more one gave, the more loyal he or she was thought to be. The source of these funds was questioned many times.

Take the case of Kiambu politician Kuria Kanyingi. At one point, the press christened him “Mr Moneybags” due to the huge bundles of notes he often brought to harambees. On some occasions, he donated Sh2-4 million.

Kanyingi was fished out from the Motor Vehicle Inspection Unit after he helped Moi repair his vehicle, which had broken down near Mai-Mahiu. Later, he was used by Kanu to bring down Vice President Josephat Karanja, who had been appointed after Mwai Kibaki was demoted in 1988.

On one occasion, he contributed Sh2 million to a fund raising event at St Monica Catholic Church at Karanjee Village in his Limuru, then constituency.  Earlier, he had given Sh4 million in brand new, crisp bank notes. Kanyingi was one of the best known Kanu “parrots” who sang the Nyayo song and went to great lengths to pledge loyalty to Moi.

At one point, he was quoted to say: “Hata ukinikata, damu yangu ni Kanu!” (Even if you cut me open, it is just Kanu blood you will see!).

Many other Kanu loyalists contributed huge sums, and used harambees to fight their political opponents. It was also a form of buying votes during elections. If one announced he had brought a donation from the president, he was feared and revered.


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