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Harambee is a word with many meanings. It is Swahili, pronounced ha-rahm-bay, and literally means “unity,” “pulling together” or “all for one.”
It was adopted as the national motto in Kenya after the country gained independence to encourage citizens to give their best and help each other.
Harambee is also an event, when a community bands together to build a house or raise money for a child’s education.
That is how Matthew Gartland, a second-year student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, uses harambee. Gartland is one of the co-founders of the non-profit organization Harambee For All Children, which is committed to improving the quality of education in the rural village of Ikumbo, Kenya.
“One of the many meanings of harambee is a community fundraiser around education,” he said. “A couple hundred people will come out and sit in someone’s backyard under banana trees and they will feature a few students who need school fees to study. They’ll pass a basket around and people will have brought chickens, beans and other personal possessions that could be auctioned to help fund the students. That meaning was perfect for us. We wanted this to be a community-driven organization, not just a group of Americans telling people what to build.”
This month, 1,700 books donated by the charity Books for Africa, will arrive in a shipping container after weeks at sea. They will be housed in the brand new community library, giving all the citizens of Ikumbo access to encyclopedias, atlases, textbooks and novels.
The library is the latest project organized by Harambee For All Children, which has also built classrooms, administrative offices and a science lab.
“This was a small community with previously no access to secondary education,” Gartland explained. “Maybe they could send three or four students a year off to a regional boarding school, but they didn’t really have a lot of options. Ikumbo is a farming community, and education ended at eighth grade for 95 percent of children.”
It all started before Gartland arrived at Vanderbilt, when he spent a year and a half in Kenya working for the Clinton Foundation in its HIV/AIDS initiative. One of his colleagues was Davis Karambi, a native of Ikumbo, who would later become Gartland’s partner in Harambee for All Children.
When Gartland’s best friend came to Kenya for a visit, they approached Davis. “Instead of doing something touristy, we wanted to do a service project, so we asked Davis if there was anything we could contribute to in his home,” Gartland recalled. “Sure enough, the community had been working on this secondary school for almost a decade.”
The village had erected two semi-permanent wood structures that could accommodate 40 students, but many more had to meet outside. So they helped construct another classroom and the administrative offices. Having offices allowed the school to officially register with the Kenyan government, which then supplied a head master, teachers, tuition subsidies, and funds for books and supplies.
“Literally in two weeks, the building flew up because the town was ready to go. All the parents of the students came out to dig the foundation and lay stones down,” Gartland said.

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