Harambee {Book Club}

Harambee {Book Club}

Can I title a post about a book set in Brazil with a Swahili word and concept? This term fits Costa Contente perfectly!

There are a couple of explanations of the etymology of the word harambee, but the one I heard first dates to the time when the Kenya-Uganda railroad was being built – that railroad made famous by John Henry Patterson’s memoir The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and the 1996 movie The Ghost and the Darkness (which I haven’t seen).

One of the main characters of the historical fiction book The Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani, is an Indian man who crossed the Indian Ocean to work in present-day Kenya, back when it was a British colony. While working as a surveyor for the Kenya-Uganda railroad, he observed Indian porters rallying themselves to move heavy loads by calling on Hindu gods, “Hare! Ambe!” Swahili speakers picked up the call from their Indian coworkers, and it eventually became harambee, meaning “everyone pull together.”

Today, it is the national motto of Kenya and appears on the coat of arms. Fundraisers are called harambees. But the general attitude of everyone working together has been normal since long before the British ever came to East Africa.

Everyone pulling together is part of group-oriented hot climate cultures (read more about that in Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier), like Kenya and Brazil both. I also see this in small communities anywhere in the world. Even in cold-climate cultures, people who live in small towns tend to band together more. Without the conveniences provided by urban infrastructure, small town people recognize how much we need each other.

The small community we have gotten to know through The Many Wonders of Costa Contente embodies the spirit of everyone-pull-together. Every time a problem arises, everyone gathers in the Taverna Amore to discuss what is happening and possible solutions. Whatever is decided, they all pitch in to do their part to help. There is never an attitude of “what will I get out of this” or “you owe me because I helped you last time.”

One thing that I noticed through all of the ups and downs in the town was that some of the problems affected the entire town or even the surrounding area (such as the forest), but some of the problems involved only one or two residents. Yet still, everyone was eager to help out. In real life, I see people assess problems considering whether or not they will be affected. Even communal cultures can sometimes ignore problems that affect only a few or the marginalized of their group. They will harambee only when the issue affects the group as a whole or those in positions of power.

But that’s not the way of Costa Contente. What I see there is people who truly value the community itself and each individual of the group. There seems to be a perfect balance, elevating neither the community nor the individual over the other. Individuals work for the good of the community and each other. The community goes above and beyond to support any individual in need. And when they all work together, there is no obstacle they can’t overcome! In the words of Zequinho, “Remember, you are from Costa Contente where nothing is impossible.”

The chapter about Gustavo and the mermaid especially stood out to me. It is both mysterious and beautiful. Realizing that he was dying, Gustavo finally shared the secret he had kept for decades: that he knew a mermaid and could only go down into the sea with her when he died. No one in town stood to gain anything from honoring his dying wish to be put out to sea, alone in a boat, to meet up with his mermaid. No one wrote him off as a crazy old man, either. Everyone worked together, doing everything possible to make it happen.

Join me in the comments! Which of the stories touched you most? What could you relate to? What surprised you?

Next month we are reading Always Love: The Timeless Story of God’s Heart for the World and What it Means for You by Sara Lubbers.

In Always Love, you’ll rediscover the Bible’s overarching narrative as themes are woven together revealing a seamless story from beginning to end. After following these themes through each major twist and turn, through difficult passages normally glossed over, through narrative, poetry, and ancient history, you won’t read the Bible the same way again! And more than that, you’ll be inspired to respond to God’s Always Love for you and find your place in His Story.

Here’s our May schedule:

May 4th- Chapters 1-13

May 11th- Chapters 14-27

May 18th- Chapters 28-41

May 25th- Chapters 42-53, Epilogue

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash


  1. Sarah Hilkemann April 28, 2021

    I love the idea/concept of harambee! It feels very familiar having grown up in a small town and rural area of the US, and also having lived in the warm culture of Cambodia. It makes me smile to see people do their part, or just show up with whatever they have, to help someone in need. 🙂

    1. Rachel Kahindi April 29, 2021

      It is beautiful to witness people working together. When it’s done right, I believe it’s the way the local church should operate.

  2. Kate McVaugh May 1, 2021

    Dear Book Club Ladies,
    Thank you so much for reading my book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments and insights, and learning about the connections made to the people and town of Costa Contente. I cannot tell you how happy it has made me.
    As to Harambee, what a fabulous word with a wonderful history! (and thank you Rachel for the future reading tips.)
    My best to all of you and all the wonderful work you do.
    Warm Regards, Kate McVaugh

  3. Michelle May 3, 2021

    As a fellow Kenyan resident I LOVED your incorporation of the word Harambee. It so beautifully captures so many cultures (as you pointed out). 😀As someone else mentioned this is a beautiful collection of short-stories as opposed to one over-arching story. I was a little concerned that one of our main characters would pass away before the book ended. And was happy for that to not be the case.

    I’m going to sit out next month. And June remains to be told. I absolutely want to read Butterfly. So while my timing might not be in sync on the reading, I’m hoping to at least pop in a bit during July. Happy reading friends!

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