This week, I wasn’t the only one who looked to etymology to process the death of Harambe, the lowland gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child found his way into the silverback’s enclosure. “Harambe,” thousands have posted on social media, means “pulling together” or “working together” in Swahili. How fitting, they’ve concluded, using the silverback’s name to call for wildlife conversation, plead for cultural unity in the face of the ensuing and fractious outrage, or rib the many hot-takes the news inspired online. But a closer look at the history of the gorilla’s name may just teach us a thing or two about collective outcry.
Harambe, a variant of harambee, indeed literally means “Let us all pull together” in Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. Though this Bantu tongue claims an estimated 100 million speakers, there aren’t extensive Swahili dictionaries on the web (that I can read at least), let alone etymological ones. The Free Dictionary explains harambee was used as a work chant, the heave-ho of the East African Coast. Laborers, presumably, together muscled a massive load with each call of Harambee!
In Kenya, this interjection took on special significance. After achieving independence from Britain in the 1960s, the new government, led by the Kenya Africa National Union, used Harambee to motivate a developing nation, the slogan emerging from a deeper tradition of community organization and fundraising, or harambee.
Today, Kenya features harambee as its official motto and in its coat of arms. And Harambee schools, secondary institutions funded solely through the efforts of the community, showcase how the word has evolved to mean “self-help.” As Oxford Dictionaries note, harambee more generally names or describes a “charitable fundraiser” in East African English.
In 1983, singer Rita Marley, widow of Bob Marley, released “Harambe,” a track on Harambe (Working Together for Freedom). “Harambe Harambe Rastaman say Harambe / Harambe Harambe The Higher One Say Harambe,” Marley refrains. Her harambe is a greater call for unity and empowerment in the face of the African diaspora.
Dan Van Coppenolle heard Marley’s track while exercising in 1999, as the retired educator told CNN. Moved by the concept, he later submitted Harambe to a Texan zoo’s naming contest for the baby, now late, gorilla. (We can only imagine that such a contest today would yield the much less dignified Gorilla McGorillaface.)
While the origin of Harambe is a rallying cry, its also reminds us that there is a difference between collective outcry and collective action. How fitting for the cultural moment, indeed.