Origins of harambee festival explored

The annual Harambee festival that is expected to attract 10,000 people this year. The word Harambee is Swahili for “pulling or working together”. 
Photo Courtesy of the FAMU Office of Communications.

What started as an idea created by three Florida A&M University women in the early 1980’s transformed into an annual festival that is expected to attract 10,000 people this year. This most talked about event is the Harambee Festival.

Beverly Barber, the head of the dance department for FAMU, Yvonne Tucker, one of the leaders of the fine arts department, and Nayola Allen, the editor-and-chief for the FAMUAN, were the super forces in their communities, careers, and Harambee Festival.

Barber and Allen were acquainted with each other through the orchestra contemporary dance theater, which Barber was the head. Through that alliance, the duo found themselves, along with Tucker, on the porch of Barber’s brainstorming ideas to bring the community of Tallahassee together.

“Back in the early 1980s, the three of us wanted to find a good vehicle for African-American art in the area,” Allen stated. “There were people that knew about the African culture and works by African-American people but didn’t have access to it because you would have to go to Atlanta, New York or California to purchase high quality black art. There was no festival in Tallahassee at the time and we wanted to bring that fun and informative atmosphere there.”

The art that the women wanted to bring to the community were more than paintings and sculptures. They were looking for ways to expose Tallahassee to dance, literature, jewelry, food, education, and more. Understanding their vision and knowing exactly what they wanted to give to the community helped to develop a strategic plan for them to follow. This plan allowed them to accomplish their goal within year the initial thought happened.

The word Harambee is Swahili for “pulling or working together”. It was a slogan used by Kenya Jomo Kenyatta after their first Independence Day to encourage the communities to work together and raise funds. This word is shouted seven times on the seventh day of Kwanzaa known as “Imani”.  

Allen recalled how she coined the name of the festival and the meaning behind the name.

“I came up with the name of the festival and the others really liked it. I celebrated Kwanzaa and we wanted to have that African flavor to the event,” Allen explained. “So, it seemed so fitting to use the Swahili word of uniting together and at the end of the festival we shouted ‘Harambee’ seven times.”

The Harambee Festival was a successful event because of the help from FAMU and their undeniable determination to get the event to the people.

“FAMU was unbelievable and valuable for partnering with us in this venture. I don’t know if we could have done it without the help of the University and the leadership they had at the time because even the first event had a great turnout,” Allen expressed.

With 30 vendors, various entertainers to perform, and over 500 people the first Harambee Festival created a buzz in Tallahassee.

From 500 to 10,000 visitors the numbers steadily grew and the torch was passed to Charlene Balewa in 2016 as the Harambee Festival Director.

“I wanted to take this huge responsibility because I working as the Communications Marketing Manager in the Office of Communications and we’re always thinking of creative ideas to bring our students, staff, and communities," noted Balewa. “We noticed that we weren’t doing enough community outreach and being the number one HBCU in the nation, it was only fitting that we had the largest Black History Month festival in the community.”

Balewa said she understood she has filled the roles of great women and gained their blessings for the first festival in 2016.  

“I reached out to them for their blessings to start the Harambee Festival again and told them that we wanted to reverse it. So, in 2016 we honored them with plaques because the whole festival is about honoring the ones who came before us and we felt that was the most important part.”

Many students, faculty, staff, and alumni are looking forward to enjoying the day of African-American based festivities, including local alumnus Troy Townsend. Townsend said this will be his first time at the event.

“I’ve always wanted to go to the Harambee Festival while I was in school, but I never had time,” admitted Townsend. “I am excited because this year I will spend much of my day immersed in the African and African-American culture, learning about the art from my past and teaching myself how to keep it alive for my future.”

Overall, the goal of the festival is to fellowship with others passionate about the Black community. This year will be no different as the community comes together to celebrate the past and future achievements of Black people worldwide.