Tuko Pamoja

Tuko Pamoja

Many leaders hesitate or are fearful of engaging others in decision-making. It can take time, raise a multitude of questions, and potentially change the course of the desired solution. However, if done right, it can have lasting implications for the success of a journey and shared accountability for the outcomes.

The sun was ever present and all-seeing, save for the spots of shade under the acacia trees dotting the savanna. The valley looked like a leopard sleeping in the bright warmth.

I was riding with a mentor of mine down the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley and out on gravel and sandy roads past trees, pastures, and the occasional boma. A ‘boma’ is a circular semi-permanent encampment that the Maasai people traditionally built to protect their families and livestock. We passed over a small bridge that had been made across a washout, or dried-out stream bed, that could have easily been caused by an unexpected flash flood some years back. There was a strikingly dressed, stoic figure of a Maasia man who was waiting patiently beside the bridge as though time didn’t matter for whatever was on his mind or to-do list.

“You see that bridge back there?” my friend asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“The local communities here built that bridge together after the road washed out a couple years ago.  It never existed before, but because of that event they needed it to. So they built it. The difference between how things go here versus back in the States is that no one was about to come in and fix this road for them. They had to do it themselves.”

“Sure,” I said.  Made enough sense.

We drove onward.

“The other thing though,” he continued, “is that it’s not any one persons’ problem out here. It’s a shared part of the world during the day, where people pass through and use the grass for grazing or the water for drinking, and they move on. But no one really owns it in practice.  So it’s no one’s problem… or it’s everyone’s problem.

“So pretty much exactly how you saw that gentleman back there – leaning on a stick and waiting in the hot sun – is how they actually organized to fix the bridge. Word got out that it needed fixing, and I kid you not, every leader in this community along with kids, dogs, and anyone interested, came one by one to sit and have a discussion about the problem and how they were going to fix it.  They’d wait hours and days until everyone assembled there before coming to a conclusion about what to do.  Once everyone was there, they created a plan and agreed on it.

“Huh,” I said.

“Now, again in the US, most of us would consider that to be pretty inefficient. We’d call the government, or someone would make a decision, and we’d tell everybody else what they needed to know about it. ‘FYI.’ And get it done.

“Over here, they get everyone involved and of like-mind before they move forward.  Everyone has to be in agreement – to the person.  The difference in outcome, however, is that 1) no one is confused about what is happening and the why or the how.  And 2) they all own the outcome. If that bridge breaks, if anyone has a problem with it, etc, they owned it and are accountable.”

That brief story from our car ride across the rift valley stuck with me throughout the following weeks and months as I began to notice other aspects of life in that part of the world.

Another time, I was with an American physician and a group of Maasai warriors and elders sitting under an Acacia tree discussing something that was both new to them and socially taboo to discuss: HIV. The intro to this dialogue was focused on breeding cows, the specs on bulls for optimal fertility, etc, but that’s a story for another day (also happens to be the favorite subject for Maasai men).  But in this discussion about what HIV is, how it is contracted, and how it can be prevented, I noticed the leadership of the dialogue began shifting from the physician (the teacher) to the group.  As they began drawing their own conclusions, given this new information, about what the right behaviors were and then what decisions were to be made, it became much more of a call and response. Nodding, conviction, agreeing.

“Tuko pamoja?” the young leader asked toward the crescendo of the conversation.

“Ayyyy,” came the collective response. (Which means “YES”)

“Tuko pamoja?”  “Are we together?” 

‘Tuko pamoja’ is a saying in Swahili that literally means: we are together?  In much of western culture, that typically means something like this: “I, the speaker, have a point to make in the middle of other points that I’m making. And I want to know if a) you understood my point, and b) are you paying attention?” In East Africa, that was certainly true as well. But it hit me under the acacia tree that “Are we together?” was not just asking if people were listening or tracking with the discussion.  It was asking ‘are we in agreement?’ Or at least ‘Are we committed to each other and the outcome? Are we in this together?’

In some social traditions, such as in marriage ceremonies, we would almost liken this to being in covenant together. “The two shall become one.”  Of one mind. Of one focus. Of one, shared interest.

That was what was happening there in a remote part of East Africa every day.  It was a picture of collaboration right before my eyes in business, in society, and in problem-solving throughout the week. Shared conviction and accountability for a cause with a collective mindset that puts the whole before the parts.

In 2020, the entire world entered its first modern, shared dilemma: global pandemic.  COVID-19 required hospitals, providers, patients, government, and all of their respective partners in between to be playing their A-game in responding to the crisis. There was much success organization to organization, community to community. But asynchronously, apart from one another, it was a national and global situation of whack-a-mole at best.

What will be next? Climate change? War? 

The concept of “tuko pamoja” stands in direct opposition to the classic dilemma of “consensus = time and cost.” Instead, collaboration, with shared conviction, shared line of sight, shared commitment – consensus – is a must; and in the case of pandemic, we had to do it as quickly as possible. 

Sitting under the Acacia tree can be a powerful force for progress. Though it often doesn’t feel like it, months if not years of backlash and undermining can be avoided with meaningful dialogue and common understanding up front – with everyone in it.



What is your acacia tree, where you and others can make the time and have dialogue to see eye to eye?

Where are you most missing a common understanding with your peers and partners right now?

Leadership is worth nothing alone. Tuko pamoja?

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