During and after the 2007 elections in Kenya, around 1,100 people were killed and 600,000 displaced when political and tribal groups attacked their opponents' supporters and anyone else in their way. The International Criminal Court is now investigating four politicians – two from each of the leading parties – for inciting what is locally known as “the Violence.” Photographer Boniface Mwangi, 29, captured the violence, but his anger and frustration at what he saw evolved into political activism. In 2009 he founded Picha Mtaani, a traveling photo exhibition of the riots and killings. Mwangi then organized a group of graffiti artists to create controversial murals around Nairobi depicting the nation's political elite as vultures and the populace as idiots for voting them into office again and again. Authorities painted over many of the murals, but a few remain as landmarks. Last summer, his group arranged a rally that carried 49 black coffins to parliament while in session – one coffin for each year the politicians have enjoyed impunity since independence. On them they stenciled “Bury the vulture with your vote,” and each coffin was labeled with a political scandal.
Mwangi worked as a staff photographer for the Kenyan newspaper The Standard, but has also photographed for Reuters, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Agence France-Presse and The Washington Post. He twice won CNN's Mohamed Amin Photographic award. He now runs Pawa254, a creative hub for social change, and works as a freelance photographer.
I spoke to Mwangi on the roof of the Pawa254 office in central Nairobi about his work and what to expect from him and Kenyan politicians leading up to the elections scheduled for March 2013. - by Mike Elkin
Mike Elkin: How did you move from documenting problems to trying to solve them?
Boniface Mwangi: For me it came from frustration. I was very upset about how this country has been managed. I was upset that the media is in bed with the politicians and that most of them own the mainstream media. I was very upset about all the violence because I had seen so, so much and nothing was happening. I was upset because I am middle class, but the middle class don't care about this country. They want to own fast cars and hang out in pubs watching the English Premier League. They don't want to discuss how this country is managed, so they bury their heads in the sand. And I thought, you know what, I could use my voice to do other things aside from just taking pictures.
ME: Was it hard not to get involved while you were taking pictures during the violence?
BM: It's a very tricky time to try to intervene. So for me I was trying to be invisible – I'm there to take pictures and not to be seen. There was a time in [Nairobi slum] Kibera when a girl was shot and she looked like my younger sister. I got so emotional I couldn't take pictures anymore. I was crying like a baby. I was looking at her and I could see my younger sister in that position. She was a young girl who didn't vote, she didn't know who [current president] Kibaki was, and she became a victim. Our biggest challenge is that Kenya is a very tribal country. I can smile at you and say tribes don't matter, but they are there and they are very deep rooted. Behind closed doors they meet and say this community, that community. So our kids are learning from that and they are becoming tribal as well. If you look at the papers for the past three weeks, front to back it's all politics. Two days ago there was an incident in Samburu, where 13 people were shot dead during a cattle rustling incident. If you look at the Kenyan papers, not a single paper ran it on page one or two, it was buried. It's no longer news that people die in this country. It's common. Violence is our way of life. We only care about politicians. It's a fucked up country, so to speak.
The elite keep us busy with news with mergers, with stocks, with politics. And the majority who care are cowards. They know what the problem is and they know what they can to do to help, but they don't do anything, because they are afraid of consequence. They're afraid of being victimized by the state so it's like a zombie country. If the things that happened in this country happened in other countries, there would be an uproar. It defeats logic how people can be slaves to a system and never speak out. People see injustice every day and they watch it happen... But we need Kenyans to wake up. It's like we're in a deep slumber and we just watch events unfold like we have no control. But we do have control, and we're looking for the trigger.
ME: If change must contend with a corrupt elite and an apathetic populace, what do you think you can achieve?
BM: We are building anger among young people, and finding how to turn this anger into action, how to make people more organized. My work is very direct, it's in your face. We don't mince our words, we use very strong words. And we want to make you upset, and tell you when you're upset you need to do something. And that something is not to take a machete to your neighbor, or to just go to a demonstration. You need to be able to see how to organize for change, how to get a ballot revolution. People need to come together and say, “we need change, we need to be a new Kenya,” and the only way to do that is to change our leadership.
ME: What's your next plan of action?
BM: We will continue to do more graffiti, but next Monday we're going to launch an online newspaper, called Mavulture [www.mavulture.com], which means “many vultures.” We're going to put the records of every person involved in the government, every corruption case they've been in, and every accusation about them, online. So when you go vote you'll have this platform to have an informed perspective. When they say, “We are together,” we will see that we are not together. Our kids don't go to foreign schools, we don't have a villa in the UK. We want to provoke the system to see how the system reacts.
ME: What were the reactions from the politicians when you started with the graffiti?
BM: They were shocked when we started, but the shock wore off. That's the problem. We may have a spectacular event, but the event doesn't lead to anything else. So that's why we want to build a movement called Kenya ni Kwetu, Kenya is Our Home, so that the movement can outlast the event and get more people organized. We're playing for the long game.
ME: With that in mind, how do you motivate both your fellow activists and Kenyans in general?
BM: I lead from the front and I am always the last one on the ground. And they have my word that if anything happens to them, I am responsible. The civil activists in this country are very protective of self interests because they are part of the gravy train of corruption. They make a lot of money from donors, so we found that the average civil activist in this country moves like the vultures. And so, yes they are fighting the system, but they want to be part of the system. They want you to send your sons and daughters to the streets, but they don't send their own. When I go to a rally, my wife and kids go too. For me, I'm doing this for selfish reasons, because I want my three kids to grow up in a better country than what I have now. I want to them to be able to go to public schools and hospitals. This is a rich country, we pay a lot of taxes, but where does our money go to?
ME: What sort of events or actions are you planning leading up to the elections in March?
BM: We have many plans in the pipeline, but we want to see how the field clears because right now there are so many candidates. We have a very small team and budget so we have to be focused.
ME: Who finances your operations?
BM: The Open Society Foundation gives money to use this building [It gave them $22,000 last year in grant money], and also the Swiss Embassy. But we have a few anonymous donors who give us the money for the graffiti. Because our work is very controversial and in-your-face, most donors don't want to work with us because they fear the government will come after them.
ME: Getting the middle class involved in the Arab Spring revolutions was very important to their successes. How do you plan to get them involved?
BM: They have to overcome their fears: fear of losing their job, losing their mortgages, losing their girlfriends. This country is very small, and the majority of the companies are owned by politicians or vultures. So if some people go to protest, they realize that there will be repercussions and fired for doing that. So they need to overcome fear. We're thinking of doing a mask protest, where everyone will wear a mask. So people can show their true colors.
ME: Do you predict violence for the next election?
BM: There will be violence, maybe not as much as the last time, but there will be violence. Around December, when they start naming candidates. Because politics is so lucrative, they are willing to kill. So in December we'll have some nasty fights between tribal militia and party supporters. Also, it will depend on the outcome of the ICC case. If [William] Ruto, and Uhuru Kenyatta are not allowed to vie, there will be violence. But we hope that they are not allowed to vie, because how can you have someone accused of rape and crimes against humanity be elected president?
Mike Elkin is a freelance journalist based in Madrid, Spain. This is his first piece for Warscapes.