In election year, graffiti reveals Kenyan dissent

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 29 (UPI) -- On a recent afternoon in Nairobi, Boniface Mwangi, the political agitator behind a series of graffiti murals across the Kenyan capital, strolled into his office amidst a roar of applause from colleagues and supporters. Wearing dim blue jeans and a pair of white sneakers, Mwangi picked up a megaphone and shouted the same slogan that was emblazoned on his white T-shirt. “Kenya ni Kwetu,” he said in the Kiswahili language, “Kenya is Our Home."

Mwangi, a 28-year-old photographer and activist, was en route to the Nairobi Police Department for questioning in relation to the murals. The graffiti, which has turned up in several prominent locations in Nairobi's business district, portrays government officials as corrupt and incompetent and urges Kenyans to get rid of them by voting in the forthcoming general elections, which are expected in late 2012 or early 2013.

“Fear is normal,” Mwangi said. “But if I give in to fear, I will be one angry, frustrated person. This is a chance to speak up, talk and embolden people to act and react.”

Not so much the leading man as the director behind the camera, Mwangi has, for the past month, orchestrated the graffiti campaign, tapping a team of five local artists to anonymously spray elaborate, colorful, politically charged murals in the darkness of the night.

At the center of each painting is an image of a vulture: a parody of the country’s politicians. Big-beaked and wearing a dark suit, the bird often carries a black suitcase and stares down arrogantly at citizens as they protest the many unsolved scandals, political assassinations, massacres and shady business deals that have engulfed Kenya in the years since independence. “I am a tribal leader," the vulture says in one of the murals. "They loot, kill, rape and burn in my defense. I steal their taxes, grab land, but the idiots will still vote for me.”

To spread the message and attract public attention, Mwangi's team has targeted public spaces. The first mural turned up on a wall near a public market. The second appeared by a city bus stop, the third on the wall of a public toilet. The group also stenciled their slogan -- "My Voice. My Vote. Our Future." -- onto the streets of a dozen major intersections.

Mwangi is no stranger to the spotlight. He won a major award from CNN for his photography of the crackdown on Mungiki, a banned criminal organization in Kenya, while his photos form Kenya's post-election violence in 2008 were commended in a letter by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for telling “an important and powerful story for the world to hear.” He has also spearheaded Picha Mtaani, an exhibition of street photography aimed at mobilizing youth into the political process.

Franziska Lukas, who helps run the German Cultural Center in Nairobi, said that Mwangi's use of public spaces in the graffiti campaign is a positive development.

“Kenyans have been talking about these issues for the last 20 or more years,” Lukas said. “However, the fact that they are addressing these issues over and over again so that more people understand them and get involved in solving them is what is interesting.”

Joseph Nyanoti, who is pursuing a doctorate on youth culture at the University of Nairobi, said Mwangi's message strikes a chord with young people who are looking for someone to blame for Kenya's social and political problems.

The votes of Kenyans aged 18-35 promise to be an important component in the upcoming elections given the rights granted to young people under the country's new constitution, which was passed by a landslide in August 2010. Hailed as a blueprint for social change, the document guarantees special quotas of youth to participate political decision-making. Under the constitution, young Kenyans are also allowed to run as independent candidates for elections.

Julius Owino, a Kenyan artist and poet who goes by the stage name Juliani, said that unless younger generations put up a united front and demand effective change, solutions won't come easily.

“We are not pissed off enough,” Juliani said. “We are still hopeful that everything will work itself out.”

At the rally to support Mwangi, artists and activists expressed frustration with the government and what they described as an “infringement” over their freedom to express themselves.

“We are tired of the vultures,” a hip-hop artist named Buddha Blaze said. “Journalists go back to the newsrooms and write their stories. Graffiti people draw and express themselves. I don’t know why this should be a problem.”

The graffiti has indeed proved to be a problem for city officials who have rushed to cover over the murals with paint.

For now, Mwangi, a father of three, shows no sign of relenting. With the right security conditions, he says, he plans to take the graffiti revolution across the country and make Kenyans listen and think about his idea of a ballot revolution.

“Graffiti is a way of defiance," he said upon leaving the police station, where officials released him without charge. "I want to do this, and I want to take it to policy levels. Only a bullet will stop me.”