Nairobi graffiti mobilizes Kenyans for change – or not…
There is a rare view along Nairobi’s Muindi Mbingu Street that day early in March. People stay put to look at a political graffiti describing the scandals that have engulfed Kenya and the political mischief practiced by Kenyan politicians: ‘I am a tribal leader. They loot, rape, burn and kill in my defence. I steal their taxes, grab land, but the idiots will still vote for me’ – one picture says.
After the first graffiti, three more are done, all of them by night, in strategic places where many people pass by, including targeted politicians on their way to parliament. Quickly the graffiti discussion goes viral: people take photos and upload them on social network sites, where they are shared, tagged and debated. The makers are congratulated for their boldness and encouraged to go on – a hundred pieces are the target.
However, debate on the real issues is minimalist. “More should follow in other places to educate our people on graft “ the facebook comments read. But also: "Great effort, but a few people almost got hit by cars while looking at the stenciled work. Could they be moved to other ‘grounds?” WanjikũRevolution – a facebook initiative meaning ‘The Kenyan citizen’ – starts amplifying the graffiti conversation (among other shoe-pinching-political issues) with more dedication. Slowly people start connecting.
Meanwhile we know the creative director, Boniface Mwangi, award winning photo journalist and founder of Picha Mtaani, an organization trying to contribute to reconciliation after the 2007 post-election violence. Immediately the online gossip also revolves around his person, questioning his position, his allies, his motives. While initially, anonymity was the juicy part of this campaign – public imagination around the faces behind this art, how they do it, who are they, who is funding them? That juice starts watering down a bit – Mwangi is now featured on NTV, BBC, Guardian and blogosphere. Will it amplify the message or increase government’s hurry to crunch the initiative?
The latest mural has already been painted blue, on the orders of City Council. The response of the online community has been swift. Immediately it created the twitter hashtag #LetMwangiDraw.
Now, will the creativity and courage of Mwangi and his people finally evolve into something bigger? Or is it just humming that same tune, those things that people already know (consciously or unconsciously) and then you draw a picture and the people are very happy about your boldness but then, conversation ends right there? What kind of change, when, how?
The elections are one year from now. But whom to vote for? The graffiti does not provide the clue – but one thing for sure: this is about more than ‘just corruption’. It is about tribalism vs. pluralism, what it means to be a responsible leader, and what our responsibility is as citizens. It is about challenging ‘The Way Things Have Always Been Done Around Here’.
Not many years ago, Kenyan’s hope laid on the nation’s famous whistle blower John Githongo, whose serious attempts to address corruption failed miserably (and are described as a breathtaking thriller in ‘Now it’s our turn to eat’ by journalist Michaela Wrong). A few token officials lost their jobs, Kibaki was let off the hook and then it was back to business as usual, as this foreign correspondent rightly points out.
Can creativity and social media do more than Githongo was able to do? Or is our attention span comparable to that of the media who seem to be driven by the usual scoop-type opportunism of who features this thing first?
The artists are being clear about this. One graffiti had a direct message to the middle-class-arm-chair-critics of the country. A phrase on the walls (which were over-painted by the city council) read "middle class Kenyans, get off Facebook and twitter and do something positive offline”.
Meanwhile, Boniface Mwangi has been summoned to central police station. The irony of it is that; when machine gun-toting police officers showed up at one graffiti scene earlier, it turned out that Mwangi himself had hired them to keep an eye on things.
Gregg Mwenda & Ute Seela
Photograph: Clar Ni Chonghaile