'Send the vultures packing'

Portret of Boniface Mwangi, photo-journalist and activist

From my café terrace in The Hague’s pleasant street bustle I immediately spot him. Boniface Mwangi sticks out with his polo shirt in black, green and red, the colours of the Kenyan flag. Apart from that, the two-time winner of the CNN Africa Photojournalist Award (2008 and 2010) is an inconspicuous figure. He shows signs of fatigue that shouldn’t be there at his age and his shoulders are slightly slumped, as if he bears the weight of a whole continent.

  • Allan Gichigi Boniface Mwangi Allan Gichigi

He looks at me inquisitively when I approach him. I am obviously not the reporter he was expecting. ‘I thought you might be a Kenyan who came up to greet me’, he later on admits. In the background, a cover version of Otis Redding’s resigned Sitting at the Dock of the Bay is playing. The song’s acquiescence to the immutability of things fits well with the tiredness that surrounds 29-year-old Mwangi.

But as soon as the words pour out of his mouth, the magnitude of his energy and resistance against the state of affairs becomes clear. During our conversation in the Dutch summer sun and later on when he adresses a group of aspiring Dutch artists or during his TED and other speeches on the Internet, Mwangi always talks with the speed and fervour of someone expecting to be silenced at a moment’s notice.

In the compact basement room in The Hague’s Nutshuis, Mwangi tells a group of students of the Royal Art Academy about the events in 2007 that turned the then 24-year-old press photographer into the photo-activist he is today. After the December 2007 presidential elections, over 1,000 people died within two months and more than half a million Kenyans became fugitives in their own country. Mwangi was working at the time for the second largest paper in Kenya, The Standard, covering the post-electoral violence. Unlike his foreign colleagues, as a Kenyan he could move relatively unnoticed amongst the conflicting parties. The big international agencies went crazy for his pictures and soon he was earning more than his boss.

So his bravura payed off but it also left considerable psychological scars. ‘For a long time, I was heavily traumatised, depressed, and seriously suicidal’, he says. The pictures he shows are telling: chopped-off hands, lots of blood, police violence and machetes. The faces filled with hatred, desperation and fear leave a deep impression on the audience.

‘I do not want you to pity my country’, Mwangi cautions the audience. ‘This violence is our problem and it is up to us to solve it.’ He shares his experiences to wake people up and to show what happens when they don’t speak up and just watch. The Dutch elections are just over and Mwangi does not hesitate to refer to the dangers of the far-right in Dutch politics. ‘Just letting it take its course is the same as promoting it’, he says.

Mwangi is inspired by Mohamed Amin, a Kenyan photographer who raised worldwide awareness for the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s. He was given Amin’s biography in Sunday school. ‘I always loved photography, but after reading that biography I understood that you can really make a difference with photographs. With his pictures, that man has kicked the world a conscience by himself,’ he says. The images triggered the hit single, We Are the World, the first Live Aid concert and the “CNN effect”.

Awareness

Mwangi’s life could have been completely different. With six siblings and a single mother, he had a hard time growing up. They often moved, the family was split up and Mwangi ended up in a reform school, only to get thrown out quickly thereafter. It was a hard life, with poverty and crime leaving their mark, but Mwangi also remembers a lot of love from his mother and idyllic moments of playing in the mud, picking fruits and fishing. And somewhere during their nomadic existence, political awareness also seeped in.

‘At a certain moment, my mother converted and she regularly withdrew for a while to pray and fast’, Mwangi remembers. ‘I asked her what she was praying for and she answered that she was asking for Moi to die (the president at the time). Today my mother is dead and Arap Moi is still alive. So the lesson learned is that prayer is not enough. People have to do something too’, Mwangi says.

After the election violence, Mwangi soon realised that everyone in his middle-class environment was returning to their business as usual. ‘That was really unbearable. So instead of killing myself, I just quit my job,’ he says. He tried to channel his anger and frustration, and even attempted to get the attention of the president himself, yet without success.

‘In the end, it’s never the leaders themselves who go to war, it’s the people’, Mwangi says to clarify his decision to turn to the people. So he set up Picha Mtaani, a travelling street exhibition and from 2008 to 2011 he travelled the country with his photographs of the election violence. More than 500,000 people saw the exhibition, thousands received psychological assistance, and more than 60,000 people signed a pledge that they will not take part in future violence. ‘The pictures are an instrument for dialogue’, he explains. ‘They do not have a caption, so that people can watch them unprejudiced.’ A team of therapists dealt with the intense reactions to the pictures and there was also a dialogue tent where people could talk to each other safely. ‘It’s like a truth and reconciliation commission, led by young people, through photography.’

According to Mwangi, prejudice and discord are deeply rooted in Kenyan society. He views the problem as a remnant of the colonial times, when the British applied divide-and-conquer tactics to the different communities and, after independence, passed on their plundering and stealing ways to their successors, the Kenyan elite. ‘We have to reclaim our country, for too long our story has been told by foreigners,’ he says. One of the central slogans in Mwangi’s work and that of his team is “Kenya nikwetu”: Kenya is my home. ‘Most Kenyans do not have a passport to go abroad, so it has to happen here,’ he says.

Our leaders are like vultures: they are greedy but they do not want to work for it. When we fight, they send their children abroad.

The West comes before Africa

Even though he traces the origin of Kenya’s problems today back to colonial days and even though he travels the world and his organisation is supported by institutions like the United Nations, Mwangi pays little attention to the West in his activism. For him, Africa comes first. He mentions Kenya’s involvement in a war against terrorism in Somalia - a war the country has nothing to do with, according to him. ‘That’s what is wrong with African authorities’, says Mwangi, ‘for them, the West comes before the African people. As long as Africa cannot stand up for what is best for Africa, we are doomed’.

He goes on, fiercely, stringing together the international paradoxes: ‘Belgium has the best chocolate in the world and one of the most important diamond markets. Yet, the country does not produce either of these goods. Why do we keep exporting raw materials?’ he asks impatiently. ‘We talk about wars for raw materials but in the African continent there are hardly any weapons produced. The average Congolese has never seen a diamond up close and still countless of them are killed for those same diamonds.’

What leaves an extra bitter taste for Mwangi about the current African elite is that they don’t even spend the people’s money they stole in Africa, but put it in Western banks or buy Western houses and apartments with it. ‘So our money is not only stolen by our own people, it is also handed back to the former colonisers’, he says.

Mwangi directs his sharpest arrows at his own country. In a curious mixture of careless fearlessness and heartfelt disdain and sadness, he does not hold back when speaking of the Kenyan politicians. ‘They are vultures who stuff themselves with what they steal from the weak.’ His countrymen he dubs idiots and cowards: ‘Time and again they vote for the same vultures and they lack the courage to point a finger at them’, he says.

At the same time he is proud of his generation: it voted out Moi and the election troubles did eventually lead to a new constitution and a reform of the state with more powers for the regions. As far as Mwangi is concerned, the final step is getting rid of the vultures: ‘The forest might have changed, but the monkeys are still the same,’ he says.

PAWA254

In the meantime, Mwangi set up yet another venture. He is the director of the creative hub PAWA254, a common work space in Nairobi for visual artists who want to dedicate part of their time to bring about social change. They carry the dream of a united Kenya in their name: 254 is Kenya’s country code and “pawa” refers to the power of the people. They train young people and put all their energy in raising awareness amongst Kenyans to the upcoming elections in March 2013. The past year, they dotted the capital with striking graffiti murals of vultures and captions that encourage people to vote them out coming March.

‘We were wondering what image would best capture 49 years of plundering the land, political murders, impunity and corruption’, Mwangi says to explain their choice of the scavenger bird. ‘The vulture is an animal that does not hunt. Just like our leaders: they are greedy but they do not want to work for it. When we fight, they send their children abroad.’

Like their travelling exhibition the graffiti has met no small amount of opposition. The painting is done by night, under cover. Twenty four hours later it has often been painted over again. Yet Mwangi and his people don’t lose heart. At the end of June they held a march to the Kenyan parliament to leave 49 coffins there. ‘It’s a loving good-bye present’, Mwangi says with a smirk. Each of the coffins represented one of the crimes the Kenyan people have had to endure over the past 49 years since the independence.

As in 2008, Mwangi is acutely aware of the passivity of the middle class. On Twitter and Facebook his initiatives win high levels of support. ‘Social media can give people the impression that they have a big impact, but that’s not the case’, he says. ‘Awareness is not automatically turned into action. Actually, social media are one big talk shop. Besides, most voters are not even on Twitter or Facebook’. According to Mwangi, it is in the middle class’s best interest to actively strive for real change, because otherwise the violence will erupt again.

Action starts with the individual, as Mwangi sees it. ‘I do this for personal reasons. I have three children I love very much. I love them more than my country. They are the reason I’m doing this,’ he says. He deliberately gave his children names from different ethnic groups. In a TEDx speech in Kibera, Nairobi’s famous slum, he calls on young people to take leadership into their own hands, and not to count on outsiders who don’t share their experiences.

As far as he is concerned, international aid can stop. ‘If people are dying, the leaders will have no choice but to come with solutions’, he says. He doesn’t say if he’ll ever go into politics himself. ‘You can’t just run for office, you have to have a strong alternative’, he says. Two Kenyans are candidates in the coming elections even though they are among four accused at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for their part in the post-electoral violence in Kenya in 2007 and 2008. Enjoying the Dutch sun at our café terrace in The Hague I cannot not ask Mwangi about his thoughts on the Court. ‘The International Criminal Court is a good court’, says Mwangi. ‘It sends out the right message to the perpetrators and the victims are really happy with it. The only problem I have with the court, is that it hasn’t arrested Bush and Blair yet for what they did in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israeli government for what they are doing in Palestine. But that doesn’t mean that what our leaders have done to us is any better.’ With a smile, he adds: ‘Maybe we need an African court to go after Blair and Bush’.

translated from Dutch by Tom Deneire and Aoife White

 

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