This was the Kibera peace train, a collaborative effort of members of the community-based organisation Kibera Hamlets, Nairobi’s celebrity graffiti writers Spray Uzi and many other Kenyan artists who turned up at the city’s railway station the previous Sunday to paint the entire side of a train with messages of peace and unity.
The project, which was endorsed by the Rift Valley Railways, is another episode in a long line of political artistic campaigns that targeted Kenyan citizens and politicians in the run up to the elections last March.
Of these, the work of SprayUzi and the social-political activist Boniface Mwangi with his organisation Pawa254 stands out for their consistent drive to keep Nairobi residents informed and aware of the dangers of voting in leaders who peddle divisive tribal discourse for political gain.
The first of these initiatives was in early 2012 when one morning a mural appeared on a wall in Nairobi’s Central Business District: on the left side of the wall a suited vulture politician figure sits on a woman; a briefcase crammed with money is handcuffed to his hand. In a speech bubble he declares: “I’m a tribal leader, they loot, rape, burn and kill in my defence. I steal their taxes, grab their land, but the idiots still vote for me”. By the vulture’s head, a long list the scandals that have rocked the Kenyan political establishment since independence 60 years ago are spelled out. On the right hand of the mural smiling Kenyan citizens are depicted as they list the qualities they hope their new leaders will be imbued with.
These campaigns have not been limited to graffiti. Last June, Mwangi organised a large demonstration in which 49 coffins, each bearing the name of a different political scandal, were marched to Parliament in protest of the culture of corruption and impunity so prevalent in Kenyan politics.
Pawa 254 also launched the website Mavulture in November. Mavulture is a forum which uses articles, videos and info graphics to reveal truths about this year’s political candidates and to highlight their hypocrisy through ironic short films which portray conniving politicians who talk of peace and unity but are in fact only focussed on personal and financial gain.
These are some of the high-profile examples but they are by no means the only ones. Over the past few months increasing numbers of youth and artists have taken to the streets to demand an end to political corruption and to remind their fellow-citizens to vote wisely and not along tribal-lines.
The hope was that this multi-pronged approach – using graffiti, trains, demonstrations, billboards and websites would increase the chances that the message will reach Nairobi’s poor. During the 2008 post-election violence, it was the poor who were caught in the middle of the havoc and suffered the most, both in the cities and in rural areas. The country’s middle class, the ones who are most active online and who have the tools to make informed decisions, simply witnessed the violence like the rest of the world on their TV screens.
By bringing the message to a street level, people like Boniface Mwangi were attempting to ensure everyone thought about their vote and decided whether it was worth their while to vote in the same politicians who have helped perpetuate Kenya’s corrupt political system over the decades.
Whether artists have the power to speak to and for the people is a big question mark that is yet to be answered. Did their art have more impact than the political rallies currently taking place up and down the country? Probably not.
Yet the elections did go ahead peacefully and even if in the end not everyone in the country was content with the results.
This article was originally published on urb.im in February 2013