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Why I chose to stand up, alone: TED Fellow Boniface Mwangi on risking his life for justice in Kenya

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Boniface Mwangi portrait

Boniface Mwangi stands in front of one of the murals he helped create. The main character is “the Vulture” — a stand-in for Kenya’s corrupt politicians. Photo: Allan Gichingi

Award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi captured the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya unflinchingly through the lens of his camera. But the horrors he witnessed propelled him into a new career as an activist and artist. Here, Mwangi talks to the TED Blog about the events that led him to stand up against injustice, literally, rather than simply document it.

Tell us about your experience on the front lines of the post-election violence in Kenya.

At the time, I was a photographer working for The Standard, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya. It was a routine election, though hotly contested. There were two contenders: Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki won — at least he claimed that he won — while Raila claimed that he was the rightful winner and that Kibaki had rigged the election. So the supporters of the two politicians erupted into fighting over the results. What followed was ugly, bloody, terrible violence. More than a thousand people were killed, and more than half a million displaced. My job was just to document this violence as a photographer.

Why do you think this particular event created such a violent response?

During the build-up of the election, there was a lot of terrible tribal rhetoric. The politicians were inciting people, slowly. Whatever the outcome was, the losing side would not be ready to accept the results. There were a lot of underlying, unresolved issues; a violent response was inevitable. It didn’t just happen. It was very deliberate.

Boniface Mwangi documented post-election violence in Kenya in 2007, an experience that made him turn to art and activism. Photo: Boniface Mwangi

Boniface Mwangi was assigned to photograph the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. His photos are unflinching, capturing violence from both civilians and soldiers. Photo: Boniface Mwangi

Did you see it coming?

No. No one saw it coming. You see, we’d had elections before in 1992 and 1997 where people died — maybe 10, 20, 50, 100 — but it was a scattered number and relatively few. The sheer brutality of 2007’s events — this level of orchestrated violence — had never been seen before in Kenya.

Did other Kenyans try to stop it?

The violence was in low-income neighborhoods, and most Kenyans did not know the extent of what was going on. If you are extremely poor, you only get your news on the radio. All those communities heard about were numbers of the dead and displaced, and they couldn’t relate. If you’re middle class, you might get the paper or watch TV, but graphic pictures were not shown because TV content is classified for family audiences. Most Kenyans did not see what really happened.

What were the police doing while this was happening?

By and large, the monstrosity of the violence overwhelmed them. Unfortunately, the police were perpetrators as well. I took pictures of women who had been raped by the policemen who were meant to protect them. I saw innocent kids being killed by police. During the violence, I only broke down once — when a girl was killed. She was about 12 years old, and she looked like my younger sister. That made me wail like a baby.

How do you take pictures in the face of such violence? Are you concerned about your personal safety?

When I’m taking pictures, I’m not thinking about the person. I’m thinking about lighting, framing, composition. There is so much adrenaline in your body that you’re not thinking about death. You’re not careless — you’re careful while you’re doing your work — but at the same time you realize that you have to do a job. If you’re a news photographer, or any photographer, and you get a chance to cover hard news like war, it’s stimulating and also humbling. It’s every news photographer’s dream to cover war. So at that particular time, I wasn’t really thinking about safety.

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What Boniface Mwangi saw during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 led him turn to art and activism. Photo courtesy of Boniface Mwangi

What became of the half a million Kenyans who were displaced?

Some of them have gone back to their homes now, but many are not being welcomed back into the community from which they had been expelled. Even years later, the wounds of conflict have not healed. Some have been resettled, but many more remain displaced. Kenya has 44 million people, and about 42 tribes. Each tribe is unique, so some people ended up in a community where they were essentially foreign — as foreign as if you were to move to a country with a different language, culture and values. How can you go back to a community where your neighbors tried to kill or rape you or your family? There’s still a lot of animosity. The politicians will try and downplay it, but the truth is that tensions still remain.

What did you do in the aftermath of this terrible violence?

Eventually, the two candidates settled on a power-sharing agreement and — when they did they meet — it was over a cup of coffee. I’m serious — one guy had tea, the other guy had orange juice, and Kofi Annan was there as the mediator. They agreed to share the government and to form a government of national unity.

What disturbed me is that I had just come from the midst of the violence and watching the atrocities. It wasn’t just stories I’d heard — I was a witness to the killings. And then I was assigned to go and cover the same politicians doing this. That bothered me. I watched them meet, laugh and get into their motorcades. They were swimming in their trappings of power and pomposity. They moved on and forgot the victims. They forgot that the country went to war because of them.

So I quit my job out of frustration — out of anger and bitterness. I was extremely upset. My wife says that I was a hard man to live with then. I was at the point where my response was, essentially, “How do you bring down the government?” I thought the way to do that was to protest, but it didn’t work out. So I started to organize my friends to confront the violence and killings. We planned for many months to go and heckle the president during a live, nationally broadcast public speech. We would embarrass him, and maybe get his attention. For months we planned, discussed, encouraged each other.

The moment of truth: Boniface Mwangi stands up alone to protest on June 1, 2009. He was arrested, beaten and jailed. Photo courtesy of Boniface Mwangi

The moment of truth: Boniface Mwangi stands up alone to protest the president on June 1, 2009. Photo: Courtesy of Boniface Mwangi

Then the day came. It was June 1, 2009. I went to the stadium where the president was speaking. No one else turned up. I tried calling my friends. One said, “Oh, I have a flight to catch.” Another said,  “I’m washing my clothes.” Some switched off their phones. Others did not take my calls. I found myself all alone. I thought, “Man, will I do this?” It was a scary day. I had left a pregnant wife at home, and went to the stadium not knowing what would happen to me.

Did you worry that you might be hurt or killed for standing up?

Yes.At the very least, I knew I would get arrested. They wouldn’t necessarily shoot me — they would more likely beat me to a pulp so that I’d never walk again or be left brain-dead. That happened to many others. I knew I would get beaten — but to what extent I did not know. But my body was prepared for the beating, that’s for sure.

Sitting there, I knew I had a decision to make. I could easily just choose to sit and do nothing. But on the other hand, I had to be true to my ideals and beliefs. This was not about me — it was about something much bigger. So in the end, I stood up and shouted. It was terrifying. I stood up. They pounced on me, beat me thoroughly and took me to jail.

Did they break anything?

No, and I consider myself very lucky. I had a sprained ankle where they hit me with a baton, but they left their marks on me. They grabbed my private parts. If cops are beating you, this is what you do: you get into the fetal position, tuck in your private parts and protect your head. Those are the things they hit. Ensure that your fundamentals are protected. So that’s what I did. I had learned this as a photographer, watching police beat people.

I spent one night in jail, went to court, and was released on cash bail. Then I had a court case for a whole year. People thought I was nuts. They thought I was crazy.

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Boniface Mwangi was arrested, beaten and jailed for protesting. His court case dragged on for a year. Photograph: Courtesy of Boniface Mwangi

How did you carry on after that day?

The sad thing is that the following day, my wife lost the baby. She had a miscarriage. It wasn’t related to my beating, it was just a complication. It was not easy on me at all. You can never explain what it feels like to lose a baby. You can’t even describe the pain that you go through, though I know for sure that it affected my wife more. But I carried on, trying to survive as a photographer. I shot boring assignments like models and weddings.

It was during this period that my journey as an activist began. I thought, “What now?” And the idea of Picha Mtaani, a street exhibition of my photographs of the post-election violence, was born. One of the reasons the violence had gone unpunished was that many Kenyans had not seen it happening. So with Picha Mtaani I would display my photographs of election violence in public spaces, and tour all over the country so that Kenyan people could see it for themselves.

What was the response?

It was good. People loved it. But in certain places the government denied us approval to hold exhibitions. In other places, politicians hired people to come and demolish the exhibitions. Consequently we had violent disruptions, temporary arrests, pictures being impounded by the police. It was an interesting and fun journey, though. We traveled the country, and preached peace.

Along the way I realized, “We’re talking about peace, but do Kenyans really know how they should vote?” So I have now moved away from preaching peace and turning more to political activism.

What is your message now?

In 2012, in the lead-up to the elections, our message was: “You know why the violence happened? It’s because we voted for bad leaders. We need to vote for different leaders.” Realizing that my photographs were limited in terms of the message they could communicate, I turned to political graffiti as a way of educating Kenyans about bad and good leadership, and encouraging them to value the vote. Peace cannot be achieved when we are unable to vote for leaders who will protect and uphold us.

The art was centered around a character called “the Vulture.” I got a bunch of graffiti artists together to paint murals in the streets of Nairobi showing bad politicians as vultures. The message said: “You don’t have to vote for a Vulture, because these people are Vultures.”

It’s interesting how you made such a radical shift from journalism to art and activism.

It was not deliberate. The shift was compelled by slowly realizing that, as much as I’d like to be normal, I am not normal. I’ve seen things that most people have never seen, and I have a responsibility not to be silent about it.

Mwangi and fellow activists wrote the names of government ministers on pigs in blood to demonstrate  against the greed of Kenya's members of parliament, who were seeking higher salaries. Photo: Boniface Mwangi

Using blood, Mwangi and fellow activists wrote the names of Kenyan members of parliament on pigs to demonstrate against their greed. Photo: Boniface Mwangi

One of your 2013 actions  involved pouring blood on pigs to protest excessive pay for government ministers. It’s quite shocking. Why did you feel the need to do this?

The pigs represented the greed of our members of parliament. They shamelessly wanted to burden taxpayers by increasing their own salaries, and to me, this was akin to sucking our blood. We needed to send a message that would never be forgotten, and I think we did. One of the reasons we need the shock factor is that we do not have a big budget to buy media space, or put up billboards, or run TV commercials. Whatever small amount of money we have, the impact of our message must be amplified.

On the lighter side, you’ve also started an art space called PAWA254. Tell us about that.

PAWA254 is awesome. If you want to invent, you can never invent alone. Before PAWA, there was no place in Nairobi for people like me — patriotic, eccentric, a bit crazy and wanting to do creative stuff. I decided to create a community where people who relate to what I do can actually hang out. “PAWA” is the English word “power” corrupted in Kenyan slang, and 254 is our country code. It stands for unity. It’s now a community made up of filmmakers, graffiti artists, writers, poets, journalists, activists and so on. PAWA254 is a place we call home, and it’s where we meet — an everyday haven where we have a place to support and encourage each other.

How did you get this space without money?

I resigned from The Standard in December of 2008, and PAWA254 opened in late 2011. After quitting my job, I worked as a freelance photographer for international NGOs and newswire agencies. I also owned a photography studio in Nairobi’s central business district.

I sold everything I had — my wife’s car, my two cars, the studio — and I put up the space. Along the way, my friend’s father loaned me $10,000. The Swiss ambassador Jacques Pitteloud loaned us a laptop, and photographer James Quest brought the first chair to the space. In 2012, we attracted different partners whose support has helped us work — and empower creatives. This year, the Swedish embassy — who are our main partners in 2015 — are helping us set up the first public theatre in Nairobi in 30 years. Without these partners, we would have struggled.

But this also means I’ve become a desk guy, always trying to raise funds for our creative programs. I’m the guy who’s always going to meetings, so I do more paper-pushing than real photography. But the result is that we’ve been able to change people’s lives. More than 1,500 artists and other youth have directly benefitted from our free workshops and trainings.

What kind of people come to PAWA?

We have two kinds of people: people who need work space because they have a job, or people who come because they have no other place to go. But when they hang out at PAWA, they learn skills. We give workshops on photography, citizen journalism, videography, graffiti. Through the opportunities we offer, artists learn new skills to become more effective in their genres and earn a living from their productions.  We have made a choice to creatively use art and culture to continue making a contribution toward the struggle for good governance and accountability. At the center of our work is our deep love for our country, Kenya.

A communal workspace at PAWA254, Nairobi's hub for activists and artists. Photo: PAWA254

A communal workspace at PAWA254, Nairobi’s hub for activists and artists. Photo: PAWA254

What’s next for you?

We are working on a film called Defiance. We want to do a story about activism in Kenya from the colonial period to today.

It doesn’t take an extraordinary individual to be an active citizen. You have the right to protest, speak your mind, and stand up for what you believe in. You have a right to raise your voice when you want to. Most people never do that. You see, there’s a feeling in Kenya that you don’t question authority. That’s what we want to challenge with the film.

What about those friends that deserted you in the stadium? Have any of them ever come back to join you in your work?

Along the way, some of them came back, and we formed a community. I think that one act of courage made people believe in what we are trying to do. Of course, the experience left me broken, but I moved on and understood that maybe it was harder for others to stand up.

Someone who is now a very good friend of mine, Shamit, was at home during my lone protest. When he saw it, he said, “The next time this guy stands up, he’ll never be alone.” And it’s true. I’m never alone anymore.

Watch this video of Boniface Mwangi’s story, which shows many more of his images. Warning: Some are hard to look at. But all are powerful.