Boniface Mwangi is a Kenyan photographer who pulls no punches in using art as activism. During the 2007 post-election skirmishes he took thousands of photos and in 2009 he founded Picha Mtaani, a street exhibition held in towns across Kenya, showcasing the photographs to audiences beyond Nairobi. In 2013, Mwangi launched Occupy Parliament and the MPigs protest, in which a herd of pigs was unleashed at the Parliament Buildings to highlight the hefty pay rises being demanded by elected officials. He spoke with Paula Akugizibwe.
Paula Akugizibwe: Why this particular approach to activism – the dramatic, in-your-face spectacle?
Boniface Mwangi: It’s my background in photography and performance arts – I’m an artist, I’m influenced by the community in which I work. But also, you have to be spectacular to be noticed. You can’t use subtle ways. Last year we did a peaceful demonstration in support of the police, of increasing their salaries. We went with roses and kids, and it was so nice and beautiful, but we didn’t get coverage from the mainstream media.
But if we do something spectacular, we get coverage, so the media becomes our propaganda tool. I can’t afford to pay for a TV advert or a newspaper advert, but if I do something spectacular, I’m guaranteed a page one story. So we’re doing activism in a very tactical way, to grab attention. The president doesn’t know me, but he knows what we do, because even in his speeches he has mentioned the pig protest and the embarrassment it brought to the country.
Another thing is money, each of our protests costs a few thousand dollars. That money is raised from individuals, and all of us are volunteers. We need to make the budget work. We might use the same amount of money as other guys who do advocacy, but their approach is to call a press conference at a five-star hotel and provide journalists with breakfast and then issue a statement. We use our budget differently, because we don’t get that kind of money easily, so we need to do something that is effective, and something that is creative so we don’t stray from our core competence, which is art.
PA: The need to get coverage – is that the main goal of these protests, to capture media attention?
BM: The media is the carrier of the message. You can’t get a revolution with just a few people. We need numbers, and the numbers will only come if the message goes as far and wide as possible. Our ultimate goal is to have an awakened citizenry who care, who defend the constitution, and who stand up for their own rights. Our strategy is very simple: it’s about boldness; we need people to be bold, to challenge authority – in the legal way, but in a bold manner.
We never break the law when we do the protests. Me and some friends, we have two court cases pending, but we will be acquitted eventually because we didn’t break the law. We plan our things properly, we consult, and ensure that everything we’re doing is within the law.
PA: So you’re challenging the government, but making sure you operate inside their framework?
BM: They may not like what I do, but they can’t get me. If the government could find a way to jail me, they would jail me, but they can’t, because there’s nowhere I break the law. The things they charge me with are misdemeanours, being a nuisance, small-small things – they are just trying to frustrate me. But I’m stronger than that. Our thought process for these protests is that yes, they may not listen to us, but some people somewhere are going to take in the message and they’re going to pass it on. I’ve learnt how to tame my expectations, and realise that change will be a long process. I’m not going to burn myself out.
PA: Do you think protests are a viable means of creating change? Thinking about movements like Occupy, the so-called Arab Spring, which also created a spectacle and caused huge upheavals – but then the dust settled down into the same patterns on the ground. When you talk about using protests to build towards a revolution, what exactly does that look like to you?
BM: Most important, we’re looking for a revolution of thought, where citizens realise that they’re not tenants in Kenya – it’s their country, it’s their responsibility to ensure that things change. One of the reasons why we have bad leadership is because we elect those leaders. Citizens need to realise their power.
Egypt was a good revolution actually, but young people failed in one department. They were not prepared to take over power themselves. The same thing happened in Tunisia. Yes they revolted, they wanted change, Ben Ali left, Mubarak left, but the young people who were fighting in the streets were not ready to take over leadership. It was a lack of preparation. And so the politicians who were left behind – you know politicians are masters of survival, so those who survived took over power, and now they are back to where they started.
But for us, the guys that I work with, all of us are ready for power, any day.
PA: So if there was to be a coup and they said Boniface, go be the president of Kenya – you’re ready?
BM: [Laughs] I may not be the president, but there are people who can be president. But the change that we want to get in Kenya is not through a coup – ours is a peaceful ballot revolution. Our battle right now is not really with the government. Our battlefield is the hearts and minds of Kenyans. If you get people to think in a different way, then the country can be changed, but it can only be changed by how people vote and who they elect. So that come 2017, if Boniface Mwangi decides to run, they’re not going to judge me as an activist, or a Kikuyu, but by what I’ve said I’m going to deliver.
Right now our leaders are our masters. And I don’t know how they go from being beggars, before the election, to becoming our masters. In power right now we have so many criminals, but I don’t think they are the biggest problem that we have in Kenya. It’s the people who vote for them. So that’s where we are fighting right now.
PA: The ballot revolution that you envision requires a lot of faith in electoral democracy. But many of the issues that we see in governance are not just about the political system per se; they have to do with basic human traits like ambition, greed and self-interest. And then you also have global geopolitics that, to a large extent, controls how national governments function. Can democracy in the context of these and so many other complications really work?
BM: You see, even Kenya is a democracy, but it is a democracy that elected two people who have been accused of crimes against humanity to run the country. And that is a democratic choice which has to be respected. So democracy is just an English word.
PA: So how do you reconcile this with the idea of a ballot revolution?
BM: The tangible vision is this: you get people who believe Kenya can be great, and have a track record of what they’ve been able to do in the past. And they have a contract with the people of Kenya and say, I’m going to run to be the governor of Nairobi, and this is what I’m going to do in the next five years. And when the people who vote for you can hold you accountable to that contract, that’s my understanding of how you operate in a democratic way.
Ghana is a good example. How did they get to where they are today? Because of a man who did a very crazy thing, Jerry Rawlings: he took all the generals who were involved in corruption, and he shot them. Ghana matured by doing that. Kenya has to move forward, if it means that we round up all known people who have raped our country, ruined our economy and embezzled our cash, take them to the stadium and do a summary execution – that’s the end of impunity.
PA: You want to execute Kenya’s corrupt leaders?
BM: No. I don’t believe we should execute anybody. But, we need to find a way to send a very strong message that stealing from the public is wrong, and we need to ensure that these people are not elected, that we recover what has been stolen, and that they are punished.
Let me tell you, Kenyans would be very happy if parliament was bombed. If not Westgate was attacked but parliament, and members of parliament were killed, Kenyans would be happy. We hate those people so much. That’s the reason why they need bodyguards. That’s the reason why they need to live in a place where they don’t interact with the average Kenyan. And what bothers me is, how do you vote for someone you despise? It doesn’t make any sense. These people were officially elected but there is so much hate against them, it’s unbelievable.
PA: Sometimes it seems that protests are almost a diversion, a pressure vent. People come and shout, wave their placards, they feel a bit better because their voices have been heard – then they go home and life carries on as normal. How do you fill the spaces in between these spectacular protests?
BM: I can only speak for myself. I run a creative space, PAWA 254, which is about artists and social change. So I don’t live for the streets, it’s not an action-to-action sort of game, it’s continuous. I don’t run an institution for activism, but I use creative art to do that. We get people coming in and we share ideas, then they go back to their communities and speak out, and that’s how change starts.
I was reading the recent tweets in Kenya about the Westgate attack – the Twitter community and the rich saying “we are one” – but we are not one. The “we are one” hash-tag came about because rich people realised that they had also been hit. In the past two years there have been many grenade attacks in Kenya, but they have not received attention because it was only the poor dying. We are not one. Let no one lie to you. But we are trying, we are creating a community where we are not alone.
PA: The MPs – the government in general – were very offended by MPigs, as with other protests of yours. Why do you think they continue to allow them?
BM: Do they have an option? Blood was shed for us to get the new constitution that allows us to protest without going to jail. It’s not a favour; Uhuru Kenyatta is not doing me a favour – even if he bans my protest, I’ll go back tomorrow, because he didn’t write the constitution, it wasn’t an Odinga-Kibaki thing; that document was written by Kenyans, people who came before us went to jail for it, died for it. The government does not “allow” me to protest.
Those guys you see in power? They are cowards. Have you ever seen a politician going to protest? They don’t protest, they pay people to go, then they have bodyguards, and if people fight they make them disappear. I don’t understand, how can a country be governed by cowards? [Laughs]
And there are many bold people. If you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, like Uhuru Kenyatta, confidence comes naturally, good English comes naturally, using a fork and knife comes naturally. For some of us, we have to learn these things. And because of that, you feel inadequate about stepping out. But people are learning to step out with those inadequacies, because they know they can do the right thing.
PA: English, fork and knife – how are they relevant to the goal of social change? Aren’t those just Western lifestyle standards?
BM: Yes, but I’m giving them as examples because people judge you in Nairobi based on how well you speak your English, how good your manners are, which school you went to. Do you have a dog, what kind of a dog is it, what car are you driving, where do you eat your lunch, do you know sushi, all these things. So, as a Kenyan, I’m going to try and acquire a foreign accent. It’s called a Capital FM accent – I want to sound very British and get my diction right. If I go to a place and speak my nice-nice English that I learned from my primary school teacher who was a high school dropout, I get into trouble. They won’t say it, but the way they look at me, it’s as if I don’t belong. And these are the guys who influence opinions, make decisions and who employ most people.
PA: What sort of reactions have you had from the Kenyan public to your protests?
BM: They were both positive and negative, but why focus on the negative? And anyway, I think if everyone agrees, there is a problem. So I respect people, even if we don’t agree. The way the media writes about me – several times, The Nation has published my photo and won’t give me a name. They’ll just call me “a man”. “A man protests… a man was arrested” (laughs)… and I know that editor, she used to be a friend. Then they have an angle – the heckler, the protestor, the activist – that’s an angle, it’s a state angle. I’m more than an activist and a heckler, I’m a human being with a story, with another life. But they have to keep me under that label. It’s deliberate, it’s a well-thought-through thing. They have to take away my personality. But I’m being truthful to myself, that’s my only responsibility.
PA: Let’s talk about how you actually put this responsibility into action. With MPigs for example, how do you get from the concept to the streets – funding, logistics and so on?
BM: When it comes to funding, I use MPesa, people can donate cash. Or they donate in kind – they print posters, or T-shirts. We have a lot of that. The art space, PAWA, gets funding from donor institutions, but the street actions, no. It’s mostly individuals.
PA: In the art space, especially when you’re trying to fuse it with political activism, are there some tensions involved with receiving donor funding?
BM: The reason why it’s very difficult for us to get funding is because we can’t compromise what we stand for. If you’re going to give us money, it doesn’t mean we have to play your game. Yes we will have outputs and deliverables, but they’re according to what we want to do, which makes us very hard to fund.
PA: Your vision, the revolution that you’re working towards, do you think it is something that can happen in the near future, or is it a distant idea?
BM: It will take a lot of time, yes. But change is continuous. There is no day that you’ll wake up and say, “oh it’s perfect”. There will be slight change, bit by bit, but in my lifetime, I will see changes. I can guarantee you. Even if I die tomorrow, something will have changed.
PA: What would that be?
BM: You know they never got the salaries? The MPigs never got the salaries. So that was change.
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