Painting Walls and Trains for Peace in Kenya! Project in Kibera Slum to support a peaceful election process with Kibera Hamlets, Open Society Initiative, local youth and graffiti artists

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IMG_1152The Kibera Walls for Peace community art initiative aimed to encourage unity and cooperation between ethnic and political groups in the months leading up to Kenya’s presidential election in 2013. Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums, was strongly affected by the violence and political turmoil that engulfed Kenya after the previous election in 2007, and preventing a repeat of this crisis is the our main objective.

Artolution’s co-director Joel Bergner partnered with the community- based youth organization Kibera Hamlets to facilitate workshops with 30 local youth. Together, they explored the roots of the violence, studied peace-building and participated in arts-based activities, culminating in the design and creation of seven public murals in high-profile locations around Kibera, all aimed at easing tensions between various ethnic and political groups and encouraging a peaceful election. One piece declares “kabila langu ni m’Kenya,” Swahili for “my tribe is Kenya,” a call for unity between the community’s tribal groups who had once fought one another. In another, two hyenas in business suits laugh as they drink tea. The meaning is clear to local residents, who call corrupt politicians “hyenas.” The message below the image encourages residents not to follow this type of leader, as many politicians had famously instigated the violence and paid youths to riot and fight during the election violence of 2007-2008 in an attempt to further their personal ambitions of power.

IMG_0746The Kibera Walls for Peace team then joined forces with Nairobi’s top graffiti artists organized by Kibera native Bankslave, a leading figure in Kenya’s graffiti movement. Early on a Sunday morning, the artists, youth and facilitators all descended on Nairobi’s main train terminal to create the Graffiti Peace Train, in which they covered an entire 10-car passenger train with artwork encouraging ethnic harmony and peace for the election, all with the blessing of the train authority, who was concerned as everyone else about the prospects for violence. The main phrase, “Tuwache Ukabila, Tuwache Ubaguzi, Tuishi Kwa Amani” was taken from one of the female participant’s poems, and roughly translates to “down with tribalism, down with prejudice, up with peace.” The following day, the 19th century train rolled out in public with a brand new look! Crowds were amazed all over Nairobi as they witnessed the spectacle and absorbed the messages. The team waited excitedly to see it in Kibera, a community where the train is an icon because it passes through the middle of the community several times a day. It made more of an impression than anyone imagined; the story of Kibera youth and artists advocating for peace soon made headlines worldwide as the project was covered by National Public Radio in the US (NPR), Reuters, Agence-France Presse (AFP), BBC, Arise TV and many others.

IMG_1338The process was filmed and turned into a documentary by one of Nairobi’s leading filmmakers, Willie Owusu. It was screened publicly in Kibera, where hundreds came out to see it, and also in several locations across the US. Kenya and broadcast worldwide via the Internet and screenings, telling the story of Kibera youth striving to bring peace and stability to their people. Besides mural art, the project features music, dance and theater presentations by the youth in collaboration with local artists, which was presented at our inaugural event. This project was made possible by the generous support of the Open Society Initiative of East Africa and 140 individuals who contributed through our Kickstarter campaign. Asante sana!! (Thank you so much!) Also, a big thanks to John Adoli and everyone at Kibera Hamlets, all the youth participants, Mathew Kigen, Willie Owusu, Mia Foreman, Bankslave and the all the talented Nairobi graffiti writers! While “Kibera Walls for Peace” was created specifically in the context of the 2013 election, we intend to continue and expand the project into an ongoing arts and social action program in Kibera in partnership with local artists, educators and organizations.