Bringing change into focus: ‘Photo-activist’ sets sights on Kenya Parliament

Boniface Mwangi takes his message to the streets in this photo by our mutual friend, Noor Khamis [via Reuters].

Once a newspaper photojournalist and now a candidate for Minister of Kenya’s Parliament, Boniface Mwangi takes his message to the streets, in this photo by our mutual friend, Noor Khamis [via Reuters].

He once delivered live pigs to politicians to protest their outrageous pay. This week, the President conceded: salaries must be slashed. Meet Boniface Mwangi, the former Standard photojournalist making change happen. 

By Ron Reason

Part of a collection of my travel stories and other personal essays.

A true pleasure and privilege of working with newsrooms in nearly 30 countries has been developing friendships with the storytellers who have a front row seat to the world stage. One minute they may be a face in the crowd during a training workshop; the next they are giving me the inside view of their nation’s challenges and hopes. This is crucial for an outsider wishing to come into a media house (or other organization) and better understand how to help strengthen ties with the community.

Meet a standout among these fascinating characters: Boniface Mwangi. At the moment he’s transitioned from behind the camera, to a greater spotlight, as a candidate for Kenyan Parliament.

* * *

During my initial critiques of Nairobi’s Standard newspaper, and soon into what became a series of visits to the country to help the newspaper with its modernization, I noticed pages of the paper filled with arresting photos carrying his credit. After conducting an ethics workshop for picture editors and photographers, I was greeted by this energetic young man who asked if I would review his portfolio.

I got to know him a bit and increasingly admired his work as my engagement went along. During bouts of dramatic news, not uncommon to find in the Kenyan media, I came to anticipate his dynamic photo storytelling as each big story broke. Perhaps his highest moment at Standard: His coverage of the post-election violence in 2007-2008 that wracked parts of the country, specifically the Kibera slum where, separately, I had been spending a bit of time working with community groups, helping start a community library and aid an arts collective. His powerful images – fires, destruction, confrontation – were especially riveting for someone who had become acquainted with the Kibera’s streets and people. Here’s a look at some of that dramatic work, all © Boniface Mwangi, published in news outlets around the globe:

 

From the States, I reviewed the election violence coverage published by the Standard online, and the Boniface Mwangi photo credit even showed up on days in my morning edition of The New York Times, for whom he contributed as a stringer. Getting many of these images must have put his life in danger.

Back in Kenya, shortly after, I returned to a somewhat calmer Nairobi, and got a chance to step back and view the collective impact of these images (and some taken by others), presented in an exhibit titled “Kenya Burning” at The GoDown Arts Centre. The show and accompanying book served as a compelling group protest: This must never happen again.

“With a photo, you can define a moment and change the conversation,” he later told CNN. That’s what many observers felt his election coverage was doing – bringing attention away from the hype that had been setting Kenya up as Africa’s next shining hope, and back to the persistent corruption and inter-tribal disputes that prevented true progress.

For his role in the coverage, Boniface was named the CNN African Photojournalist of the Year (a feat repeated again in 2010). In 2012 he became the youngest ever winner of Netherlands’ Prince Claus Foundation Prize.

After leaving Standard, he founded the youth group Picha Mtaani (Swahili for ‘street exhibition’), using photos and art to connect with youth and his political ambitions were magnified. He was setting the stage for what he hoped would become a “ballot revolution.”

That day has come. Long a critic of president Uhuru Kenyatta, he is now pursuing a seat in Kenya’s 12th parliament. And he’s gained a lot of traction in the national conversation, judging by posts on his robust Facebook presence (with nearly a quarter-million followers), his Twitter account (near 600,000), and a dynamic campaign website.

A campaign strategy across social media and digital platforms includes a colorful and informative mobile presence, with direct links for instant mobile transfer of funds for campaign donations.

Leading up to his run, he has engaged in a number of protests of varying levels of intensity and impact. One of the most notable: in May 2013, publicly delivering live pigs to Parliament, as a symbol of the ministers’ greed. His account of the protest, and the change in national conversation that came about just this week, is dramatic:

In what could be Kenya’s most famous protest in recent history, we delivered LIVE pigs to Parliament, as a symbol of MPs’ greed.  The police responded: with teargas, water cannons, batons and arrests were made. 17 of us were arrested on that day.  Not a single politician condemned the violence. We were charged. Four years later, the case is still ongoing.

A month later we went back, to protest against the high salaries. In 2016, l announced l was going to run for MP. One of my calls to action was that we must reduce our elected officials’ salaries. Two weeks ago, l was interviewed alongside Salaries and Remuneration Commission Chair Serem, and said we must review salaries downwards. She agreed with me.

On Wednesday (March 15, 2017), during the State of The Nation address, President Uhuru said that elected officials’ salaries must be cut in half. Our activism on the streets, and online – in our homes and work places – has won. I shall continue with this fight inside parliament.

Let no one tell you that change is impossible! *RohoJuu*

Mwangi has raked in accolades, published the autobiographical Unbounded, and has become a high-profile public speaker. In this TED talk, he describes his work with the Picha Mtaani youth group and about how photography can help build a nation:

Now a Senior TED Fellow, speaking frequently against injustice and corruption in Kenya, his presentations are more polished, but still as heartfelt and hopeful. He spoke most recently on “the day I stood up alone”:

Good luck, Boniface Mwangi, we are watching closely! Your experiences – as photojournalist, author, activist and now candidate – should serve to inspire journalists, students and others worldwide. Asante sana!

Of related interest: 

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