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Profile of a Kenyan activist: Boniface Mwangi

By Mo Scarpelli, contributor

The title ‘activist’ in cities like New York, London or Oakland can carry some progressive prestige.

In Kenya, ‘activist’ is a dirty and dangerous word – at least according to Boniface Mwangi, one of the Kenya’s most prominent young demonstrators.

“It’s a label that is used very loosely for somebody who is outspoken,” Mwangi says. “People who are afraid to speak their mind call you a dissenter, they call you an activist, they call you unpatriotic. But I think opposition — that’s our patriotic duty.”

The Kenyan government does not appear to agree.

Mwangi, 30, is a ‘photoactivist.’ The photo part came first; as a photojournalist for Kenya’s The Standard, and then as a freelancer for AFP, Reuters and other international outlets. Below is the first in a series of video profiles of activists around the world, a project I’ve launched called inACTIVISM.

In 2007, violence erupted after Kenya’s fraught presidential elections.

Mwangi took to the streets to document horrific and widespread attacks. He then launched a traveling photo exhibition in ten cities across the country to spark dialogue and reconciliation.

Mwangi now spends most of his time running a new art-activism hub in Nairobi called PAWA 254, where he organizes demonstrations, campaigns and discussions for social and political change.

From the laid-back vibe at PAWA — friends chat on bean bag chairs sprinkled among rooms painted with inspirational quotes from activists of old — you may not expect that working here could lead to imprisonment, harassment or threats on you and your family’s life.

But Kenya’s recent history would tell you otherwise.

While the country’s new Constitution formed in 2010 may grant protection for citizens speaking out, it’s in the last few years that significant evidence has emerged showing just how dangerous being a Kenyan activist can be.

In March 2009, Oscar Kingara and John Paul Oulu, two activists investigating extrajudicial killings that took place during the post-election violence in 2008, were shot dead by two unidentified gunmen.

Spring 2010 brought unlawful arrests, detainments and torture for several activists. In late 2012, a human rights worker pursuing voter registration corruption was beaten to the point of needing surgery on the back of his head.

In September of this year, two lawyers working on prominent human rights cases filed against the Kenyan government were shot to death, and the former chairman of Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights received threats that her home would be burnt to the ground.

And just recently, Human Rights Watch has since reported an overall increase in threats, intimidation and violence against human rights defenders in Kenya.

Mwangi’s international acclaim — he won numerous prestigious awards for his photography of post-election violence, and holds a senior TED fellowship — has brought him some protection. But he believes the real key to protecting freedom of speech in Kenya comes with decentralizing activism and getting the masses involved.

“If you have everyone involved, well… who’s going to kill everyone?” he says.

Good question. It’s clear that being an activist in Kenya right now requires a leap of faith in that very notion.


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