Friday, February 12

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Picha Mtaani

I stumbled into this one. Businesses and banks and all the rest in Nakuru don't open until 9 in the morning. I arrived at 8:30. Poor planning. So I decided to pass through a part of town outside my routine while waiting. That's when I saw the crowd moving through the city park. This was a curiosity. The greatest action at the park is along the perimeter, at the public bathroom and impromptu instant passport photo studio because the gates are locked all day and all night. I followed them in and discovered Picha Mtaani.

It was the first day of the event. Chairs and barriers were still being arranged. Speeches and whatnot were to come later, so it wasn't until I found the website that I learned anything about the exhibition. To summarize for those not interested in reading the official version through the above link, Picha Mtaani is a traveling photography exhibition using the images of Boniface Mwangi to depict the violence following the presidential election in late December 2007. The pictures are arranged in chronological order beginning with rallies hosted by Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga before moving through to the day of the election and dwelling on the violence in the streets. It finally ends with the arrival of Kofi Annan and the beginning of mediation talks. Sometimes a series of photographs tell a story in miniature, boys looting a shoe store and running from the incoming police, a beating on a city street.

It is to Mwangi's credit that he does not dwell on the most gruesome ends of the violence. There are two pictures of severed arms, another of a man holding his stub and face bright red from the blood running down. As terrible as these things were, more important is how they occurred. The strongest photographs of the exhibition are those of the violence. These are where the crowd lingered longest, fought most for a better position nearer the wall. It is a common observation that people slow when driving past a car accident. Imagine how they would gather if they knew they could see the accident in progress. Police face off against mobs, firing tear gas and swinging billy clubs. Men chase others down and knock them to the ground. A crowd watches as four men take turns kicking and beating a fifth for being of the wrong tribe. The streets these happen on look like those I walk daily. The houses look like those I pass. The people dress and look like those I meet. It was not a civil war with clear sides, with Blues and Grays. It was an explosion of tribalism and longstanding grievances and whatever else that finally found an outlet in the cities. I doubt the Kenyans in the crowd could agree who was beating whom or who was bleeding, back to a wall of corrugated aluminum sheeting. It didn't take years of military training and indoctrination to make these people killers. They just snapped when their government once again failed to care one whit for them or due process and made every effort to assure their election and protect their power.

The most powerful of these photographs for me was one near the end. A young couple is walking together down a street under an umbrella. The man is in a black vest and white collared shirt and the woman in a dress and heels. They are flinching from a headless body, the blood mixing with the rainwater and running under their feet. The battlefields were the streets, in their neighborhoods, not safely mediated through television and newspaper articles.

The curating was weak. The exhibition suffered from too much. Rather than choosing just one or two of the most powerful, it opted for impact through quantity. Four pictures of burned out matatus. Four pictures of people trying to put out the fires consuming their homes with water thrown from their washing basins. It invited thoughts of what these very similar pictures revealed different instead of how horrible they were.

But these concerns of aesthetics and curation are secondary. The point is conversation, dialogue, reflection on what happened, thoughts on a way forward. In this it was effective, I believe. The crowd, four deep at most points along the exhibition wall, was silent. When there was conversation, it was clearly centered on the photographs before them. This is a good thing, but it will be wasted if it does not amount to real action. There is an opportunity for this. A draft constitution that would make critically necessary reforms is set for a public vote in April. By no means would approval make things better, but it would signal a real willingness to improve the situation and not repeat one of the nation's darkest times.

The stakes are high. Some fifteen hundred people died in January 2008. This violence was carried out with bows and arrows, machetes, steel pipes. Now the people and tribes are arming themselves with more effective weapons. There are frequent reports in The Daily Nation and The Standard of gun and ammunition caches being uncovered throughout the country. If it does happen again, it's going to be much, much worse.


IK said...


I enjoyed reading your post and appreciate looking at whole PEV situation and aftereffects from someones elses view. Hopefully the country doesn't have to experience that again in 2012.

That said I just wanted to point out two things that might need updating. You mentioned Raila "Kibaki" :) instead of "Odinga". 2nd thing is that the new draft constitution is actually moving towards formalizing a presidential System (minus the PM) not a power sharing system btwn the two.

That said, I look forward to reading more.

Chris said...

Thank you for catching those really stupid mistakes. I've since corrected them, so no one who reads this with less background in the situation repeats them later.