Art as healing

International Herald Tribune
Kenyan graffiti artist tries for peace with a paintbrush
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
NAIROBI, Kenya: Peace graffiti has taken over Nairobi’s battered Kibera slum.

“Don’t Kill Innocent Kenyans” and “Keep Peace” beg slogans hand-painted on the charred walls of shacks and storefronts destroyed by looting mobs — messages from a local artist trying to heal a neighborhood with his paintbrush.

Solomon Muyundo’s mission is more complicated than one peace-loving artist against the mobs. He’s also trying to atone for his earlier role in the violence — a reconciliation many Kenyans will have to attempt as they work to move on from the devastating knowledge that they are capable of killing each other.

“I was trying to urge the public, especially those who are a bit wise, when they see such a message … to think twice,” Muyundo — who uses the tag Solo7 — says of his painting campaign.

Muyundo’s painted slogans are re-branding an area that was torn apart by gangs after a December presidential vote the opposition leader Raila Odinga accuses President Mwai Kibaki of stealing.

Muyundo’s messages feel particularly needed as talks between government and opposition figures leaders appear to have stalled again, after more than a week of hopeful proclamations from both sides. The opposition has threatened mass protests for later this week. Past demonstrations have quickly turned violent.

As the first election results prompted anger, Muyundo painted “No Raila, No Peace” all over Kibera — immortalizing a rallying cry of the machete-wielding gangs that overtook the slum.

More than 1,000 people have died and some 600,000 people have been forced from their homes as gangs from ethnic groups who had supported Odinga exacted violent revenge on Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe — setting up a chain of attacks and reprisals.

Thin and soft-spoken, Muyundo says he joined Odinga’s cause partly to protect himself — he’s half-Kikuyu and was a Kibaki supporter.

“I know it’s not a peaceful message,” he says of those first paintings amid the looting, “but I did it that way to secure my life.”

But he also believed that injustice had been done, and wanted to join in protest with the impoverished people of Kibera who don’t usually have much of a voice in politics.

“I decided to demonstrate with them, but in a way that I always do” — with art, Muyundo said. Now he’s trying to make amends — both by writing the new messages calling for peace and by taking the time to mark big X’s over the “No”s whenever he comes across one of his earlier scrawls, making them just “Raila, Peace.”

Muyundo says he painted the bellicose slogans for just three days, then switched to peace proclamations, creating about 50 a day. That means he has painted the urge for peace nearly 3,000 times.

“It’s helping. When he writes this ‘keep peace,’ people read, and they keep peace,” says Robert Otieno, 22, who sells charcoal in Kibera. He says his neighborhood needs someone giving them hope. Otieno remembers the night that the mobs descended on his corner of Kibera. They burned his shop, and he lost everything.

“That evening I saw fire everywhere,” Otieno says.

Returning to peace has been hard for Kenya. The once-stable East African country is now in the midst of a vast internal resettlement — with families and communities dividing themselves along ethnic lines.

Power-sharing talks between rival parties were suspended Tuesday as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the chief mediator, said the negotiations were going in circles.

And as recently as Sunday, clashes between rival ethnic groups left eight houses burned near the western town of Molo. Two people — a father and a son — were taken to a hospital with serious injuries. Police said it was a dispute between Kikuyu supporters of Kibaki and Kalenjin supporters of Odinga.

In Kibera, many Kikuyus forced to flee haven’t returned. A woman at a nearby camp for those who fled says she lost everything when her house was burned that night. She doesn’t feel safe going back.

“They are saying (the store) is theirs now,” says Zipporah Wairimu. She lost her identification papers and ownership documents in the fire. “I don’t have an alternative. I’ll just stay here,” she says at the camp.

Muyundo — whose normal business is selling predictable tourist art and painting signs for barbershops or minibuses — says he’s confident in the power of graffiti, first in prompting violence, and now healing.

“These writings have calmed the tensions of the people around,” Muyundo says. “They can pronounce peace, and once you pronounce peace someone who is next to you will always maintain peace.”

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