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Cover Story

Graffiti in Mathare North as a Struggle For Youth Voices and Initiatives

Volume 12, Issue 2  | 
Published 09/10/2015
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A project of Mtaani Initiative and is supported by Making All Voices Count. It is aimed at empowering Kenyans by fostering a culture of change through citizen journalism, arts, and political activism.

Mathare North Area residents for the first time on Wednesday, 22nd April 2015, tasted a bite of Sauti Ya Mtaa graffiti on a section of the expansive Drive Inn Primary school wall. Graffiti in the area has been elusive for a long time. Aides of the area MCA, Oscar Lore, had earlier been approached to help securing the social hall wall but their leader, Owish, adamantly refused and subsequently avoided responding to any further requests and discussion on the matter. They said the wall was built by the MCA and therefore he had to authorize for any form of graffiti on it. Truth is however, the wall was built using tax money collected from the locals and it was just a matter of time before it could be built. When contacted, the Ward Administrator said there was no problem regarding the proposed art work and that he was not opposed to it.

The social welfare officer on the other hand, probably having sensed the lack of consistency between the administrators sentiments and that of the MCA’s assistants referred the request to the sub County government offices at Makadara claiming that it’s the only office mandated to authorize events and activities at this particular social hall in Mathare North. The wall was eventually abandoned after the effort became like a game of musical chairs. “Go to that person, he will help.” “No, go to that other person…” “Ok, now let me handle it, I will talk to the MCA and give you a call…” The call never came. Time kept going and work which normally takes a week of preparation, training, finding the right wall and painting, ended up being delayed for six months simply because everyone was waiting for an MCA’s consent.

Ignoring people until they keep quiet or just go away is a character of leadership style that the former president Mwai Kibaki practiced to perfection. The problem though was that Sauti Ya Mtaa could not just go away and could not be silenced. Another way was found, a teacher was more than willing to help secure the wall of Drive Inn primary school, less than a hundred meters from the Social hall. Members of the community are attracted to the art and the message preached through it. The sitting politician on the other hand, perceives anyone coming up with initiatives that have the potential to engage the community, without his support, as working against him. Campaigning against him.

So on Wednesday the artists arrived. They had trained for two days on the particular graffiti message that best fits the circumstances of Mathare North estate and its residents. The longstanding issues of security, crime, extra judicial killings by police, mob justice by members of the public, joblessness, frustration among the youth, low standards of education, proliferation of dangerous weapons, poor policing, corruption and lack of accountability. Everything had to be represented pictorially and words had to be as few as possible. The artists had to learn to familiarize themselves with these issues before hand. They searched for research reports, data and real life stories from the residents. They generated buzzwords around these and visualized the messages, intending it to be controversial but not confrontational.

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Graffiti artists must be careful with the message otherwise it has the potential to polarize a multiethnic community like Mathare North which is basically ruled by goons. Whoever can mobilize the most feared goons out of the thousands of jobless youths carries the day in an election. These goons serve as the leaders’ eyes and ears on the ground, reporting everything they feel would be a threat to the reelection of their patrons. During election times they “help police beef up security” at the polling stations and in any case their candidate is losing, they cause violence, disrupting the election, stealing and stuffing ballot box with votes for their preferred candidate and denying everyone their right to make informed choices. The only promise the leader has attempted to fulfill since joining office is to these goons whom he promised that they would be given land, money, access to loans, business startups, jobs and positions in his local kitchen cabinet for supporting him.

Time could be running out for this and other MCAs in Nairobi who have concentrated most of his time and effort being rowdy in the County Assembly, heckling and attacking opponents of CORD and of their party leader Raila Odinga. At one point in his short tenure as the representative of Mathare North he was caught by paparazzi deflating an opponent’s car tires during a burial gathering in Western Kenya. Without mincing words, the residents say that the MCA has forgotten what he was elected to do. The estate is untidy and full of garbage with dumps sprouting up in every corner of the neighborhood, while effluents of smelly sewerage water flow like little tributaries into the Mathare River, all night and day long; throughout the year. Residents who voted for him are wondering about his character. He is said to be focusing on building his retirement home in Nyanza and developing his residential houses in Njiru, an allegation which does not seem to be far from the truth going by the fact that he has left his goons to speak on his behalf.

Less than a month after this piece of graffiti art work appeared on the walls of Drive Inn primary school, the ward leaders suddenly remembered that they promised to build business sheds for the local youth who are steeped in crime and drugs. The work started and the section displaying the graffiti to the public was chosen first to be covered by sheds. Critics are smelling a rat and are questioning the timing. “It’s like the business sheds are being used to cover the message,” says Jasper Kimani* (name withheld). The police are particularly not impressed by the police station portrayed as closed, the police patrol car advertising car hire business (ask for transport), a police officer shooting down a suspect and another receiving bribe while an innocent person is being attacked and robbed by thugs in the vicinity. The artwork was intended to stir up conversation about issues of importance to the community including its leadership and it’s doing just that. However, nothing good comes easy and the forces of opposition are already at work uprooting the seedlings of democracy, rule of law and accountability that could otherwise grow out of the voice of the youth through graffiti.

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