Boniface Mwangi: The day I stood up alone
October 20, 2014
Photographer Boniface Mwangi wanted to protest against corruption in his home country of Kenya. So he made a plan: He and some friends would stand up and heckle during a public mass meeting. But when the moment came ... he stood alone. What happened next, he says, showed him who he truly was. As he says, "There are two most powerful days in your life. The day you are born, and the day you discover why." Graphic images.Boniface Mwangi
Boniface Mwangi is an award-winning Kenyan photographer, artist and activist. He is a TED Fellow. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
People back home call me a heckler,
a troublemaker, an irritant,
a rebel, an activist,
the voice of the people.
But that wasn't always me.
Growing up, I had a nickname.
They used to call me Softy,
meaning the soft, harmless boy.
Like every other human being,
I avoided trouble.
In my childhood, they taught me silence.
Don't argue, do as you're told.
In Sunday school, they taught me
don't confront, don't argue,
even if you're right,
turn the other cheek.
This was reinforced
by the political climate of the time.
Kenya is a country
where you are guilty
until proven rich.
Kenya's poor are five times more likely
to be shot dead by the police
who are meant to protect them
than by criminals.
This was reinforced
by the political climate of the day.
We had a president,
Moi, who was a dictator.
He ruled the country with an iron fist,
and anyone who dared
question his authority
was arrested, tortured,
jailed or even killed.
That meant that people were taught
to be smart cowards, stay out of trouble.
Being a coward was not an insult.
Being a coward was a compliment.
We used to be told that a coward
goes home to his mother.
What that meant: that if you stayed
out of trouble you're going to stay alive.
I used to question this advice,
and eight years ago
we had an election in Kenya,
and the results were violently disputed.
What followed that election
was terrible violence, rape,
and the killing of over 1,000 people.
My work was to document the violence.
As a photographer,
I took thousands of images,
and after two months,
the two politicians came together,
had a cup of tea,
signed a peace agreement,
and the country moved on.
I was a very disturbed man
because I saw the violence firsthand.
I saw the killings.
I saw the displacement.
I met women who had been raped,
and it disturbed me,
but the country never spoke about it.
We pretended. We all became smart cowards.
We decided to stay out of trouble
and not talk about it.
Ten months later, I quit my job.
I said I could not stand it anymore.
After quitting my job,
I decided to organize my friends
to speak about
the violence in the country,
to speak about the state of the nation,
and June 1, 2009 was the day
that we were meant to go to the stadium
and try and get the president's attention.
It's a national holiday,
it's broadcast across the country,
and I showed up at the stadium.
My friends did not show up.
I found myself alone,
and I didn't know what to do.
I was scared,
but I knew very well
that that particular day,
I had to make a decision.
Was I able to live as a coward,
like everyone else,
or was I going to make a stand?
And when the president stood up to speak,
I found myself on my feet
shouting at the president,
telling him to remember
the post-election violence victims,
to stop the corruption.
And suddenly, out of nowhere,
the police pounced on me
like hungry lions.
They held my mouth
and dragged me out of the stadium,
where they thoroughly beat me up
and locked me up in jail.
I spent that night in
a cold cement floor in the jail,
and that got me thinking.
What was making me feel this way?
My friends and family thought
I was crazy because of what I did,
and the images that I took
were disturbing my life.
The images that I took
were just a number to many Kenyans.
Most Kenyans did not see the violence.
It was a story to them.
And so I decided to actually
start a street exhibition
to show the images of the violence
across the country
and get people talking about it.
We traveled the country
and showed the images,
and this was a journey that has started me
to the activist path,
where I decided to become silent no more,
to talk about those things.
We traveled, and our general site
from our street exhibit
became for political graffiti
about the situation in the country,
talking about corruption, bad leadership.
We have even done symbolic burials.
We have delivered live pigs
to Kenya's parliament
as a symbol of our politicians' greed.
It has been done in Uganda
and other countries,
and what is most powerful is that
the images have been picked by the media
and amplified across the country,
across the continent.
Where I used to stand up alone
seven years ago,
now I belong to a community
of many people who stand up with me.
I am no longer alone when I stand up
to speak about these things.
I belong to a group of young people
who are passionate about the country,
who want to bring about change,
and they're no longer afraid,
and they're no longer smart cowards.
So that was my story.
That day in the stadium,
I stood up as a smart coward.
By that one action, I said goodbye
to the 24 years living as a coward.
There are two most powerful
days in your life:
the day you're born,
and the day you discover why.
That day standing up in that stadium
shouting at the President,
I discovered why I was truly born,
that I would no longer be silent
in the face of injustice.
Do you know why you were born?
Tom Rielly: It's an amazing story.
I just want to ask you
a couple quick questions.
you've created a studio, a place
where young people can go
and harness the power of digital media
to do some of this action.
What's happening now with PAWA?
Boniface Mwangi: So we have
this community of filmmakers,
graffiti artists, musicians,
and when there's an issue in the country,
we come together, we brainstorm,
and take up on that issue.
So our most powerful tool is art,
because we live in a very busy world
where people are so busy in their life,
and they don't have time to read.
So we package our activism
and we package our message in art.
So from the music, the graffiti,
the art, that's what we do.
Can I say one more thing?
TR: Yeah, of course. (Applause)
BM: In spite of being arrested,
beaten up, threatened,
the moment I discovered my voice,
that I could actually stand up
for what I really believed in,
I'm no longer afraid.
I used to be called softy,
but I'm no longer softy,
because I discovered who I really am,
as in, that's what I want to do,
and there's such beauty in doing that.
There's nothing as powerful as that,
knowing that I'm meant to do this,
because you don't get scared,
you just continue living your life.
Boniface Mwangi is an award-winning Kenyan photographer, artist and activist. He is a TED Fellow.Why you should listen
For four years Boniface Mwangi held a staff photography position at The Standard, the second largest Kenyan newspaper, taking on various assignments of increasing responsibility in a number of countries. Mwangi became the eye of Kenyans during the 2007 post-election violence and showed courage and compassion to capture thousands of images, some so gory that they could not be published.
Following the political resolution to the election crisis, Boniface started to see himself as a visual artist, using photography as the vehicle for social change in Kenya. His focus was the fight against the impunity of politicians in the face of over 1000 dead and half a million people displaced as a result of the violence they caused.
"Boniface’s images are crucial for the healing of our nation; his ability to stay focused and inject a sense of artistry into his work is a testimony to the spirit of professional journalism," wrote Jackson Biko after Boniface was voted Kenya Photojournalist of the Year in 2008 by readers of Adam, a men’s magazine in the country.
Since then, Boniface has continued to work as a freelance photographer for Bloomberg, the AFP, Reuters, the Boston Globe, and other media outlets while building a movement for social change in Kenya through “Picha Mtaani” (Swahili for street exhibition). The photo exhibit aims to heal the scars of Kenyans and draw their attention to the dynamics of the violence to prevent a repeat during the upcoming elections of 2013.
Boniface founded Pawa254 as a collaborative hub where journalists, artists and activists could meet to find innovative ways of achieving social change. The hub has already had many functions, but two campaigns stand out. “Heal the Nation” is a very successful initiative to show a half-hour documentary about post-election violence to as many Kenyans as possible and facilitate discussions around the film. The campaign is accompanied by a more shadowy graffiti campaign that has evoked strong reactions and fired up the youth of Kenya and the world, as images of the clever graffiti grace the pages of the world’s newspapers.
In 2009 United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote a letter commending Boniface for his work during the post-election violence. She stated, "Your photography is absolutely stunning and tells an important and powerful story for the world to hear."
The original video is available on TED.com