The Talking Walls: Strengthening community cohesion

Diana Kinya, Nairobi Community Manager
Nairobi, 11 August 2016

As the year 2007 was coming to a close and ushering in the 2008 new year, Kenya went into flames. The whole country was burning. This time, not with the usual fireworks synonymous to ushering in a new year but with flames of ethnic hate,division and violence. The fire and destruction was quickly bringing down investments, people and towns. Tribes were fighting against each other, as it was believed that political patronage was based on ethnic affiliation. What had just began as a protest for a stolen election had turned into deadly ethnic-based violence.Cosmopolitan urban areaswere hit the most, especially Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu.

The impact of the violence was mainly centered and felt in the informal settlements. This was attributed to the large number of unemployed youth residing in informal settlements that presented available goons for hire to cause violence. Although peace was restored after the signing of the peace accord in 2008, it has since remained an “uneasy” peace that is easily provoked by small incidences. Since this period, tribal coexistence in the country has been affected as well human settlement patterns, with people tending to settle where their tribes are “accepted.”

Gearing towards the 2013 elections, Kenyans were doing alot to stop a repeat of what had happened in 2008. This included massive migration of populations from the cities to their rural homes.One unique response to this uneasiness was the emergence of the street art revolution, a leading force that is transforming the social-political environment in the city of Nairobi. The movement is being driven by individuals, organizations and local graffiti artists mainly drawn from informal settlements painting powerful social justice messages on Nairobi’s streets, commuter trains and buses. This is done as a means for awareness raising and shaping public attitude towards peaceful coexistence and mutual respects for human rights.Organizations like Sauti Ya Mtaa (SYM) and Hope Raisers Initiative (HRI) work in the poor settlements of Korogocho, Kariobangi, Kibera and Mathare to actively engage the youthin the use of “data murals” and graffiti to aesthetically transform the streets through messages of hope and peace. This kind of art is not only enabling the youth to pass information to the communities regarding issues pertinent to their lives but also enables them to engage in creating change through self expression.

Another initiative includes the kibera walls for peace being driven by Kibera Hamlets.The program draws together youth of different ethnic and religious communities to participate in peace building and public art workshops,including drawing public muralsand developing performing art to promote peace.They use a mixture of imagery, text and performances covering “tribalism,” corruption, unity, peace and reconciliation. The involvement of young Nairobians, particularly those from slum communities in this, is also teaching them how to express themselves through art rather than anti-social acts of violence.

Although street art in Kenya has previously been viewed as vandalism and a symbol of rebellion, this is slowly changing and its being embraced and appreciated as not only a tool for education and shaping public opinion but also as a way to give positive identity to spaces and make “dead” spaces more public and engaging.

Photo: Joe Artista

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