Report & Essay
From The Archives: Observations From The Nairobi Central Picha Mtaani Street Exhibition

Report & Essay

From The Archives: Observations From The Nairobi Central Picha Mtaani Street Exhibition
Samuel Munene

 The Revolution Will Not Be Televised The Next Time

Samuel Munene observes public reactions to the recently held Picha Mtaani exhibition outside the Hilton Hotel.

You will not be able to stay home, brother.
.. skip out for beer during commercials,
because the revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

Gill Scott Heron, American poet and musician

Fifty years ago, in 1969, the land on which the Hilton Hotel stands was a large bustling bus park. Today, a set of smooth concrete structures arranged in a wide circle, the creation of an abstract sculptor;Uncomfortable Seats fronts the signature cylindrical obelisk Hilton in the heart of the city. For some time, Hilton Nairobi, just one in array of other Hiltons across the globe, advertised the city – Nairobi was part of a Hilton universe, Hilton Hanoi, Hilton Sydney etc .But with time as the city emerged from such impositions, the Hilton has slowly been subsumed by a Nairobi growing on its own terms. And unemployed Nairobi is a significant characteristic of the city, captured most in specific City spots. The smooth stone structures outside the Hilton perhaps the most visible of the Nairobi job seeking-narrative. That concrete orbit is where many order their certificates before sending them off to prospective employers, kill time from dawn to an afternoon interview, catch a break after walking office-to-office staring at No Vacancy signs. It is Nairobi’s, if not Kenya’s, biggest Jobless Corner.

And thus, it was a stroke of genius on the part of Picha Mtaani to put up a celluloid list of shame – photographic images from the 2007/2008 post election violence in the a space in which it is difficult to hide away from individual and collective realities and failures. Unemployment is also closely related to the Kenyan brand of siasa; we are held ransom by a collective and never-ending cycle of poor self-choices spurred on by the coterie of self-seekers who we elect who cannot take us to a promised land of prosperity for the many. And it is the very same brand of political life that leads us into violence, that also ‘leads us’ to a dubious future. The failures of our daily lives and our latest collective shame produced by leadership and political misdirection thus did well to meet at such a spot through the photos of the same. These showed our crimes against each through the Picha Mtaani exhibition outside the Hilton in January and will continue showing across the country over the next few months. According to Boniface Mwangi, founder and director of Picha Mtaani, showing the photos to the unemployed, the hustlers; the Kenyans on the streets, people on the other side of town was supposed to trigger them to reflect. To think tolerance and reconciliation.

Picha Mtaani is a youth-led national reconciliation initiative supported by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP. Through street exhibitions and audio visual presentations the Picha Mtaani initiative seeks “to engage the Kenyan youth in finding lasting solutions to attaining peace and reconciliation; to healing the Nation”

The images were arranged on a make shift wall, unprotected by gallery space and piped music, telling a most compelling story. The one in our own mirror(s). Before the hundreds that came, in the mode of a punchy graphic novel, the exhibition opened with an anxious beginning, a gory middle and a they-lived-happily-ever-after ending. The first of the photos showed Kibaki and Raila during the election campaigns. Then the voting, the fires, the machetes and the arrows. Finally the mediator and the principles toasting topeace. It has become fashionable in many cities in the world to merge the art of its inhabitants through and on streets, sideways and parks. Purveyors of ‘city as art’ argue that the two can be made indistinguishable. It is only fitting that Nairobi saw itself in the latest desert of its real.

The exhibition ran for three days and nights. Its audience was varied. The encounters bracing. On the first morning, a plump woman holding a small boy viewed the photos with a smile. The boy, about six years old, looked dazed. An usher rushed to the rescue.

“It is not advisable for children to view the photos appearing after this point. They might be traumatizing,” the usher explained. He was Eric Kioko, a man in his mid-twenties, also a victim of the violence who had lost his arm, now no more than a stump. The woman sniffed. Eric was standing stood in front of the photo of a thin long youth trying to balance a panga on his nose.

“What do you mean? This is like a movie. Children watch this kind of stuff on TV everyday.” she declared. She then moved her child along to more photos. The usher persisted.

“This is not a movie. This actually happened.”

“Well, these are just photos. Hardly the real thing.” She said with a bulky shrug of her shoulders.

Eric pointed to a photograph of a hand lying on a piece of stone. It was bloody; fresh. On what remained of the wrist was a watch.
“The hand you see there is mine. This is the same watch.” He stretched his hand to show a watch with a cracked face.

The smile on the woman’s face grew wider and wider but her face was cracking, eyes goggling. She took her kid’s and dragged him ahead. The boy’s eyes, however, stayed glued to the photo of the hand, only switching involuntarily to look at Eric Kioko. A small crowd watching this exchange remained silent. Finally, a man dressed in a suit offered a quick analysis

“There are those who watched everything on TV and thought it was all a movie. I pray next time it happens to her.” A Gil Scott Heron moment was being predicted. Next time the revolution would not be televised.

But it is the fire next time that Picha Mtaani hopes to prevent. And this has become a personal cause for Boniface Mwangi. On the second day of the exhibition he told a group gathered at the venue:

“I love my country dearly. But my love for this country is purely for selfish reasons, I have a two-year old son who l love more than this nation and for his sake am willing to pay any price to see that he will grow up in a better Kenya than we live in. That l shall do all l can to ensure that what happened two years ago never happens again.”

An older woman, in a headscarf became immobile looking at a particular photo, the image that of a man in a brown overcoat, raising a panga high over another man lying on tarmac. A second man in the frame was in full flight; his trousers wet, probably from a released bladder.

“Twendelee,” a man accompanying the woman said to her. Let’s move on

“One minute” she said, “Sii huyo ni Kim, who sells charcoal.”

The man peered closer into the photo.

“Kweli ni yeye.,” he said, almost in a whisper. “Don’t shout, you never know who is here” he said in Kikuyu.

“I am going to tell him to come see himself,” the woman said.

And then there was the man in a blue floral print shirt appearing in four different shots, always in pursuit of a different victim that some also recognised.

“That man is notorious.” A woman pointed out. “What is the Hague waiting for? You mean they don’t they have enough evidence? This guy should be the first to go to the ICC”. The man accompanying her looked about him, either for support or wary that anyone had heard this outburst. But no one said anything, eyes intent on picture and story. Brows furrowed and frowns tightened. The recognisable culprits seemed to occupy a personal scary space not accorded to the ‘politicians’. Public figures that the latter were; everyone was calling for their arrest, but little was said on ‘the man on the street with a panga’ by the ‘woman on the street’.
“Only God can judge” a white haired woman finally said, looking directly at the man who had suggested the photos were enough evidence for the ICC.

“We are all pretenders. We are all guilty. We killed each other. No politician forced us to do it,” she said.
“ I suggest such people be hanged. They are not human beings,”
“What about you? You are not innocent. If it is hanging then everybody in Kenya should be hanged,” A voice argued back.
The white haired woman sighed and stood alone for awhile. She had challenged something for the moment unpopular and exceptional, at least for a few minutes outside the Hilton. That the common mwananchi was innocent. Ni wale wanasiasa. It is those politicians.

Minutes later, a small discussion group of four people congregated where I had moved to.
“Lakini hii serikali Why did they allow these photos to be displayed?”
“Ai. Why not? The newspapers hid so much from us”
“Someone is behind this. There must be a reason. Why now? Tell me. If you identified someone killing your brother, wouldn’t you want revenge?”
“Well, that is a different case”
“These photos are going to cause a lot of problems”

Earlier in the day, I had asked Boniface whether there was a chance that the photos would provoke hatred rather than tolerance.

“There is always that possibility,” he said heavily. “But that is why the constant message, the counselling we are doing keeps on telling people an eye for an eye is not the way to go. We need each other. We have to learn to coexist.”

“What are the politicians telling us when we can see these things?” A young lady on her lunch hour exclaimed. She held her chin heavily in her hands, looking at the photos of people burnt at the Kiambaa Church.

“They shouldn’t even be talking”

“And the way we pay them a lot of cash!”

“I am sick and tired of our politics…” Boniface had said in his speech at the opening of the exhibition.

“This is why we have left our comfort zone and are travelling across our country, mobilizing our generation to save our country from self-destruction. “

For a lady sitting on a bench after viewing the photos after the second day, diversity had ceased to be the spice of life but had become instead the cause of strife.

“I wish we were one tribe not forty,” she said to a friend.

Her friend smiled with a certain knowledge. ‘We are two tribes in Kenya. That is why there was violence. The rich and the poor. The violence was about the poor trying to get the rich join their tribe and the rich trying to bar the poor from joining them.” He paused for effect. “Only, the rich was using the poor to bar them from joining them and the poor let themselves be used.”

“We have a national disaster that everyone is in denial about. Tribalism.” Boniface had said in his speech “It is the elephant in the room. It is killing us; it is destroying our country yet we blame it on the elections. “

“I will never vote,” a woman declared in front of an image of a woman crying, her blouse lifted up her bra visible. “What is the point of voting if it will end up to this?”

A man looked at her, with a cynical smile: “Whether we vote or not it will happen again. I mean what can we do? You should prepare yourself to fight”.

Boniface Mwangi had added in his launch speech:

“This time I am convinced, we are ready to deal with the nightmare of violence. Our conscience is awakening; we are tired of being pawns in a political chessboard… We shall not be swayed because we are not ignorant anymore. I may not love my neighbour but I will not chop his head off because he is from a different tribe or because person X told me to chop it off.”

At the end of the exhibition there was a photograph of Raila crying, dabbing at his eyes with a white handkerchief. Next to it was one of Kibaki, also crying, head bent pressing a clean white handkerchief against his right eye. His left eye was wide open, looking straight into the camera.

A six foot tall bald man standing a little behind the rest looking at the two photos burst out into laughter.

“Look at that.” He said pointing at the photo. “Angalia hiyo macho. Do you need more evidence that these guys are pretenders?”

( Picha Mtaani recently travelled to Nakuru and held the same exhibition at the Nyayo Gardens. Kwani Trust will be collaborating with Picha Mtaani to produce texts and reproduce narratives based on the Picha Mtaani National Tour. )

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