Kenya Burning

Interviews with two photographers whose images appear in the Kenya Burning Book.

Yasuyoshi Chiba and Billy Kahora talk about Kenya’s recent troubles and taking pictures in a ‘foreign conflict’.

B.K: How did you come to Kenya?

My wife works for the Japan International Co-operation Agency and was posted to Kisumu, Kenya in July 2008. I was working for one of the biggest national newspapers in Japan - Asahi Shinbun (Rising Sun) newspaper – and had been with them for 12 years, 8 years in news photography and 4 in magazines, so I decided to move here with my wife and become a freelance photographer.

B.K: How did you get to the frontlines of the crisis?

Y.C Initially, I worked on some wildlife photography then I got wind of the political atmosphere in the country leading up to the elections. In Kisumu, everyone was talking about a revolution led by Raila, so I decided to follow his path to the leadership of this country.

B.K: What political events did you cover first?

Y.C: My first assignment was the Kalonzo rally on 23rd December in Uhuru Park. I then went to the ODM rally at Nyayo stadium a day later. The atmosphere there was different – the crowd was mostly youth. Outside, ODM supporters even climbed up the huge billboard of Kibaki billboard and ripped it apart.

B.K: Let’s talk about Elections Day …

Y.C: I decided to got to Langata, Raila’s constituency. And there the action was immediate. After a delay in opening up the polling stations, young men started breaking windows. Days later, a huge part of Langata started celebrating when the parliamentary elections were announced, but that stopped when President Kibaki was declared the winner of the Presidential elections. I headed to Langata to cover the reactions.

B.K You were very busy after that …

Y.C: On 2nd-3rd January I went to Kisumu where violence had broken out. On the 4th I went to Eldoret to Kiambaa to the burnt church. There I saw the first of what would be many dead bodies - an ambulance driver had been burnt. During those long weeks, I shuttling between Nairobi and Kisumu.

B.K: From your pictures that is quite evident. Some are very close to the action …

Y.C: Yes, for instance, when I went to Kilgoris where the Kalenjin and the Maasai were fighting, each side would advise me to get behind them. At some point I was caught in between and had to get behind a tree. As the positions changed in the flow of battle each group would shout me to come over behind their side.

Yasuyoshi Chiba is a Japanese freelance photographer based in Nairobi. He has worked as a staff photographer for Asahi Shimbun (Japan’s national leading newspaper with a circulation of 8 million per day). Chiba moved to Kenya in 2007. Chiba’s photographs of violence after the 2007 presidential election in Kenya were nominated for the Visa d’Or News award of 2008 in international photojounalism held in Perpignan, France

Full interview:

Billy Kahora Talks to Boniface Mwangi

How did you get into photography?

I used to love taking pictures in Bible school and a friend and gave me a book by Mohammed Amin - his autobiography. I read the book, loving his work and what he had done with his photography which transcended pictures. And so started my romance with photography inspired by Mo Amin.

A year later, in 2004 when I turned 21, I joined a photography school but quit three months later when I realized they did not have any cameras. I hired a camera and started taking photos in neighbourhoods around Pangani where I lived then, particularly the slums, recoding daily life.

I took pictures of street life, hawkers and Gikomba market. In 2004, I got two awards from the Kenyan Union of Journalists after my work was being published in the East African Standard in a column they ran called ‘Face The Facts’. The section ran an unusual picture, between Tuesday and Thursday, reflecting ordinary life in Kenya. I featured regularly in this and won two awards – ‘Most Promising Talent Of The Year’ and ‘Most Promising Young Photographer Of The Year’. The Standard thereafter gave me a job to become a paparazzi taking photos of night life and celebrity shots for Pulse Magazine.

This gave me a chance to get into all sorts of photography. News editors would ask me to look out for images with news angles. This gave me a chance to take other kinds of pictures such as crime scenes, and fires. The editors soon transferred me from entertainment into mainstream news based on my work.

You covered a significant amount of the whole post elections crisis. Lets talk about moments that stand out.

I must say the most memorable times in such a terrible period were when I found myself in personal danger and when I experienced killings. I mostly covered ODM reactions after the elections were announced after a few scrapes within PNU areas. I remember right at the beginning of the crisis as I was covering an ODM attempt to drive to K.I.C.C side and a lorry full of the latter’s supporters was stopped and attacked. Though the PNU supporters could clearly see that I was a cameraman they also attacked me. From then on I covered the events from the ODM side. Even later when I took photos of a mugging by some PNU supporters, one of them threatened me with a panga. This experience taught me the value of traveling in a group of photographers.

An incident in Kiambiu comes to mind. A fellow photographer took a picture of an attack by a mob on a man of a different tribe and then ran away. The crowd caught up with him and brought him back. All the photographers immediately started negotiating with the crowd and they eventually let him go. If he had been alone he would have been killed. I spoke all the Kikuyu I knew that day and the photographer had to unveil his film to show that there was nothing incriminatory. One of the men in the crowd shouted: ‘You know I can hack you even if the beasts are here’, pointing at the police.

And that was very possible. In slum spaces things would happen very fast, almost in seconds. Kiambiu is predominantly Kikuyu and not even foreign photographers were allowed to go in there even if it was the easiest route through to the Moi Airbase IDP camp.

In Naivasha I was also constantly insulted in the company of foreign photographers-in Swahili. The tactic behind this was to get you running so that they could start throwing stones. That’s how many people died. The stones would put you down and then a mob would catch you and hack away. Also, crowds adopted a tactic of taking victims away from cameras once they caught him and then went to do their business away from prying eyes.

There were many subplots. I remember when Kalonzo Musyoka was appointed Vice President, a Kamba man was killed in Mathare. There were many victims of circumstances.

There were also marauding gangs whose actions had little to do with politics. Crime and rape were rampant in the whole atmosphere of impunity. There are even claims that the first looting that took place in Toi market was by the Administrative Police who then let everyone carry on with what they were doing. ‘Chukueni’ they said when they had loaded their LandRovers.

Were the clashes demarcated clearly in the spaces you took photographs in?

There were areas where the boundaries were clear. In Huruma there were even mock State Houses with respective photos of Raila on the Luo/ODM side and Kibaki on the Kikuyu/ PNU section. But these boundaries were in a flux and kept moving, depending on who had the advantage. The police also provided temporary divides by parking their cars. When they left the fighting started, mostly on lunch breaks.

The police even conducted a side business, transporting people’s belongings when they needed to move from a hostile area- Kikuyus from Luo zones and vice versa.

Give us an idea of what a standard day was like in the hotspots.

Police would pick up bodies in the morning after a night of fighting. I took photos of about 20 dead bodies in Huruma and Mathare. And immediately a body was discovered it would become a no-go-zone. And there were many of these - Ngomongo was one of these. You also couldn’t go to Laini Saba where there were rumours of bodies being thrown into Nairobi Dam. Nobody covered what happened in the night – it was too dangerous.

Did you ever see the use of firearms by civilians?

Yes, in Kibera. A photographer friend was grazed by a bullet in an attempted mugging. There were very many criminals in all the hotspots, and some would target photographers because they carry expensive equipment. My colleague was somehow isolated with a white photographer. And because there was a lot of gunfire, criminals shot at then because no one could hear with all the noise.

There were many associated risks. One was the handling of dead bodies and the danger of blood spatter when people were being cut close by. At the end of the day you would get home and get very little sleep because of nightmares. In the morning, you would feel compelled to go back because of the acquired need for the adrenaline rush. It became very addictive. And because you wanted to avoid the resultant depression you consistently looked for the adrenaline shot.

Foreign photographers started calling me ‘Ghost’, because I wanted to be everywhere. I was the only local photographer who covered the crisis extensively because it was a risk for them, and local media only insure equipment and not the individual. So everything was done at one’s own risk.

You were obviously dealing with mobs and crowds. Does a photographer stand out? How do you blend in these spaces to escape undue attention?

There is a standard M.O when you are going into the action. You carry small amounts of cash, a phone, no I.D, as that would identify me as a Kikuyu. I often had to lie that I was Taita. In one instance a colleague of fine forgot all this and called me very loudly by my name, Mwangi, in a Luo zone in Kibera. Time actually froze. But we continued as if nothing had happened and he was very apologetic. That would have been it for me if someone had decided to pick it up.

Going into such zones means you have to blend - you don’t dress up as if you are going into the office. You let yourself go-look like one of the crowd.

(Boniface Mwangi is an award winning photojournalist based in Kenya. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times, International Herald Tribune and BBC Focus in Africa Magazine among other International publications. )