NAIROBI – Boniface Mwangi points to a mural on a wall depicting a black-suited Kenyan legislator with a vulture’s head, a caricature he says represents the kind of greedy and corrupt lawmaker who taints Kenya’s political class.
The lawmaker is shown sitting on a chair, known to be worth $2,400, in the chamber of parliament, a fact that sparked controversy in the east African nation where nearly half of the capital’s population live in slums and squatter settlements.
“That is the vulture who represents a member of parliament. They are scavengers,” said Mwangi, a photographer turned political activist.
Listing political scandals from the last 50 years, ranging from assassinations to grand corruption, Mwangi says the mural is a call to action for Kenyans to get rid of a ruling class, critics say is too self-interested.
Urban graffiti art has emerged as an unusual outlet for citizens angry about the hefty salaries, perks and tax exemptions for members of parliament and their frequent links to scandals.
Mwangi began his journey of political expression when he documented the violence which rocked Kenya after a disputed presidential election in December 2007, which turned once-peaceful neighbours from different tribes against one another.
His camera captured the horrors of the fighting such as a man’s arm severed at the wrist to residents fleeing from the fighting, which also forced him to temporarily abandon his home near one of the epicentres of violence.
His experience inspired him to look for other situations where he could use art as an outlet to express anger.
He found one in the country’s house of parliament where at 1 million shillings monthly tax-free salary and allowances, MPs’ pay is worlds’ away from the minimum wage of under $100, causing widespread anger.
Mwangi turned to graffiti art to try and inspire citizens to call for change. A group of artists painted the first mural on a wall in the centre of Nairobi last month. The next day, a large crowd of onlookers paused to digest the picture.
The next project was more ambitious, inviting Kenyans on Twitter to describe their MPs in one word, with the results of the survey painted on a public lavatory including words such as “Ineffective” and “Dishonest” alongside images of vultures in suits.
City officials covered it with blue paint by the end of the day. Police, who suspected Mwangi of being behind the campaign, summoned him and then released him almost immediately.
The murals and the anti-MP slogans painted at traffic lights on major streets are done at night, because it is illegal to deface other people’s property, Mwangi said.
“Some laws have to be broken for people to be heard. If the mainstream media doesn’t tell this story, we have to tell it and we are using art to do that,” he said.
A group of men and women at the mural agreed.
“It is expressing what the youth are feeling. Our MPs’ performance is zero. They do absolutely nothing,” said Irene Nzisa, a businesswoman in her 40s.
Others said they supported the graffiti campaign because the common man’s voice is never heard in parliament.
“Kenyans are finding their voices on walls,”, said Lenny Korir, a 23-year-old student, who accompanied by his friend, studied the mural intently.
Ababu Namwamba, a member of parliament for western Kenya’s Budalangi constituency, said the graffiti campaign was unfair.
He accused the campaigners of being driven by emotion, rather than a critical analysis of an MP’s role.
“Have they made any empirical analysis? Do they know how many motions, bills Ababu Namwamba has sponsored in this parliament? Do they know how many questions I have asked in this parliament?” he said.
“All politics is local and the fate of a member of parliament cannot be determined by some graffiti-drawer in a little corner of Nairobi. It will be determined by the sentiments and the judgment of the people the Member of Parliament represents,” he said.